April is National Alcohol Awareness Month – a time to consider the effects alcohol can have on our lives and the lives of others. It’s no secret that alcohol consumption can cloud our judgment and affect our decision-making and new research shows that even watching our diets gets tough when we’re drinking.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that people consume more calories and make unhealthy food choices on days when they drink.
Data for the study was taken from the 2003-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and participants included 1,126 male and 738 female alcohol drinkers.
“Men and women consumed more calories on the days they drank versus on days they abstained.”
Information about their eating and drinking habits was collected via a diet questionnaire on two days over a 10-day span. One day covered a day when they drank alcohol and the other day covered a day when they did not.
Responses revealed that when participants did drink, they usually drank beer or wine and had an average of two to three drinks. Further analysis of the questionnaires indicated that men consumed about 400 more calories when they drank – 2,400 on non-drinking days versus 2,800 on days when they imbibed. Women showed a similar trend, consuming 2,000 calories on days when they drank versus 1,700 calories on days when they abstained.
Both groups also increased their fat intake by about 9% when drinking.
The caloric increase seen by women could be accounted for as calories from alcoholic beverages, but for men, an average of 168 calories of the 400 excess calories came from food.
Men reported eating more meat and white potatoes while consuming less fruit and milk. Women ate more high-fat foods and decreased consumption of milk and dairy products.
“Food choices changed [in an unhealthier direction] on the days that people drank,” noted lead study author Dr. Rosalind Breslow of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. She speculated that perhaps “social events that involve drinking often also involve less-healthy foods” and that “people [may be] more impulsive when they drink and don’t stop themselves from indulging.”
The findings of this study support a 2010 study by Dr. Breslow; the previous study showed that people who consume more alcohol are also likely to eat less fruit and consume more calories from a combination of alcoholic beverages and foods high in unhealthy fats and added sugars.
The Bottom Line
The news from this study is not surprising, but it does reinforce the message that if you’re looking to lose or maintain your weight, your best bet is to refrain from or limit your alcohol intake. We’re already bombarded with food messages, and food is available everywhere. The last thing we need is something else that makes it harder to eat healthy.
It’s interesting that the study results show a distinct difference between men and women, seemingly corroborating the images of men eating a big steak at a steak house and women enjoying a dessert with friends while drinking.
Instead of falling into these typecasts, we should be mindful that alcoholic beverages add calories. If you’re going to imbibe, remember to focus on eating more healthfully – whole grains, healthy fats, vegetables, and fruit. We should also drink in moderation (no more than one per day for women and two per day for men) and be aware of how many calories – in addition to added sugars, and yes, even fat, in some cocktails – are in our drinks.
So the next time you’re having a drink, rethink the steak or cheesecake and make a better, healthier choice!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.