Just about every healthy eating plan preaches the benefits of ditching sugary desserts and curbing your alcohol intake. And while these foods are often demonized by the health industry, we know that it’s totally fine to enjoy dessert or a couple of glasses of wine when you crave it—a diet based on deprivation is never going to contribute to long-term health in a sustainable way. In saying that though, sugar and alcohol themselves aren’t considered “healthy,” and it got us wondering: Is one better for you than the other? To answer this question we enlisted the help of LA-based holistic nutritionist Elissa Goodman. Keep scrolling!
Is Eating Sugary Food Healthier Than Drinking Alcohol?
How does the body process alcohol and sugar differently?
Sugar is first digested in the stomach by acids and enzymes and is broken down into an energy source by your liver in the form of glucose, which is then released into your bloodstream. It is either used (energy) or stored for future use as glycogen. This raises blood sugar levels. It’s quite different in the case of alcohol. About a quarter of the alcohol you consume is absorbed from the stomach into the bloodstream, the rest is processed by the liver. Alcohol is considered a toxin and for this reason, your liver prioritizes it before food. The moment alcohol enters your system your liver drops everything else and detoxifies it first. It is not stored as glycogen, instead it is metabolized and released in the form of carbon dioxide and water. This process lowers blood sugar levels. Factors like how much food you consume before drinking and the concentration of your drink will affect how your body breaks alcohol down.
Why do some nutrition plans recommend you don’t drink alcohol?
I probably don’t have to tell you that alcohol lowers your inhibitions, making your commitment to health a little more difficult! Calories from alcohol are often referred to as “empty calories” because they lack any nutrient benefit. This interferes with your metabolic function. In addition, calories in many alcoholic beverages are more concentrated then food calories making it very easy to over-consume alcohol calories. Low blood sugar, caused by your body processing alcohol contribute to those intense hunger urges that experience post drinking. It depends on how much you drink, but your liver could be on pause from processing food for several hours while it processes alcohol instead. This will continue to drop your glucose levels and lead to those irresistible cheeseburger urges. Whenever you drink, your liver focus goes to alcohol as opposed to processing fat, postponing the processing of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Drinking also has an effect on testosterone levels, when alcohol is consumed, testosterone decreases. Lowered testosterone means lowered metabolic rate and a lowered metabolic rate makes weight loss is more difficult.
Why do some nutrition plans recommend you cut out or reduce sugary foods including dessert?
I’m a big fan of eating fruit for dessert. I know it sounds boring, but if you cut out sugar for a while, your tastebuds will adjust and fruit will perfectly satisfy your sweet tooth. Chocolate is a great dessert option, and the darker the better. Dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and is lower in sugar than say, milk chocolate. If you want something more traditional, there are some great recipes out there for chocolate pudding made with avocado (I know it sounds weird, but it’s so good), or banana “nice” cream. I also make little cookie bites with gluten free oats, apples, and cinnamon, they satisfy my sweet tooth without added sugar.
What are some healthier alcoholic drinks?
I go for 100% agave blanco tequila (it contains a lower level of acetones and tannins with no fillers) and enjoy it on the rocks with a squeeze of lime and splash of water or cucumber juice. If you just want something to drink on a quiet night in, a glass of dry red wine is a great go-to. Red wine contains resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant, and I like to encourage people to go for the drier wines, because they tend to contain less sugar. However, if you’re not a big drinker, don’t just add wine to your daily routine to get the antioxidants… there are plenty of better and healthier ways to do that. If you’re drinking hard alcohol, I say keep it simple as possible. You get into a danger zone when you start ordering those bright blue mixed drinks that are packed with sugar and a million types of alcohols. That’s why I go for tequila and stick with fresh fruit or green juice to cut it.
So, which is better for you: Alcohol or sugar?
This is a hard one! My not-so-scientific answer would be sugar, only because if you’re drinking moderately or have a glass or two of wine or a tequila on the rocks a couple times per week, that is not as detrimental to your health to me as if you’re over consuming sugar on a daily basis. In the US, our sugar consumption has led to a health epidemic. I would prefer to see my female clients stick to 25 grams or less daily and my male clients stick to 35 grams or less per day and still be able to responsibly have a cocktail if they would like on occasion.