Recently by Mark Sisson: Rapid Weight Loss
It’s the question every Primal adherent faces: how does alcohol fit into a low carb lifestyle? Maybe you’re out with friends, bravely resisting the assorted chips and fried concoctions in the center of the table. You don’t mind waiting patiently for the steak and salad you conscientiously selected, but must you be relegated to the likes of club soda and tap water? What would happen exactly if you ordered, well, a “drink-drink”? A nice glass of red wine perhaps? Hmmm…maybe that’s too much to ask at a place where onion blooms are a specialty…. A mixed drink? You begin reminiscing about those great sidecars your best friend used to make. Maybe a shot? That’s simple enough, isn’t it? How about those memories? Well, maybe we’ll fast forward through those recollections. Beer? Beer belly. What about a light beer? They’re low in carbs, right? Whatever the case, you presume there’s no Guinness in your future tonight. Or? Sigh. Now you really need something. What’s a Primal type to do when it comes to a simple social drink?
Indeed, there are some legitimate scientific reasons to enjoy alcohol in moderation. Alcohol as a blood thinner enhances vascular health, and the phenolic content (potent antioxidants) can pack a healthy punch. Research has compared alcohol abstention with moderate and “heavy” drinking. Moderate alcohol consumption appears (PDF) to lower the incidence of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, total and ischaemic stroke, as well as result in an overall reduction in mortality. And it seems older folks have the most to gain. Not only do they appear to benefit the most from a vascular health standpoint, research has linked moderate drinking in those over 65 with superior cognitive and memory function. It has also been linked to higher bone density in postmenopausal women. (There are still cautions, however, for those with a history or high risk of breast cancer or haemorrhagic stroke.)
Although we can likely obtain the same vascular benefits from fish oil and a low carb, high antioxidant diet (and through supplementation), there’s nothing wrong (and perhaps something to be gained) with the occasional drink, provided you’re someone who tolerates alcohol well. Not everyone does, and there’s nothing wrong with that. With that said…
When it comes to alcohol itself, there’s no reason a low-carber can’t indulge. Alcohol isn’t metabolized as a carbohydrate product, and it doesn’t send your blood sugar shooting upward. (It might actually lower it.) The body sends alcohol to the liver where it becomes first in line as an active energy source rather than stored glycogen. As long as you aren’t looking to lose weight, a modest drink here or there shouldn’t make much of a difference. If you’re looking to lose weight, however, we’d suggest avoiding alcohol all together. Alcohol doesn’t offer anything you can’t gain from a healthy Primal Blueprint diet, and you won’t have extra calories standing in the way of fat burning.
At the heart of the alcohol question, however, is a principle we often invoke: wise selectivity. In other words, not all drinks are created equal. Number junkies can check out the USDA’s breakdown of alcoholic beverages and brands (PDF) or scan a quick snapshot poster (PDF) put together by the Consumer Federation of American some years ago. It highlights several of the highest selling varieties and gives both calories and carb counts.
For our part, however, we thought we’d serve up our own PB-inspired alcohol hierarchy to assist you in the art of Primal indulgence.
We’re not talking specially colored labels or price tags here of course. We mean the biggest health benefit with the fewest carbs and additives. The pinnacle, not surprisingly, is red wine. Research has supported time and again the impressive polyphenol power of red wine.
Any red (other than port) offers high antioxidant power with somewhere around 3—5 grams of carbs, however differences exist even in this top tier of Primal imbibing. Research has demonstrated that organic red wine boasts higher antioxidant and resveratrol content as well as lower OTA mycotoxin contamination (a common red wine contaminant defined by the European Scientific Committee for Food as “having carcinogenic, nephrotoxic, teratogenic, immunotoxic, and probably neurotoxic effects.”).
The same research showed that basic table wine had less antioxidant power than Controlled Denomination of Origin brands. In terms of USDA ORAC value research (PDF), Cabernet trumped red table varieties (5034 versus 3873 units per 100 grams), but red in general trumped white. Go for richer, higher quality reds, and seek out organic if you can.