Holidays, Alcohol and Weight Sabotage by Joan Kent, PhD
Updated: Nov 21
Happy Holidays, right? In one survey, 69% of people said their stress levels increase during the holidays. People listed crowds, long lines, weight gain, debt and lack of time among their top stressors. Ironically, people often use the festive food and alcohol that are everywhere at this time of year to cope with holiday stress. Naturally, that has a way of making seasonal weight gain worse. Let’s look at exactly how alcohol can sabotage your attempts at weight management during the holiday season. Alcohol is full of calories My clients will tell you that I don’t necessarily hold to the “calories in/calories out” party line. Foods affect hormones, and those effects can, and often will, override simplistic caloric arithmetic. But we’ll start with basics. You may already know that alcohol has seven calories per gram, while carbohydrates and proteins each have four calories per gram. Only fat—with nine calories per gram—is more calorically dense. Adding alcoholic beverages to our food intake ups the calorie count quickly.
Alcohol triggers insulin The hormone insulin inhibits fat utilization, making insulin an important marker of how much dietary fat ends up in the body’s fat stores. And alcohol is very effective at triggering insulin. This means that fats consumed at meals that include alcohol have a greater likelihood of being stored. In susceptible people, high insulin can provoke reactive hypoglycemia, which is a glucose drop well below normal after the consumption of insulin-triggering foods such as sugar, white flour, potatoes and more. The issue is not how low glucose drops, but how quickly this drop occurs. It may bring on mood changes or cravings for more sugar, more alcohol or other junk. Chronically high insulin—say, in response to a diet that includes lots of alcohol—may even induce insulin resistance. With insulin resistance, the pancreas secretes insulin, but the cells don’t respond to it as they should. Because the glucose remains in the blood and is unable to get into the cells, several compensatory processes are set in motion, starting with the production of extra insulin. This can eventually lead to a cluster of metabolic conditions that are known risk factors for heart disease: diabetes; high blood pressure; high triglycerides; and high LDL cholesterol and small, dense LDL cholesterol (these are likely to form arterial plaques), among others. The primary site of insulin resistance is skeletal muscle. When muscle cells won’t accept insulin’s effects and the glucose it helps to transport, the glucose ends up in fat depots (rather than in the muscle cells) and affects weight. Insulin resistance is often described as a result of obesity or overweight. That’s true, but not the whole story. It can be the cause of obesity, as well. Alcohol increases appetite Alcohol activates the brain release of beta-endorphin. Beta-endorphin inhibits the action of the brain’s ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH), our primary satiety center. Satiety is the feeling that we’ve had enough food and don’t need to go back for more. With satiety blocked, appetite easily increases and meals may become larger as a result.
Alcohol makes us want different foods Beta-endorphin release also creates changes in our food preferences; typically, it causes people to desire more sugars and fats. It may even make healthful foods seem unpalatable. Obviously, these are not helpful changes to put the brain through when holiday foods are everywhere.
Alcohol messes with your mind Virtually any negative mood can provoke cravings, which may lead to self-medicating with food. Typically, junky foods are all too available at holiday time.
With chronic use, alcohol can initiate changes in brain chemistry that may lead to depression, anxiety or dysthymia (a mild, long-term depressive state which can be accompanied by feelings of sadness and hopelessness and also affect energy, productivity and sleep).
Low serotonin—another result of chronic alcohol use—can make us more impulsive. Normal serotonin levels “open the space” between thought and action. Violent offenders have been shown to have low levels of brain serotonin. Without a gap between thought and action, they think a violent thought and act on it. In similar fashion, low serotonin closes the space between craving and action. We may reach for the food we crave, or another drink, almost without thinking.
Alcohol disturbs sleep Alcohol’s effects on sleep are multifactorial.
A late-night glass of wine is a common go-to relaxant, but this has drawbacks. Normal sleep includes light and deep stages, as reflected in brain waves. We cycle through these several times a night. Alcohol prevents the deeper stages (theta and delta waves) that are the most restorative. Until alcohol is fully metabolized—one ounce can take between 5.5 and 10 hours to leave the body, and additional drinks can add hours to that—we stay in lighter sleep (alpha waves). Alpha waves are not bad; meditation induces them. But they’re not deep enough for good-quality sleep. And women take longer to metabolize alcohol than men do, due to their smaller size and lighter body weight.
Those who are sensitive to insulin’s effects may wake up in the middle of the night due to the high insulin alcohol precipitates, unable to get back to sleep. It seems paradoxical that a glucose drop caused by high insulin would wake us rather than deepen sleep, but that’s what happens. Who might be sensitive to the insulin triggered by alcohol? Someone with a family history of alcoholism, diabetes, hypertension or certain types of obesity.
A significant consequence of poor sleep—whatever its cause—is the prompt release of ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone that increases appetite and lowers metabolic rate. It’s a terrible combination if you’re trying to manage your weight during the holidays.
Sleeping poorly and feeling fatigued may also make it difficult to get to early morning workouts, train as hard as you want to and/or stay motivated to exercise at all. It’s easy to see how combining that with the factors discussed above can make holiday weight management difficult.
Tips for managing holiday alcohol
Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Some people drink without having food in their stomachs because they want to feel alcohol’s effects more quickly, but doing so exacerbates both the insulin response and the speed with which alcohol reaches the brain. Since the stomach will empty faster with no food in it, the alcohol passes through the stomach quickly and is not broken down. As a result, more alcohol reaches the liver in need of detoxification. Overall, intoxication is increased and the alcohol’s other negative effects, including its addictive aspect and stress on the liver, can be, as well.
Eat before going to a party or holiday dinner, especially a buffet. This will help to maximize your control over the alcohol’s effects and your food intake, especially all those holiday goodies that can sabotage your weight-management efforts.
Eat protein before leaving home. This will raise levels of the neurochemicals that can help to stave off cravings and mood swings and help you limit your alcohol intake. Protein foods include fish, shrimp, crab, chicken, turkey, grass-fed beef, eggs and yogurt with 18 to 20 grams of protein per serving. Vegetarians and vegans, note that nuts are primarily wholesome fats, with only a small amount of protein. Quinoa is not high in protein, either; it’s a healthful starch with a small amount of protein. A suggestion I often give to my vegetarian and vegan clients is to mix a full serving of hemp or vegetable protein powder with water and drink it before heading to an event.
Limit alcohol consumption. Avoid it, if possible. If you drink, alternate each drink with a glass of water. Keep alternating! An extra bonus is you’ll avoid the inevitable dehydration that alcohol causes.
Limit sugars. These include agave nectar, coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, sauces, etc. All the effects of alcohol listed above also hold true for sugars.
Here’s to a happy—and healthy—holiday.
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Joan Kent, PhD
Joan Kent is a pioneer in sugar addiction and psychoactive nutrition. She was the first to document the neurochemical pathways of addiction to sugar, and to explain the sugar/fat seesaw, both neurochemically and hormonally. Joan has helped hundreds of clients with food addictions, mood disorders, inflammation, binge eating and metabolic syndrome, which leads to diabetes, hypertension, insulin resistance, heart disease, cancer, and a number of other conditions.
Joan’s philosophy stems from a quotation by Simone de Beauvoir: “Confidence in the body is confidence in the self.” People who struggle with food and health lose trust in the body. Because Joan’s psychoactive approach increases her clients' confidence and improves their quality of life, the quote has become her professional mission statement.
Joan has written two bestselling books. Stronger Than Sugar helps readers conquer their sugar addiction. The Sugar-Free Workout offers ways to fuel before, during and after workouts without relying on the sugary foods that often masquerade as “training fuel."
Ph.D., Psychoactive Nutrition
M.S., Exercise Physiology
Speaker, Author, ACE-Certified Health Consultant
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