Moderation. It’s one of those loaded words that Puritans threw around and that we all still shake, stir, and muddle to make more palatable. When it comes to alcohol, though, that word is etched in glass: Fourteen (or fewer) drinks a week, and no more than four in a single day, is “moderate,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
One drink means a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1 1/2-ounce shot of 80-proof spirits. No matter how that adds up, I’d slipped past moderation, and I’d also seen my weight creep up 10 pounds. Blame it on a cocktail of deadlines, stress, inactivity, and also fun. Sound familiar? A 2012 CDC study found that about one in four men exceed the moderation guidelines an average of five times a month.
That kind of drinking can make your belly bulge. Within minutes of your sipping a drink, your fat metabolism can wane. Because your body treats alcohol as a toxin, removing it becomes the top priority, says Angelo Tremblay, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at Laval University in Quebec. That can cause your body to stop burning its usual stored carbs and fat for energy and instead utilize the alcohol. The double whammy: Any other calories you take in, whether they’re carbs from your brew or protein from buffalo wings, end up as stored fat.
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The average man needs an hour to metabolize 0.6 ounce of alcohol, the amount in one drink, so even a couple of drinks can have a dramatic effect. In a UC Berkeley study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who downed an ounce of alcohol from two cocktails showed a 73 percent decrease in fat burning after two hours. And in a study from Switzerland published in the New England Journal of Medicine, male participants who were given two beers’ worth of alcohol with each of their three meals experienced a slowdown equivalent to roughly 450 calories that day.
That’s one reason I decided to abstain for four weeks. Beyond its caloric load and impact on your fat burners, alcohol can disrupt your sleep pattern, mess with your appetite, and foment a cascade of other weight-gaining processes, according to Donald Hensrud, M.D., an associate professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and a coauthor of I.
“One reason to stop completely is to see how you feel physically and psychologically,” he says. If you can tough it out (or even feel better) while losing weight, then you can transition to more-moderate measures to maintain your weight.
Waist size aside, two drinks a day may actually be healthier than none at all. If you graph drinking and mortality over a given time period, a J shape forms. Men at the bottom of the J have two drinks a day and are less likely to die during that period than teetotalers are. After two drinks, the number of deaths starts to rise. In fact, excessive alcohol use is the third-leading cause of preventable death, after smoking and obesity. A toast, then, to moderation—and to finding the truth about drinking and dieting.
To help me navigate the tricky shoals of abstinence, I check in with the coauthors of Almost Alcoholic—Robert Doyle, M.D., a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., a psychologist in Hartford, Connecticut. First we strategize: The easiest way to change bad habits is to replace them with better ones. We identify specific danger drinks: the post-work decompressor, the social lubricator at a party or bar, the glass of wine that enhances dinner, and the nightcap that takes the edge off. Then we figure out replacements. They also advise keeping alcohol hidden so I’m not reminded of what I’m missing. Things start out well: I replace my post-work drink with a 15-minute exercise circuit, and stock bottles of mineral water and cans of seltzer to help simulate the sensation of drinking alcohol. The novelty of not boozing makes the first week flash by in a sobriety-fueled binge of productivity.
Result: I drop three pounds without sacrificing any of my favorite foods.
Alcohol Wrecks Your Sleep
Scientists know that alcohol sabotages sleep quality and that good sleep is critical to weight loss. Sleep is not like a light switch, says MH sleep advisor W. Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. “It’s a brain activity more like laughter, and it relies on a series of neurotransmitters syncing up to enable the cascade of sleep,” he says. “Alcohol interferes with that, taking a wrecking ball to your sleep architecture.”
Though booze may help you drift off, it affects the first half of the sleep cycle, which is when most men sleep deepest. Because alcohol is a sedative, it suppresses dreaming. Then when it’s metabolized, your brain wakes up, causing fragmented sleep and nightmares. A study from the University of Michigan Alcohol Research Center found that heavy drinkers sleep less than non-drinkers (43 fewer minutes a night) and that the sleep they do log is of inferior quality. During deep sleep, your body carries out a series of restorative hormonal and metabolic functions. Without it, your energy system can misfire: You feel hungry when you don’t need food, and you make poor diet choices. In a French study, people consumed 560 more calories during the day following just one night of poor sleep than they did after sleeping eight hours.
The Fix: Ax the nightcap. Your body needs time to process alcohol before you go to sleep. You could savor one drink when you return home from work, says Dr. Winter, and sip another with your meal, ideally several hours before you hit the hay. Instead of self-medicating, talk with your doctor about why you’re having trouble falling asleep.
The recycling guys are going to love me: I guzzle seltzer even when I’m not thirsty. Having that can in my hand or within reach keeps me in a comfort zone. This means the replacement strategy is working, says Dr. Doyle. But I’m still having a tough time replacing both the flavor and the buzz of wine and beer. Dr. Doyle offers surprising solutions: Eat more local food, and try diverse cuisines. “Take your tastebuds on safari so you’re not bored,” he says. He likens it to exploring regional wines. He also encourages me to find other indulgences, such as dark chocolate and cheese.
Result: Boom—I drop another 4 pounds!
Alcohol Leads to Wings
Beer goggles work on food too. When you’ve had a few drinks, fatty foods seem even more attractive. Alcohol triggers a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes you feel good. And fMRI scans of social drinkers show decreased activity in brain circuits involved in detecting threats, along with increased activity in circuits involved in reward, says Lorenzo Leggio, M.D., Ph.D., of the NIAAA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
At the same time, your body also releases ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone, and galanin, a neuropeptide that may lead you to eat more fat. The result is called hyperphagia—an abnormally increased appetite. You go for the guilty-pleasure food, and the alcohol washes away the guilt. A 2013 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that men ate 433 more calories (264 from alcohol, 169 from food and other beverages) and 9 percent more fat on days they drank than on days they abstained.
The Fix: Slow the rate at which alcohol enters your bloodstream. A recent Northern Kentucky University study points out that having food in your stomach can help slow the absorption of alcohol by as much as 57 percent. That means your lard furnace may remain more active. The takeaway: Drink only after you’ve started eating a meal, says study author Cecile A. Marczinski, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University. When dinner’s done, you’re done.
That can also help you avoid the weight-loss witching hour. When you’re tired and drunk, you risk an appetite meltdown with no “off” switch. So try the old trick of chasing each drink with a glass of water. The water adds volume so your stomach feels full, and it helps slow the absorption of alcohol so you’re less likely to end up trashed and eating garbage. Also, decide what and where you’ll eat afterward before you start drinking, says nutritionist Cynthia Sass, R.D. “Having popcorn or hummus with vegetables handy when you arrive home means you’re less likely to raid the kitchen for cookies or chips.”
I still don’t miss alcohol after work or with meals. My exercise circuit releases feel-good endorphins, and my diverse diet keeps dinner lively. I’m also eating more cheese as dessert, pairing domestic and international blues and aged cheddars with apples, pears, and walnuts. My nightcap is now a square of dark chocolate. Like red wine, dark chocolate triggers a hit of dopamine and contains resveratrol, a heart-healthy antioxidant. Instead of surfing wine.com, I cruise chocosphere.com, looking for 70 percent cacao bars from upscale brands, like Cluizel and Valrhona, and made with single-origin beans from exotic places like Madagascar and Venezuela. Dr. Doyle was right: Exploring new foods is fun.
Result: Up a pound—cheese and chocolate!
Alcohol Is Loaded with Calories
Alcohol packs 7 calories per gram, second only to fat (9 calories); by contrast, protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. But metabolizing alcohol so it can be used as a fuel burns 20 percent of its calories. That means the actual energy yield from alcohol is closer to 5 calories. Then you add in the mixers. There are no blurred lines when it comes to excess: According to a Danish review, exceeding two beers a day increases your risk of “abdominal adiposity”—beer belly.
But drinking moderately doesn’t necessarily lead to weight gain. In a five-year study also from Denmark, men who averaged one daily alcoholic drink were 21 percent less likely to stretch their belts than those who didn’t indulge. Another study, in Nutrition, found that moderate wine drinkers tended to not gain any weight after six years, while those who drank beer and spirits more heavily did. The reasons? Red wine may interfere with the way fat accumulates in fat cells and may also reduce the size of fat cells, say researchers in Spain. Plus, the resveratrol might affect the expression of a gene that controls the formation of body fat, reports Nutrition Reviews.
The Fix: “Wine is the best option if you’re watching your belly, followed by spirits and then beer,” says Dr. Hensrud. For beer drinkers, the keys are, again, moderation and water. When you enter a bar, order a pint of H2O and drink it, he says. That way you won’t pound your first beer. Keep alternating beer and water. (Ditto for wine. Sip mindfully to stretch your drink.) Note that craft beers tend to have more alcohol and calories per ounce than regular beers do, says William C. Kerr, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group, so “keep track of how much you’re drinking.”
I’ve been tested at bars and parties, but I use the tactics suggested by Dr. Doyle. I carry around a highball glass with seltzer, rocks, and a lime—a concoction that looks like a gin and tonic. If people do ask why I’m not indulging, I blame my doctor: “My blood sugar numbers put me close to prediabetic, so he told me to cut back. Bummer, right?” I still crave a nightcap, but along with snacking on dark chocolate, I’m auditioning different closers, like practicing yoga and reading fiction. I’ve been sleeping much better, having vivid dreams, and waking up energized and clearheaded.
Result: After cutting back on cheese and chocolate, I drop 3 pounds. My total weight loss is 9 pounds. The kicker: Many of the experts I interviewed admitted that they drink a glass or two of red wine most days (but not every day). So I’m getting ready to reintroduce wine with meals. In moderation, of course.
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