How to eat well: The drinking dilemma

By Ian Marber, November 22, 2012
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Alcohol is always a difficult topic for nutrition and health professionals. The drinks industry remind us to drink responsibly, which of course we should, but after a glass or two, the very nature of alcohol means that it’s harder to remember what responsible actually means. This is all the more apparent with the festive season so imminent when alcoholic indulgence seems to be the norm.

Let’s start with some facts — around 20 per cent of a drink’s alcohol content is absorbed directly through the lining of the stomach, the rest being absorbed in the intestines. The rapid absorption of alcohol means that within around 20 minutes of the first drink, the concentration of alcohol in the blood rises and its effects can be felt.

Alcohol is eliminated from the body in three ways: around 10 per cent is eliminated early via breath and urine, leaving the vast majority to be dealt with by the liver, which even when working efficiently, is limited in what it can process. In the liver, alcohol is broken down by a series of enzymes until it becomes water and carbon dioxide.

A healthy liver takes around 45 minutes to break down a single shot of spirit, or an average glass of wine. Drinking anything more in that period leads to an increase in blood alcohol content, and to give you an idea of what this means, a blood alcohol count of 0.08 per cent is the legal limit for driving while five per cent usually results in a coma.

Of course, it’s the change in behaviour that alcohol can cause that often leads to regret, not least in the diet department, as the “go on, it’s Chanucah” approach is so enticing. Waking up with a mild hangover tends to make us want more carbohydrates and sugars, and that’s ignoring what we are likely to eat when the warm glow of wellbeing that a couple of glasses can bestow is on us.

But is there an answer that doesn’t make me seem like a humbug? Aside from avoiding alcohol completely, the best advice I can give is to drink with food, and never on an empty stomach. Match each glass with one of water, which will dilute the alcohol, and don’t drink carbonated drinks, as they are absorbed into the blood more rapidly.

Ian Marber is one of the UK’s most highly regarded nutrition experts and the author of 11 books. www.ianmarber.com

Last updated: 11:52am, November 22 2012