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 friendused 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.
Respectable Middling Choices
Wood Aged Spirits (particularly Whiskey, Brandy, Scotch and Cognac)
An underappreciated class, we’d say. Unflavored distilled spirits in general are a low-carbers dream. What could be better than zero carbs? Well, how about zero carbs with a kick of antioxidants? Research has found impressive antioxidant activity in Bourbon whiskey, Armagnac brandy and cognac.
In fact, whiskey contains more ellagic acid, a free radical fighter, than red wine. Wood aging, researchers believe, confer the benefits of high phenol and furan concentration.
The research has been less clear about the health benefits of other wood aged spirits, including dark rum and 100% agave tequila. Although agave itself has been linked with cancer-fighting properties, it’s disputed whether these properties are fully present or potent in the tequila form. Furthermore, one small study found that a daily serving of tequila during a 30-day period decreased insulin sensitivity.
Berry Daiquiri (Primal Style)
Surprise! What do you get when you add alcohol to berries? Try a thirty percent hike in antioxidant activity! Researchers stumbled upon the finding while trying to find alternative means of preserving fruit. Note: they happened to use strawberries and blackberries. For a true Primal version, skip the sugar and syrup, and go easy on the lemon/lime juice. Add crushed ice to the pureed berries and liquor, and you’ve got yourself a respectably healthy dessert drink. (For an even bigger boost, make brandied berries.)
Beer, like wine, offers polyphenol power. According to research, beer seems to hold its own with white wine in terms of antioxidant activity. As for carb content, light beers vary generally between 3-6 grams (although a few like Michelob are more than 11) and contain around 90-100 calories.
Bottom Shelf to Bottom of the Barrel
Other Spirits (Vodka, Gin, Clear Rum)
As mentioned, unflavored spirits don’t come with carbs, and the alcohol content itself can boost vascular health. Nonetheless, these varieties don’t offer much in the way of antioxidant benefit either.
Hard cider offers an impressive and healthy antioxidant boost, but the carbs typically measure around 15 grams per glass. As good as hard cider is, we’d suggest skipping the Strongbow and eating a heftier salad.
As mentioned, beer offers an antioxidant boost, but at 10-15 grams of carbs we think there are better choices to be had. (And, by the way, the basic Guinness variety falls into this category. The calorie and carb count for beer can often be deceiving. Darker and heavier doesn’t always equate to more calories and carbs, and vice versa. It might be worth looking up if you aren’t sure.)
Creamy/Dark/Stout or Rich Microbrew Beer
We know it’s tasty (especially a good microbrew), but those 15-25 grams of carbs just aren’t worth it.
All right – this is admittedly the fun one, but did anyone really expect us to promote the likes of Jello shots and mudslides? Let’s see what else we can add here: hard lemonade, packaged or otherwise sweetened hard liquor drinks like Smirnoff Ice, Fuzzy Navels, etc. (This is reading like a bad Spring Break story.) And then there are the cordials. And the liqueurs: Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Irish cream drinks, Kahlua (sorry Lebowski fans), Frangelico. You could be looking at at least 15 grams all the way up to a whopping 40-some grams of added sugar. (No wonder The Dude spent so much time in that wrap around robe.) Add to that American schnapps varieties. (The Germans, Czechs and others do true schnapps without added sugar.) Finally, keep your distance from any packaged mixers. The labels say it all: high fructose corn syrup, colorants and all manner of preservatives and stabilizers. (Now there’s a recipe for a hangover….)
A word about mixers…
You know to skip the 7Up, Coke, etc., but even much beloved tonic water sets you back nearly 90 calories. Keep it simple, and drink straight up. If you need water, go for a light tasting mineral water, seltzer or club soda.
However Primally compatible any beverage might be, we don’t intend this as an endorsement to drink on a regular basis. As mentioned, a good diet can offer the same nutritional benefits and then some. You aren’t missing out if you choose to abstain, and we’d recommend it, in fact, if you’re in weight loss mode. For an otherwise healthy individual, red wine or – more occasionally – other low carb drink choices can certainly fit into the Primal 80/20 principle. It’s ultimately about making an educated choice among the many options and then being perceptive to your body’s response. It’s that good old Primal lens at work. For all of you who have been looking for an excuse to enjoy, bottom’s up!
We’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions. Have questions or want to share how alcohol fits into your Primal practice? If you enjoy the occasional libation what do you usually reach for and why? Thanks for reading.