As a nutritionist, people often ask me about their vices, looking for some sort of affirmation that it’s okay to drink 3 cups of coffee every morning or have ice cream after dinner each night. It’s actually a really interesting phenomenon: people find out I am a nutritionist, and the first thing they do is “confess” their bad habits with a guilty look.
Alcohol is one of those vices that is often brought up. A recent conversation at a wedding went something like this:
“Ann, what do you do?”
“I’m in school for nutrition.”
“Ohhhh! So what would a nutritionist say about the fact that this is my 7th beer and counting?”
Alcohol is one of those things that is really tough to ask someone to give up. For most people, having a drink is a very social thing, and can also be celebratory (toasting at a wedding) or part of a family ritual (cocktail hour with your grandparents). Usually, it’s not the occasional drink I am concerned about with a client. It’s the binge-drinking nights out when someone consumes 5 or more drinks, or the people that make drinking alcohol so casual that it becomes more of a habit than something they truly enjoy. But I guess my main goal with alcohol is to educate people on what exactly it does to the body and how it affects your internal balance, so that they can make more of an educated decision to either have or not have an extra drink.
We’ve gone into a lot of detail on digestion in class, including the function of each organ of the digestive system. The way alcohol travels through our digestive system is really interesting, and makes a lot of sense.
Alcohol absorption takes place in the stomach. The only other things that are absorbed through the stomach’s lining are water; electrolytes (sodium, chloride, potassium and magnesium); aspirin and some other drugs; and some short-chain fatty acids such as coconut oil, butter, and breast milk (which allows the rest of a tiny baby’s digestive tract to continue to develop and prepare for digestion of other foods later on).
Cells found in the stomach’s mucosal lining secrete an enzyme called ADH that converts alcohol into something more easily processed by the body. ADH production tends to be lower in young females and in the elderly. This helps to explain why young females tend to experience symptoms of being intoxicated more easily than young males. They’re often referred to as “lightweights,” but really they are not producing as much of the enzyme that helps process alcohol! Females also have less body fluid than males of the same size, so their blood alcohol levels tend to go up more quickly when they are drinking.
Another important thing to understand is that ADH production is dependent on the presence of zinc. A person who is zinc-deficient will have a harder time processing their alcohol than someone who has plenty of zinc. I happen to think many of us are zinc-deficient, so this is important to note.
The other component to alcohol metabolism is the presence of fatty foods. Fatty foods in the stomach will actually slow the passage of alcohol into the intestine, which will slow the rise in someone’s blood alcohol levels and allow them to enjoy their drinks with clearer thoughts. Any type of fatty food qualifies – whether you’re eating fresh bread dipped in olive oil or a plate of greasy french fries.
I hope this helps you to understand more clearly what alcohol does inside of you. Remember, it’s not my intent to take anything away from anyone. I want you guys to enjoy eating and drinking! Rather, I want to educate you so you can make your own decisions based on the knowledge you have.