Can we indulge in alcoholic treats during the Christmas season without compromising our health? Here's how to do it...without the guilt.
We're rapidly approaching the Christmas season with all its various parties and gatherings. Whether it's the office Christmas party or needing to survive Boxing Day with your in-laws, it seems that temptation in the form of alcohol lurks around every corner. And surely Christmas is a season for giving in to temptation and indulging ourselves a bit? Or do we all need to be po-faced tee-totallers in the interest of our overall health and well-being?
There are several ways to approach this one. The tee-total option is certainly neat and simple, and of course there's no need to be po-faced with it. Incredible as this may be in the face of our society's norms and the advertising with which we are inundated, it is of course perfectly possible to enjoy yourself without drinking alcohol. If you're the sort of person who can't have one drink without having half a dozen more, abstaining altogether may well feel easier than trying to drink in moderation. Just think how smug you'll be when everyone else is groaning with a hangover...
At the other end of the spectrum we have reckless indulgence and a devil-may-care attitude. You might decide that you deserve to really let go this Christmas and spoil yourself. Worrying about your weight and health can wait until the New Year. Fair enough – we're not here to police your pleasures!
But perhaps neither of these options feels quite right for you. Maybe you're looking for a more moderate approach. In that case, read on.
The good news
Many people who are trying to eat healthily are increasingly wary of carbohydrates in particular. And alcohol = carbs, right? So with a sigh we decide that's another thing to strike off our list of pleasures.
But not so fast! There are two facts to keep in mind. First of all, alcohol is not actually metabolised as a carbohydrate product and doesn't mess with your blood sugar levels. When you have a drink, the liver makes use of the energy in alcohol in favour of the body's glycogen stores. So moderate drinking is perfectly compatible with trying to keep your carbs in check.
Secondly, all alcohol is not created equal. Some drinks will have rather more severe repercussions for your health than others. Some even have health benefits to offer, most notably in the form of various anti-oxidants. Red wine falls into this category. It's relatively low in carbohydrates and rich in anti-oxidants that have been linked to all sorts of health benefits, from combating the signs of ageing to protecting against dementia. Of course, at this time of year you risk your lovely glass of red wine being interfered with in the name of festive cheer. Since mulling wine involves quite a lot of sugar and often fruit juices (not to mention particularly cheap and nasty wine), it's best avoided in favour of a neat glass of classier stuff.
The other relatively benign alcohol option may come as something of a surprise: Spirits. Not all spirits, and certainly not ones mixed with coke, lemonade or other sugar-laden nasties. But neat whisky, brandy or cognac contain virtually no carbohydrates, and the wood-aged varieties offer levels of anti-oxidants to rival red wine. The only downside is that you need to be disciplined enough to drink slowly, since you should be consuming much smaller quantities of actual liquid than your beer-swilling friends!
The not-so-good news
There's one important caveat to all of this moderation-is-fine business: Alcohol and weight loss just don't mix. Not even if you try to save calories elsewhere – in fact, especially not then. If you're actively trying to lose weight, reconsider the tee-total position. Or give yourself a holiday from your diet and get yourself down the gym more frequently to compensate for the extra calories. But don't make things impossible and then beat yourself up with a big guilt stick.
The other point of bad news concerns those drinks that are simply best avoided. White wine isn't great but not terrible either – it contains about the same amount of carbs as red wine but without such high anti-oxidant levels, and you can always minimise the damage by avoiding the really sweet varieties or ordering a spritzer. Clear spirits such as vodka and rum don't pack in the carbs but don't do much for your health either. Beer, cider and crazy-coloured cocktails are completely out on the grounds of their sugar content and comparative lack of any health benefits.
So, feel free to raise a glass this Christmas. Just as long as it’s a glass of red wine. Or a nice dram of well-aged whisky.
by Kath Webb
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