Home All About Your Body Q&A Wednesday: Is There A Place For Alcohol In Clean Eating?

Q&A Wednesday: Is There A Place For Alcohol In Clean Eating?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: I’m pretty sure it’s there, just need some guidance on the ramifications of alcoholic beverages on your diet (caloric intake)?

Welp. Here goes nothin’.

I used to bartend. I also used to work in a wine bar. Needless to say… I love my spirits, and I was hard pressed to be separated from them.

That is… until I abstained from them (and smoking) for exactly one year. I can count on my left hand the number of times I’ve drank in the past 12 months… most of which have occurred within the past two months. (But in all fairness, the Colts drive me to drink. Just kidding… sorta.)

With alcohol… you know that overindulgence damages the liver, but do we all know why? Furthermore, do we know the resulting effect of alcohol on the body?

I mean, let’s get this out of the way early – alcohol is absolutely not “clean.” It is a chemical – a fermented version of sugars from various sources, be they potatoes, agave plants, grapes, molasses, berries, barley, whatever.

The fermented version of these sources is, in fact, considered a “foreign substance” inside the body. It does not provide nutritional benefit. It does not provide sustenance. It does not fill up the body. It does not provide energy. If anything, it slows you down and make you binge on garbage food. (At least, it did in college… or maybe that’s because all the food in college was garbage food. Not sure.)

When the body ingests something it considers a “foreign substance,” the substance is then passed down to the liver to be “handled.” The liver is the “detoxifying” organ. That’s one of its jobs. The liver digests the substance… converts it into an energy source, and then sees to it that the energy source is properly stored away for future use.

Read that again:

The liver digests the substance… converts it into an energy source, and then sees to it that the energy source is properly stored away for future use.

That means it is stored away as fat.

Overworking the liver can cause all kinds of maladies, specifically liver disease. (Remember: high fructose corn syrup overworks the liver as well because it is seen as a “foreign substance,” lending itself to non-fatty liver disease.. and we’re alllllllll all up in arms over that one.) That’s the big issue, here. Regular indulgence of alcohol does exactly that – it overworks the liver, resulting not only in liver problems, but in the excess fat as well. Think “freshman 15:” it doesn’t all come from ramen noodles.

(See how that works? Internal problems result in outward reflection of the real issue. Drink too much, gain weight because of it. No one can tell me weight and wellness aren’t linked together.)

That being said… is it ideal for someone to give up alcohol completely? Yes. Is that possible at all times? It is a challenge. It’s hard because I know that alcohol fuels addiction just like regular sugars – although they are two different issues triggering two different emotions in the brain – but I also know that there are people who do enjoy the occasional drink (and by occasional, I mean one event every couple of months) and don’t get sloppy drunk. There are different levels to enjoying alcohol, different elements to those levels of enjoyment and different ways to qualify each.

Like, for instance – when we hear about “a glass of wine a day…” that’s not talking about our bodies. That’s talking about “how much we can drink without it causing our insides harm,” and even then those figures are questionable (…and probably funded by a wine producer’s association.) That doesn’t change the fact that the ethanol in the drink is still converted to fat inside the body. If you’re someone who wants to be conscious of that… you’ll limit your wine intake to the rare-yet-amazing-one-of-a-kind-bottle that you can get your hands on… not the two-buck-chuck, no matter how dope it may be.

And with hard liquor, what do you do? Throw back shots? You certainly don’t mix it with a soft drink. Yeesh.

I mean, let’s be realistic. Sometimes, you want to indulge. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You do have to temper your indulgences the same way you should temper anything else that is not clean. Keep it as rare as possible. And no, I don’t mean “moderation.” I mean “keep it a rarity.” Save it for the most special of events and situations.

If you’re at a networking event or something similar, where you’re letting your hair down with other similarly-situated professionals, liquor will be everywhere. If I don’t want it, I ask the bartender for a glass of water with ice, and talk a little slower than normal. No one’s gonna question what’s in your glass and if they do.. it’s vodka and water or it’s “none of your business, nosy!” When I’m in that situation and I know I want a drink, I get a screwdriver – orange juice and vodka. That’s my go-to drink.

Do I believe in abstaining from alcohol? Absolutely. After giving it up for a year straight, then indulging a bit at my leisure… I don’t know that I see a need for it in my life anymore. It has the same effect on me that sugar does when I partake, now – it’s nowhere near as exciting, nowhere near as engaging, and feels more like a burden than anything else.

For those that don’t want to take that route, my best advice is the same as it is for indulging in basic sweets – scale back, save them for the most special of occasions and keep them as rare as possible. Your body (inside and out) will thank you for it!

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Nicole December 22, 2010 - 1:25 PM

Many sighs…..

Pretty Keish December 22, 2010 - 2:04 PM

Great post. I haven’t found myself needing or even wanting it as of late. Work was VERY stressful the last 2 weeks and instead of coming home and de-stressing with a bottle of moscato, I walked 3 miles. Same feel-good end result, except my body will love me for walking 😉

VM December 22, 2010 - 2:05 PM

I agree. I have been doing slightly more social drinking now than I ever have in my life because of a new set of friends I’ve acquired (had some egg nog with rum at a X-mas party last Saturday and had some champagne to celebrate my husband’s 40th a couple of months ago), but on a basic level, my alcohol consumption is and always has been extremely few and far between.

Michele Simon December 22, 2010 - 2:43 PM

Thanks for this important post. Having worked on nutrition policy for many years, I now also work to prevent alcohol problems. I find this issue is very misunderstood and not taken seriously enough by people concerned about good health. In fact, many who care about good eating make jokes about drinking too much and / or glorify drinking, especially wine, as if wine doesn’t contain alcohol the same as the rest.

Women especially need to be cautious about intake due to our bodies being more vulnerable to the effects. Even one glass per day has been shown to increase cancer risk. I do not abstain, but am more cautious and will be even more now after reading this post. If folks want to learn about the political influence of the alcohol industry, visit my org’s website: http://www.marininstitute.org

Erika December 22, 2010 - 3:03 PM

I am so honored and humbled by you commenting here, Michele!

Please believe that after I finish you and Nestle’s books, I’ll do my best to help spread the word about the work y’all do and the reality you’ve brought to light. Really amazing, important stuff.

For more information on Michele’s work, there’s also her book, Appetite for Profit.

Crystal December 22, 2010 - 2:57 PM

I agree Erika, on occasion one maybe two glasses of wine within a three week span but that’s it (stressful times at the job girl, you feel me-sob,sob)I heard a trainer tell someone that was whining about their workout, ‘Would you like Red or White with that whine’ SMH. Heck, I’ll have both! hmmmph.lol

finomenal1 December 22, 2010 - 3:11 PM

Dammit Erika! You always have such good reasons for me to stop putting garbage in my body, but don’t take away my Beautifuls (my go-to drink)! No really, I used to throw them back with no abandon in my twenties, but as I embark upon my clean eating journey I am really questioning why I need to drink so much? I go out a lot, but I don’t find it as much fun to get sloppy drunk. Maybe its from getting older because I can’t handle it like I used to? (shrug) I also din’t need any extra, unneccessary calories. I can have plenty of fun without all that. Anyway, as always super informative and something to think about. I’ll have a funeral for my Hennesy this weekend…(sniffle)

Curlstar December 22, 2010 - 4:38 PM

I really don’t drink that often, but this is still good to know.

Nat December 22, 2010 - 5:29 PM

Thanks for this. I am so conflicted because I know you’re right… but I don’t like it, LOL. I can honestly say that I have noticed a huge difference in the way my body responds to diet and exercise when I drink versus when I don’t drink. My body retains weight when I drink (and we’re only talking 4 drinks a week, if that, usually 1-2 drinks a week). When I have little or no alcohol all of the hard work that I do in the gym really pays off. When I drink, it all goes south.

Great article… even if I don’t like it! LOL

Crissle December 22, 2010 - 8:38 PM


Sara December 22, 2010 - 9:39 PM

WEll Erika…girl you just hit the nail on the head for me. I have known that my love for my drinks were going to have to come to a end sooner or later. Now i’m 42yrs old and have been a drinker since my 20’s and i enjoyed drinking and having fun (so i thought)my friends all drank, we hung out, ate and drank, drank and ate. So the end result was a 130lbs over weight ex-smoker (trying to be) that is trying to get in shape and live a better live. I have gotten myself and my family eating as clean as i can, and the results have been great so far. BUT there is this one little thing that keeps poking it’s head into my life and it’s the drinks, i have reduced my drinks to once a week, changed to red wines instead of the Vodka and cran, thinking that the sugars would be less and better for me….well 1 bottle or 2 bottles??? I found that i tried to make up for the drinking i wasn’t doing during the week in 1 day. Needless to say that does not work, for one the hangover would make my workout hard and the lack of food made me hold onto my weight. I have made up my mind to let the drinks go all together now, i don’t miss it at all, matter of fact i’m scared of it, i’m doing so well on my new way of life that i refuse to let it in to mess things up for me. I know this will reduce the time spent with my friends because they all go hard on the drinks and i’m just not there with them like that. I don’t want to make them feel bad, or that i’m turning my nose up to them, i’ve tried to just do the sit down and chat with them w/o having food or drinks be a part of it…but they become uncomfortable with me because i’m not drinking with them and i almost feel like they are kinda offended by me not drinking with them. I’m trying to get them to try a healthier way of life but dont want to come off as a know it all since i’ve only changed my life a few months ago. I know i have to find a way to get around this…but i will not compromise on my health any longer for the sake of making someone feel ok about getting drunk. Thank you Erika for this site…i read you everyday like the newspaper!

Wondering December 23, 2010 - 12:23 PM

I really want to forward this article to my friend who comes from an alcoholic family and is struggling with controlling her drinking habits as well as trying to lose weight, but I am afraid it might offend her. Erika, should I just send it anyway?

Erika December 23, 2010 - 12:37 PM

I honestly believe it would offend her. I’m not going to lie. I mean, it’d be one thing for you to send her a link to the site and say “there’s a lot of good info there” (not meaning to toot my own horn at all)… but it’s another thing entirely to send her a link to this particular post and be like “You need to read this.” I’m always conscious of the fact that people might be sending my posts to their loved ones and the loved ones might take offense…

…and I also know that some people can benefit from the kind of community we’ve created, here. So… that being said, I’d tread extremely lightly. Only you know whether or not she’d be offended to the point where she couldn’t benefit from the conversation had, here.

Nat December 23, 2010 - 12:42 PM

@Wondering, I agree 1000% with Erika. You’re not sending it to a friend who is looking to lose some pounds/inches and improve her diet. Trust me, as someone who has experience with dealing with the situation you’re in… if you want to talk to her about her situation, TALK to her about it… and then mention some of the info in the article. If she seems interested, THEN forward it to her. Please keep in mind that you are dealing with someone who is an addict and has a chemical dependency that she is likely very ashamed of and wants to quit… but can’t. She is also likely to be very hyper sensitive about all of this. Deal with her carefully and with consideration.

Good luck…

Wondering December 24, 2010 - 2:01 AM

Thanks, Erika, for your candid response! I appreciate it.

@Nat: Actually, as I wrote above, she is looking to lose some weight but has been having trouble with losing it as quickly as she wants. She has been working out a lot, so I believe she’s gaining a lot of muscle and not seeing much movement on the scale. She has admitted that drinking is a bit of a challenge for her, and I think that may also be contributing to her slow weight loss, which is why I didn’t want to send this particular post because I wasn’t sure how she might take it. However, after reading Erika’s response, I think I will leave well enough alone!

Dr Murray Riggins January 23, 2011 - 12:56 PM

Great job Erika. I have a weightloss practice and deal with my own weightloss issues. To know and not do is as much a problem as to not know and not do. Hence, so many overweight medical prodessionals are in personal denial. Your straight talk on the issue of alcohol sabotaging weightloss is on point and has challenged me to commit to abstaining just like soft drinks, deserts, and breads. Thanks for giving it to me straight …no chaser.

Angela February 23, 2011 - 1:51 PM

I just found your site last week. OMG I really love it! I have been so motivated with this site. I have wrote out a home routine on exercise, and hubby and I have made a comitment to walk every night. This week has been great for us.
Oh and I have given up the SALT. No season salt, kosher, lawyers, Adbo. NOTHING but onion powder, garlic of course, crush peper, basil, ect. all the good and healthy stuff. :o)

curlsz May 16, 2012 - 1:37 PM

honestly i’d be surprised if someone who is truly eating clean could drink more than 1-2 drinks and not feel sick – that was one of the first things I noticed when I started eating clean – more than one glass of wine and I would feel sick – headache, stomach ache, couldn’t sleep, felt dehydrated, even if I had had a lot of water – now it’s evened out to about 2 drinks, past that and I’m sick – so I keep it at one – and it’s an every once in a while like maybe once a month thing.

Kami February 23, 2013 - 10:41 AM

Hi Erika and other ladies because I am doing this clean eating I feel about drinking. Now i am a social drinker. I only started drinking in graduate school. People always want me to drink to loosen me up. I feel pressured into drinking with certain friends. Even though I go out every month. Should I lie and tell them I have health problems so I will not be pressured into drinking?

43fitness June 20, 2013 - 12:19 AM

Great stuff here…found you via trextotigress, and look forward to reading more. I am recently and totally on the wagon for many reasons, but love the technical aspects you laid out here. Thank you!

Joani March 18, 2019 - 9:40 AM

Great article! Now that I have been eating clean, when I do have a few cocktails it takes days to recover amd feels like poison to my body. I’m thinking to just ditch it for only special occasions. Thanks for the good read.

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