Monday, June 16, 2008

Why does alcohol make you hungry?

I must digress from the Food Pyramid for bit, as a dear friend brought a nagging issue into the front of my mind, and once again I had to know "why" (or at least remind myself of why).

One thing I know about myself is that I don't think well "on my feet". On the spot, I don't always have the answer or the right response. After a few minutes or days of mulling over an issue, I have that "ah ha" or "wish I'd said that" moment where the answer or solution becomes so clear. What the heck is that delay, anyway? It's like you are presented with the question or information, and it registers, but, like in the waiting room versus in an office or exam room - it never reaches the place where the answer lies. It IS like the waiting room (nothing but waiting happens there!); or starting a plant from a seed versus a seedling! Again, nothing apparent happens for quite a while after you plant a seed to grow something, but if you plant a seedling to grow the same thing - aha! - it's a plant, right there in front of you, and so obvious!!

Anyway, the question posed was this: "why am I always hungry after I have a drink [of alcohol]?". Or why is it that when I drink, I tend to want to eat more. While I pondered this, and while my friend and I discussed wine and vodka versus aperitifs like Campari or bitters, we wondered: "Is it the alcohol in general that makes you hungry, or is it something else?" Perhaps it's something common in all the aforementioned drinks, but that may be concentrated in aperitifs, since their purpose is to stimulate or open up the appetite prior to a meal. Regardless of the reason, I feel it would be beneficial to know so that I could use that knowledge against that dreaded hunger in some way. Ironically, it is this particular friend, with whom, about a year ago, I had one of most confounding conversations related to personal choice and good health - a conversation that gnaws at my inner core daily whether I'm reading the newspaper, a magazine or watching the news. (I digress again, although truly related to this topic.) My friend was entertaining my ever present ramblings about RebelHealth, my impending company, and my vision of educating Joe public that there truly is no secret to good, robust health; that it's all about making the right choices, backed by science or evidence-based information - information that's "out there" and readily available. I wanted to teach (or re-teach) people what a calorie is, how to eat whole versus refined foods, how to balance energy IN and energy OUT to maintain a healthy weight, how and why to incorporate physical activity into their lives, etc. Her response was this: "Knowledge does not always equate to behavior change. How many nurses do you know that smoke, or physicians who are overweight?" She busted my theory so far out of the water - like a tarpon in season - holy cow! Wouldn't it obvious that once people KNOW the truth they would immediately make the lifestyle change to improve their health? But my friend was/is so right! So why wouldn't they want to improve their health? Why would someone intentionally continue a habit or lifestyle that is detrimental to living the fullest life they could - for their kids, their spouse, their purpose in life, and/or for themselves? Who in the world would value LIFE so little that they wouldn't change? Well, the answer is obvious (based on what I see in all those newspapers, magazines and news shows): a lot of people. A lot of people don't make that connection. Whether it be:

  • killer habits and addictions like smoking,
  • obsessions (and addictions) like overeating,
  • simple or unlearned habits like poor food selection,
  • chronic, lazy habits like television and video games (couch love!) that contribute to a lack of physical activity, and/or
  • the ever-present and ever-accepted habit of ignoring stress loads in our lives,

knowledge that a choice, decision or lifestyle habit is wrong, or that there's a better option out there, does not lead to behavior change. That simply confounds me!

OK, so to get back to that cocktail and the imminent post-cocktail hunger, what's up with this? Well, the "aha" or "duh" moment came when I remembered that alcohol is a carbohydrate, and what we know about consuming carbohydrate alone or outside the presence of protein and/or fat is that carbohydrate (some types more than others) causes a rise in blood sugar, which causes the pancreas to secrete a hormone called insulin. Insulin "opens up" cells in the body which absorb or take up this blood sugar, lowering it to a more normal level, but sometimes lowering it too much. If we take in too much carbohydrate, a lot of insulin is produced which causes too much of that blood sugar to be absorbed, leaving us with too little blood sugar, versus too high. And low blood sugar causes hunger. There is a huge and very complicated metabolic process within those simple statements, but for those of us who are not physicians and chemists, but rather self-proclaimed experts (ha!), let's leave it at that.

On the topic of simply cocktails and drinks versus the aforementioned aperitifs, here is some interesting information that hopefully can be used to make informed cocktail selections based on our setting:

  • 12 oz beer averages 5% alcohol and 5-14 grams of carbs
  • 4 oz wine averages 10-15% alcohol and 2-5 grams of carbs*
  • 1 oz distilled spirits (gin, vodka, brandy) averages 40% alcohol and 0 grams of carbs**
  • 2 oz sherry or port averages 17% alcohol and 6-14 grams of carbs
  • 2.5 oz aperitif averages 24% alcohol and 20-30 grams of carbs
  • 2.5 oz Campari averages 24% alcohol and 20 grams of carbs
  • 2.5 oz Ouzo averages 24% alcohol and 27 grams of carbs
  • 2.5 oz Coffee Liquor averages 24% alcohol and 40 grams of carbs***

*The drier the wine, the lower the carbohydrate content

**All distilled spirits contain 0 carbohydrates, just watch out for what it may be mixed with!

***The more refined with flavor/sweetener an aperitif is, the higher the carbohydrate. Bitters will contain less sugar or carbohydrate than a sweeter tasting aperitif such as Coffee Liquor, though perhaps not considered a "traditional" aperitif.

We can see that an aperitif's higher carbohydrate content might be the reason for it's selection or creation as an appetite stimulant or a drink to "prepare" us for a meal. The higher carbohydrate content should stimulate our appetite and make us yearn for dinner - which would be the purpose of the aperitif! I love it when stuff makes sense!!

So, now that we know our cocktail may make us hungry or cause excessive munchies, how do we deal with it. Well, we certainly could go into the situation with open eyes now and commit that in the event of unexpected or unplanned munchies, we will either:

A) refuse said munchies and resist the urge to nosh, or

B) give in to said munchies with controlled and limited quantities in mind, while opting for munchies lower in carbohydrate so that we don't fuel the fire (translation: avoid the bread basked and choose nuts, crudites, cheese, carpaccio or tartare of some type).

The only other option, which we must not chose, and which is why I didn't make it option C, is to give into said munchies without any conscious thought as to the type of munchie and therefore no interest in preserving the pleasure of drink.

Whether you are drinking wine, spirits, beer or aperitifs (and hopefully not some simple syrup-laden, mass-produced-concoction that serves the sole purpose of conceiving a drunk), enjoy that cocktail and with purpose! Create an environment within your body that allows you to savor and appreciate the flavor and aroma of your drink - perhaps it's terroir & grape if it's wine, it's delicacy & balance if it's a mixed drink or even the depth of it's grain if its beer. Drinking should be savored or social and savored. And now that we know of the impending hunger that may accompany our savored cocktail, we can do what's right and approach our cocktail with a plan for combating that hunger - even if it means stashing a few almonds in your bag! Be prepared!


Anonymous said...

This is such valuable information. I was just having a beer and all of the sudden I became extremely humgry, desperate for a sandwich. I needed to know what caused this, and now I am comletely clear on why beer does this to our bodies. Great article!

Anonymous said...

nice one...

Joeri said...

This is the best article on the subject I could find on the internet. Nice one +1

montlong said...

For someone who is sensitive to the hunger inducing effects of alcohol, there is more involved than just the carbohydrate content of the drink. Carb free drinks make me just as hungry as high carb drinks. I think it has to do with the metabolism of alcohol and the liver. The result of this can be a state of hypoglycemia, which results in extreme hunger. When you combine this with the reaction to the sugar, and lowered inhibition, you have yourself an eating binge. This can become an addictive cycle for some, problems with alcohol and carbs go hand in hand.

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of the time, we all want to binge, over-eat and be decadent, but our self-control stops us. Alcohol (in excess at least) makes us lose our inhibitions and we "go for it", often with disastrous feelings of guilt and self-loathing the following day. Oh life...

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