One of the hardest issues to tackle when you’re a booze journo is that drinking just isn’t the healthiest of choices. Mainstream media never allows us to forget that drinking too much too often will seriously harm us – but can you actually balance your lifestyle so you can still dance the night away, enjoy delicious things - and also get up the next morning and take care of yourself?
Increasingly the world of choices seems to be stuck between those who claim grated – sorry, spiralized – courgette will fill you up and those who think boozing all weekend is the best time spent away from the office.
Can’t we all just meet in the middle for green juice - and then a Martini?
Well, yes, say the experts. That’s exactly what you should be doing, and us too it turns out. And if you’re sat there thinking, woah, I’m not even at the green juice stage and what on earth is a spiralizer then time to hold on tight. Because things are going to get grim before the light emerges.
Knowing how to balance is not easy. While the challenge a few years ago was finding information, the problem today is there’s actually too much of it. We’re not about to stop enjoying a drink nor the social aspect that goes with that. But should we take a week off every now and then? Do a dry month? Only drink red wine? Does drinking undo our morning run and kale salad? Where does my Martini fit into this other, healthy life?
One advocate from inside the booze industry for drinking better has been Claire Warner, Director of Spirits Education for Moet Hennessy. We asked her how she went about making balanced decisions in a role focused around alcohol.
“I realised I needed to make changes when I moved to New York a few years back. At the time I had just been introduced to Georgia van Tiel, a health specialist, who showed me what I was doing wrong and interestingly one of the first things she said was I wasn’t eating enough which seems crazy when you’re putting on weight – you think you should cut down but she showed me how to eat more of the right stuff and to know my limits with drink,” says Claire.
Indentifying one of the main culprits in her diet as sugar (which a new study, published by market research company Euromonitor, shows that adults worldwide take in more calories from alcohol than soft drinks nowadays) Claire was shocked to see how entrenched it was in her life.
“You need to want to make the change – but once you do, one of the challenges is a lot of the information is contradictory. A lot of people ask what did I do or change and I always say speak to a professional first and understand your own personal make up and circumstances. I am more aware now where my limits are, how much I should drink and if I go over how I will feel. I know there will be big nights out and there are things in the house to help me feel better the next day. I suppose I plan better and am more mindful.”
Following Claire’s advice of speaking to an expert, we sat down with nutritionist Libby Limon to ask whether we could undo all our terrible habits and if an occasional Clover Club or glass of gamay wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
“You have to have balance every day,” says Libby. “It’s a choice you have to make. And there are short term and long term consequences to drinking too much booze. Going really hard and then having a few weeks off will not help at all. Retox/Detox doesn’t work because our bodies only deal with what they have at this moment. Being good in a week’s time won’t help the choices you make today because by then your body has already dealt with the toxins.”
And how does it deal with these toxins we’re pouring in? Answer… Not so well.
The problem with alcohol is the way it breaks down. There are two phases and in between phase one and two an element called acetaldehyde is produced. (Don’t worry this is as scientific as we’re going to get). This stuff is the worst and needs to be processed in your liver, however if your liver can’t get through it quickly enough you’re going to be in a world of pain tomorrow. Yep, those headaches and that nausea is all directly the result of acetaldehyde. And there’s worse news for women, because they have a lot less of the enzymes which attack acetaldehyde.
Fructose, aka natural sugar from fruits and even agave nectar, also needs to be broken down in the liver, meaning sugary cocktails create quite the backlog for your body to be dealing with. All the while the liver can’t perform its usual detoxing tasks. Again, not good.
The other troublesome area is our digestive organs.
“Always, always eat before you drink,” stresses Libby, “I can’t highlight this enough. When we eat the food has to go to our stomach and then our small intestine to be absorbed but alcohol can be absorbed straight through the stomach lining. Without food to line our stomach we can cause inflammation. And we all know how much this exacerbates the effects of booze.”
Eating before drinking may be cheating says the old rhyme (who even came up with this - is what we’d really like to know!?) but it also can stop us craving that late night kebab, pizza or cheesy chips. You want carbs because your blood sugar levels have been disturbed, but eating before stabilises this. That meal should be a balance of complex carbs, healthy fats and protein. And the very worst thing you can do, explains Libby, is drink, eat something like pasta, and drink again, as you’re essentially wreaking havoc on your blood sugar which will mean weight gain and poor sleep.
As for the next day? “If you are going out, try to have things in place the next day which will help you – such as green juice which will help with liver detoxing. Don’t just automatically reach for the bacon butty,” advises Libby.
And while it’s common to be told not to tax yourself the next day due to dehydration, exercising the day after drinking depends on how much you’ve drunk and what you’re doing. If you’ve rehydrated and feel ok then it’s not always a bad thing. However, drinking straight after you’ve exercised is terrible for you. As when rugby teams all head to the pub straight after practise – your body is sucking everything as it tries to rehydrate and the alcohol will be more rapidly taken. So no more rewarding that spin class with a G&T we’re afraid.
Balanced cocktails from Belvedere
Ok, we’re feeling suitably chastened. So how much can we have?
Well it’s all a bit more complex than that. “It is all based on the individual. A night out every couple of weeks, which is minimal drinking, is fine. And there are of course health benefits to drinking derived from being social and happy,” says Libby.
Well thank goodness. A tiny glimmer of hope.
“The advice I need to give should be very strict but that’s not my approach to nutrition. I don’t want to give people advice they can’t follow. We all have an emotional and social relationship with food and drink. All I do say is have a glass of water rather than another drink. Drink at your own pace. Drink mindfully. Make sure you’re not just going through the motions and drinking for the sake of it.”
So at this point we know drinking too much will have serious detrimental effects to our health, and we’re on board with the concept of being healthier the day after. But we’re still looking for some advice on what to enjoy. For that, we called up Belvedere vodka, who have pioneered this topic for the past four years.
Back when Claire Warner (who we met earlier) was working for Belvedere she launched an initiative called Drink, Eat, Live which championed the concept of balance within the drinks industry. Her successor, Alice Farquhar, has kept that conversation going.
“Talking about drinking better, eating better and therefore living better, is our way of saying moderation but bringing that into the modern dialogue,” says Alice.
Over at Belvedere HQ Alice and her team are advocating one or two really delicious cocktails rather than five. She’s quickly realised that people are making much more conscience decisions when it comes to food and exercise but still ordering boozy sugary drinks on the weekend.
“This isn’t about calories or weight or body image, it’s understanding taste and ingredients better and looking at the best ways to use flavours, and why ingredients taste differently from country to country. For us the major conversation is around sugar and alcohol strength. We should be aiming for drinks with less booze and less fructose to make better choices,” says Alice.
Sounds good to us.
Something Alice, Claire and Libby were all keen to stress to us, however, was the fact that no booze is healthy. Sorry everyone who has been happily downing red wine in the belief that it’s vaguely good for your heart.
“For some people with certain genes a small glass of red wine can be beneficial but there are plenty of exceptions to this. Most studies talk about the overall findings but 50% of people still might not benefit. And let’s be honest there are better ways to get your antioxidants.” says Libby. We’re entirely convinced we have that gene, so thankfully we’re alright.
And so this leaves us where exactly?
Well balance is obviously incredibly important, especially for those of us who enjoy the night time as much as we do the day. And just because we go out and drink tasty cocktails and delicious wine, even the occasional mouth-watering beer (with the option to make some better choices now) it doesn’t mean we’ve somehow unzipped all the good work of exercise and nutritional food. But rather than going crazy and then spending a week on juice we need to try and find the middle ground. So yes, the two worlds can be more integrated. You can have both – your green juice and your Martini. We’ll cheers (responsibly, moderately and with more mindfulness) to that.