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A Guide to Getting Drunk (Not Fat)

For many college students, living on their own means a new relationship with food. Whether they’re eating at the dining hall, in their own kitchen, or out of a steamy Styrofoam takeout container, they’re often eating in a way that never would have occurred at home. This transitional period inspires many questions about what we eat, but none is more universal than ‘how much is too much?’ We speak of the freshman fifteen and of the conscious effort made to reverse those unwanted pounds, but we often overlook a very significant source of unwanted weight gain: alcohol. While most people know that alcohol can make you gain weight, few know how much of an impact it can have, especially when you’re looking to eat well. If you want to enjoy your food and still have a great weekend, here’s what you need to know about alcohol:

First, the chemistry: Most nutritionists quote a number of 7 calories per gram for the energy content of alcohol. That makes it more caloric than protein or carbohydrates and slightly less caloric than lipids (fat). That being said, alcohol rarely makes up a large portion of a drink. Even vodka, which is essentially diluted pure alcohol, is rarely more than 70% alcohol by volume. Beer rarely goes above 10%-12%, and some wines go up to 20%. In beer, wine, and cider, the majority of the energy content is actually in carbohydrates that have not fermented.

 Source: Ika USA

A bomb calorimeter, often used to measure the caloric content of food items. Not very much like a human metabolic system, is it?
Source: Ika USA

But it’s a little more complicated than that. Caloric calculations are generally based on incendiary techniques – we estimate the caloric content of something by setting it on fire in a special environment and measuring the amount of energy released. Alcohol burns extremely readily – just think of ethanol fuel. However, our bodies aren’t furnaces; we don’t incinerate food for its energy content but rather break it down and convert it into usable energy, typically glucose (the preferred source of energy for the brain). Alcohol takes a particularly vigorous process to detoxify and convert to usable energy, and that process itself uses energy. So that 7 Cal/gram number becomes a little fuzzier. A single drink or two will convert fairly neatly, but when the body is inundated with alcohol more and more of it will be excreted as acetic acid rather than fully metabolized. That’s not to say that you’ll be thinner if you drink more – alcohol has high priority in metabolism compared to non-toxic energy sources, which means that you’re less likely to use those carbohydrates, proteins, or fats for energy and more likely to store them.

A few words on so-called ‘drunkorexia’: The body’s ability to process alcohol is highly dependent on the quantity of nutrients in the diet. If you’re starving yourself to go hard on the weekend, consider the potential consequences. Without important antioxidants and amino acids, your body is unable to fully complete the metabolic process and is left with highly toxic acetaldehyde, which builds up in fatty tissues of the organs. At the very least this can lead to a severe hangover, but over an extended period you run the risk of severe liver or kidney damage. Not exactly worth any amount of fun on the weekend.

So if you’d like to continue your drinking career without killing yourself, but are also concerned about your caloric intake, what do you do? The simplest step is just to stop drinking mixed drinks. The sugary syrups used in cocktail mixes add to the already significant energy content of the drink, and as mentioned above the metabolic priority of alcohol means that those sugar calories are more likely to be stored than burned. If you want to get drunk, go for neat spirits like tequila, whiskey, or vodka. Wine, cider, and beer are highly diluted and full of unfermented sugars – so it doesn’t just take a lot to get you drunk but you’re getting extra calories to boot. A 12-oz can of Pabst Blue Ribbon has 144 calories and is only 5% alcohol; Angry Orchard cider is around 200 calories a bottle at almost the same alcohol content. Wines are often adulterated with additional sugar to make them sweeter or cause them to become bubbly (think Champagne). Sweet wines can be as many as 300 calories per cup; fortified wines as much as 500 (and 10% sugar by volume). So needless to say, go light on the weak stuff and savor the flavor – if you want to get drunk it might be better to stick with spirits.

If you’re over age and interested in the alcohol content of your favorite beverages, check out this resource. As always, Tasty Tufts does not condone illegal drinking nor does it wish to encourage anything but conscious enjoyment of alcohol beverages, which are an important part of many culinary cultures.

-Edmund Brennan

Cover image source.

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