One of the greatest detriments of almost every diet (and by diet I mean what you eat long term, not some bizarre fad, like eating only when you sneeze or something), is that they lack an approach to alcohol.
We, humans, literally evolved to drink alcohol. This may sound weird, but is true. According to a paper published by the researcher Jyrki Tillonen, the average human digestive system produces approximately 3g of ethanol (alcohol) per day through fermentation of its gastrointestinal contents (1).
Simply put, booze is part of life, regardless of how strictly teetotaler one may be. Now, what about booze and diet? Can I get fit and still have my weekend drink?
Do Alcohol Calories Count?
That is the heart of the matter, right? Brace yourself, here comes some science.
Calories in alcohol (ethanol) don’t work in the same way as calories in food. The metabolism of alcohol occurs mostly in the liver and kidneys. It is a multi-stage process that transforms methanol first into acetaldehyde, then in acetic acid and then into acetyl-CoA. From this process, only Acetyl-CoA is actually used as “cellular food”, and only Acetyl-CoA actually produces cellular energy, which may or may not be converted into that pot belly we all want to avoid. The catch here, is that we expel a great deal of the acetic acid through urine, long before it has time to become Acetyl-CoA, long before the ethanol can actually be absorbed as calories.
But how much alcohol is actually metabolized into fat? Simple truth: no one knows exactly. It will depend on your genetics, if you had a good sleep, if you are dully hydrated, the local temperature and humidity and even your emotional state.
There are some conflicting information regarding this. Medical practitioners and chemists swear by this science, which has been proved time and time again. However, most nutritionists were trained otherwise in college, to assume that all the energy stored in alcohol is available to the body.
To understand why nutritionists were told to disagree with this part of science, we have understand their profession. Most people who actually visit a nutritionist want to lose weight, so it is more profitable for the nutritionist to err in the side of less calories, creating unnecessary extra restrictions on the client’s diet, thus making the results appear faster, and thus making more money. Also, this policy helps avoid the risks of a booze-fueled binge eating, which may be the true monster in the diet.
As anyone who researched about diabetes knows, alcohol induces an increase in insulin secretion. This insulin spike leads to low blood sugar, thus leading to hunger, thus leading to binge eating.
As the British Journal of Nutrition published:
“The relationship between alcohol consumption and body weight is complex and inconclusive being potentially mediated by alcohol type, habitual consumption levels and sex differences. Heavy and regular alcohol consumption has been positively correlated with increasing body weight, although it is unclear whether this is due to alcohol consumption per se or to additional energy intake from food.” (2)
In good and clear English, when researchers tried to find out if booze makes you fat, their answer translated to: “we don’t know.” Not very helpful, right?
So, can I drink on keto or not?
Short answer? Yes You can. With moderation.
The ketogenic diet means carbohydrate restriction in order for your body to create ketones and metabolize fat. Pure ethanol does not have a single carb, so it does not break the keto cycle.
Ok, that may be misleading. Let’s expand this and tackle some extra information that is actually extremely important.
There is no such thing as “pure ethanol” safe for drinking. What we have are beers, wines, liquors and spirits, and most of them actually do have carbs. Beer is not called “liquid bread” idly and the vast majority of sweet liquors are loaded with unhealthy amounts of sugar. Unless you make your own.
If you want to stay in ketosis, loosing fat while enjoying the occasional drink, you will have two options, either you opt for zero carb beverages, pure spirits such as whiskey, vodka or gin, or you count your macronutrients. All of them. Yes, including each drop of that fancy liqueur you got for birthday. If it fit your macros (IIFYM) you can have whatever you want. Don’t worry, once you begin to count your macros, you will drink that sweet stuff by the drop…
Liquor with 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof) or higher will typically have 0 grams net carbs, a serving of a good quality dry red wine has around four grams of carbs. If you absolutely have to have a carbonated soda with your drink, make sure it is sugar-free.
While alcohol has a few calories, they are less absorbed than most nutritionists would like us to think and, if you have a drink with no carbs in moderation, it will not break your ketogenic cycle. As Atkins nutritionist Colette Heimowitz said:
“The liver can make ketones out of alcohol. So technically, when you drink, you’ll continue to produce ketones and [thus] will remain in ketosis.”
For those who have healthy livers and no trouble stopping at one drink (for women) or two (for men), the occasional imbibing of a low-carb alcoholic drink is probably not going to cause any harm, and may even help with cardiovascular health and joie de vivre without making you fat.
Now that we gave you the good news, there are some caveats you will want to know too.
The keto hangover
A keto diet can make you get drunk faster. For metabolization purposes, carbs compete with alcohol, meaning that eating a carb-heavy meal will slow down the absorption of alcohol in your body. Since the whole point of keto is not to eat carbs, there will be no competition in the metabolization of alcohol, making you drunk faster – and with a lower intake.
For the moderate drinker, that is the only change, easily counterbalanced by slowing down. However, for the binge drinker, the guy or gal who enjoys getting hammered, these guys will fully understand the meaning of hammered when they feel like their heads are being hit by mauls the next day. #ketopain
Bear in mind that all that booze that was absorbed faster was metabolized faster. If you are not hydrated, all the byproducts of the alcohol metabolization will have a harder time leaving your body through urine, exponentially increasing the chances of a nasty hangover. If you are not sufficiently hydrated, chances are that you are going to wake up smelling like a pickle, as you will literally sweat the acetic acid from methanol metabolization.
Tips for drinking on keto
Everyone knows that alcohol is a “social lubricant”, lowering social inhibitions and enabling you to do stupid things. While you are on keto, there is another stupid thing you need to avoid when drunk: The siren call of the munchies.
Carbs will be tempting you. Nachos with cheese will be saying your name. The low blood sugar, caused by the increase of insulin in your bloodstream will create a void in your stomach. Be prepared. Having a low-carb snack at hand, such as beef jerky will help you avoid this trap, and doesn’t hurt to drink water between cups.
The good news for keto drinking
So, summarizing, you can safely drink on keto diet. As long as it is in moderation, meaning one drink for women and two for men, and as long as your drink of choice is a low-carb one. Drinking can make you gain weight, but the culprit is most likely the snacks you have with your booze than your booze, so be reasonable when snacking.
Whew. For every whiskey lover on a keto diet out there (such as me), that is a huge relief. What about you? Please leave your comments below and let’s have a scientific discussion while enjoying some refreshments. Cheers!
1 Jyrki Tillonen ETHANOL, ACETALDEHYDE AND GASTROINTESTINAL FLORA
2 Effect of alcohol consumption on food energy intake: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, Volume 121, Issue 5