From the December/January 2016 issue
By Dietitian Cassie, RD, LD
That’s not very Paleo!” someone said to me at a recent conference as I was reaching for a hard cider. The unsolicited opinion caught me off guard because I never claimed to be 100 percent Paleo, and besides, who was this self-anointed judge to determine whether my cider was or was not Paleo? While I’m sure the charge was most likely a joke, his comment nonetheless underlies some of the unsubstantiated dogma permeating Paleo diets… and nowhere do these gratuitous convictions prove more frustrating than when it comes to alcohol.
There’s a lot of buzz (pun fully intended) around alcohol this time of year, because nearly every social event serves some sort of adult beverage. If you adhere to a Paleo diet, can alcohol fit into your plan? In other words: Is alcohol really Paleo?
It all depends on whom you ask: Answers range from “Sort of” to “Absolutely not” to “Does it really matter?!” Ultimately, what does matter is determining whether you should drink, period—and, if so, it will help to know your most Paleo-friendly choices.
My stance is this: While chances are our ancestors weren’t hitting keg parties or casually sipping pinot noir in the wild, this doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally fit alcohol into your lifestyle—once you’ve considered a few important things.
To Drink or Not to Drink: Four Considerations Before Sipping
1. Your Fat-Burning Ability
You want to drink, but you also don’t want to pack on unhealthy pounds—or, maybe you’re even trying to lose weight.
Holidays are practically an invitation for pounds to creep on, and alcohol—coupled with whatever high-sugar, “sounds good after a few too many” holiday treats (even if they’re Paleo)—spells catastrophe, becoming a surefire formula for cursing the scales.
A common rumor has it that the moment your glass of pinot noir hits your lips, fatburning comes to a grinding halt, causing your liver to scramble as it metabolizes the incoming alcohol. That’s not completely false.
Alcohol metabolism is quite the process. I’ll spare you the complex biochemistry, other than to say that when you drink, alcohol—or more technically, “ethanol”—becomes your body’s top metabolic priority. Everything else takes a backseat— including fat metabolism— which means consuming alcohol can stall fat burning as your liver’s primary focus shifts to detoxifying, trying to get that alcohol out of your system.
Alcohol can still be a part of your lifestyle even if you want to lose weight—only know that imbibing may increase the time it will take you to reach your weight-loss goals (2).
2. Your Commitment to a Restless Slumber
Even if you think that it may help with falling asleep, for most of us alcohol takes a toll on our sleep’s quality. And we’ve seen plenty of those studies demonstrating that poor sleep can increase inflammation (1). You might have an 11 p.m. cocktail, fall into a deep slumber, and suddenly at 2:45 a.m. you’re awake and cursing your alarm clock. That’s because alcohol consumption can cause a blood-sugar crash in the middle of the night, causing restless sleep.
“Contrary to movie images of drunken frat boys snoring loudly and merrily oblivious to the world, alcohol usually winds up breaking your sleep cycles. Badly,” writes my good friend Dr. Jonny Bowden, in The 150 Most Effective Ways to Boost Your Energy. “Alcohol is, after all, a depressant, so although a drink before bed might help you fall asleep, a few hours later it has the opposite effect, and part of your brain thinks it’s party time.”
3. What’s Your Alcohol Quotient?
On a biochemical level, everyone is different—and nowhere does this prove more true than with alcohol. Adjusted for various factors, this means that a glass of cabernet or hard cider may or may not fit your daily plans.
Whereas a glass of chardonnay might send one person scrambling for the buffet table, for someone else that same glass might become dessert, keeping them feeling balanced and nixing deprivation from the menu.
Your alcohol sensitivity plays a role in whether you should drink. I’m not merely talking about how efficiently your body metabolizes alcohol (you know, how tipsy a drink makes you—although that is something to consider), but how quickly your blood sugar fluctuates when you drink. For some, blood sugar drops immediately following a single drink, while in others it spikes and follows with a precipitous drop. Because both responses send you on a blood-sugar roller coaster ride, both are recipes for disaster.
This blood-sugar roller coaster means you’re more likely to store fat, and it also sets you up for hunger and cravings (read: a midnight What Are My Paleo friendliest Alcohol Choices? So, you’ve determined alcohol abuse is not an issue, you’re okay with the fact that it can shut down fat-burning (setting you up for ravenous cravings), and you’re aware that sleep may take a hit—still, you want to have a drink. The question now becomes, “What are my most- Paleo-friendly options?” Generally, lower-sugar alcohols will have the lowest negative impact—stay away from the frufru drinks and beer (sugar-and-carb bombs). For best results, stick with one of these three options. Ben & Jerry’s bodega raid). Long story short—know yourself, and know how your system handles alcohol. It can be part of your balanced Paleo diet, or it can throw you for a loop.
4. Why Are You Really Drinking?
Another point to consider is whether you’re blindly drinking alcohol just because your friends or co-workers do so, whether you’re using it as a crutch for stress and avoiding certain emotions, or whether you’re potentially abusing alcohol. Those soul-searching questions go beyond this article’s scope, but they’re definitely worth considering when determining whether alcohol should become a dietary mainstay. Any of these raise a red flag, signaling to perhaps step away from that shiraz.
What Are My Paleo-friendliest Alcohol Choices?
So, you’ve determined alcohol abuse is not an issue, you’re okay with the fact that it can shut down fat-burning (setting you up for ravenous cravings), and you’re aware that sleep may take a hit—still, you want to have a drink. The Paleo-friendly options?”
Generally, lower-sugar alcohols will have the lowest negative impact—stay away from the frufru drinks and beer (sugar-and-carb bombs). For best results, stick with one of these three options.
This might be the closest Paleo-friendly alcohol choice out there, since it comes from fermented fruit juice and not grains. Most ciders are naturally gluten-free, but do read their labels and stay mindful of added sugar and preservatives (like sodium or potassium benzoate). Sugar is every Paleo devotee’s kryptonite, so opt for a dry rather than sweet cider. Pasteurization often means that the cider comes with added sugar and preservatives, so look for a cold-pasteurized, rather than heated, cider.
Also fermented fruit juice, this becomes your next-best Paleo-ish choice, since it comes loaded with the healthy bonus of antioxidants like resveratrol! Keep in mind that while wine is fermented (removing much of the sugar), some cheaper wine varieties contain residual sugars (and some even add additional “fruit flavors”). Several Paleoconscious companies like Dry Farm Wines now offer quality lower-sugar wines. Go for the driest red.
This becomes a different ballgame for Paleo alcohol drinkers. Distillation, which follows fermentation in hard liquor, removes some (but not all) of the gluten in vodka and other grain liquors. Tequila probably becomes your best choice, but any kind of shot or straight liquor mixed with mineral or sparkling water is all right too.
A few liquor caveats:
Tonic water comes loaded with sugar. Ditto for fruit juices and other mixers. When in doubt, stick with mineral, sparkling or seltzer water. Liqueurs like amaretto, schnapps, and crème de menthe also come packed with added sugar. Eggnog and similar “candy” holiday drinks are basically dessert plus alcohol in a glass, aka fat-storing, morning-afterregret cocktails!
The take home: Hard cider and dry red wine are your best Paleo alcohol options. Stay away from sugary alcoholic drinks.
8 Hacks to Offset Alcohol Intake
You’ve determined alcohol can occasionally fit into your schedule, and you’ll opt for the lowest-sugar choices. Once you’re good with all that, I’ve found these eight strategies help both myself and my clients minimize alcohol’s potentially detrimental impact.
1. Steady your blood sugar before and while drinking. Imbibing on an empty stomach is generally a bad idea—it can send you straight to tipsy-ville and lead to you devouring a less-than-ideal appetizer. Eat a snack that steadies blood sugar, like raw almonds or olives, to help keep you smooth and stable throughout the evening.
2. Know your limit, stay within it. Stop hitting happy hour like you’re at your senior year sorority bash. You’re an adult now, which means you get to decide when to put the brakes on that gluten-free cider. Allotting yourself—and pinkie-swearing you’ll stick to your word—two (or however many) drinks, will save you major regrets. If you’re being social with friends, make a pact that you’ll hold each other accountable for upkeeping those limits.
3. Give yourself a curfew. Just because the party goes on till 2 a.m. doesn’t mean you have to stay up that late. Determine when you’ll call it quits. While you might miss that chance to watch your bestie do a keg stand, a fabulous night’s sleep will leave you energized and feeling great when everyone else is slogging through the morning and craving pancakes.
4. Two glasses of water for every drink. Dehydration is a major hangover culprit. Really, who remembers to “drink plenty of water!” while they’re drinking? But seriously, a solid number— like two glasses—gives you a goal to work toward as you’re enjoying your alcohol. Having this much water will slow down your alcohol intake and help prevent that dreaded hangover.
5. HIIT before you drink. While it doesn’t give you license to overindulge, a pre-imbibing workout can activate a metabolic boost (read: less likely to store that alcohol and food as fat) and help you better maintain energy levels (3).
6. Drink away from bedtime. I’m not encouraging a morning Happy Hour, but the earlier in the evening you have your drinks, the better—at least when it comes to your sleep.
7. Supplement wisely. Besides a high-quality multivitamin, do your liver a favor and take liver-supporting nutrients like lipoic acid, N-acetylcysteine, milk thistle and a B-complex formula, before and after you drink.
8. Salvage that miserable aftermath. No, this does not give you permission to down that third glass of cabernet, but even the best of us occasionally slip up. Nosugar- added coconut water offers revitalizing electrolytes, which you’ve probably depleted like crazy, and black coffee can help you work past that hangover, too.
Janet M. Mullington, Monika Haack. “Sleep Loss And Inflammation”. Best practice & research. Clinical endocrinology & metabolism 24.5 (2010): 775.
Spivey, Angela. “Lose Sleep, Gain Weight: Another Piece Of The Obesity Puzzle”. Environmental Health Perspectives 118.1 (2010): A28.
Hallsworth K, et al. “Modified High-Intensity Interval Training Reduces Liver Fat And Improves Cardiac Function In Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: A Randomized Contro…
Pubmed – NCBI”. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2016.