Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
7 Oct

Choose Your Booze: A Guide to Healthy Drinking

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.

Top Shelf

Red Wine

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.

Another bonus with red? Resveratrol – that super antioxidant, able to combat cancer and reduce signs of aging, among other feats.

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.)

White Wines

Sure, red wines generally contain about five to ten times more phenols than white wines. And as for resveratrol? Nada. If you’re a diehard white wine lover, don’t sweat the occasional glass. You’ll still enjoy a healthful dose of antioxidants for around 3-5 grams of carbs.

Light Beers

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

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.

Regular Beer

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.

Sugar Swill

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.

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. A couple hardliners here are suggesting that Mark is doing a great disservice to everyone by writing up this article. They say but alcohol isn’t ‘healthy’ or ‘primal’. I think that Mark is actually doing us all a great service. Sometimes you get wrapped up in an idealistic lifestyle concept that alienates you from everyone. Thank god Mark isn’t this super dogmatic nutrition guru, he makes us feel like it’s okay to indulge once in a while. Some people see food as being white or black, good or bad. I don’t want to see food like that because I know what it does to you, you become paranoid.
    Thanks for posting great articles like this one Mark, I really appreciate it.

    Erika wrote on October 8th, 2009
    • Erika,

      I completely agree. Lifestyles like the Primal Blueprint, which are healthy and exciting to learn about and try, can be very difficult transitions for people, particularly because (however unfortunate it may be) they are not in the mainstream. We are confronted every day with modern, non-primal temptations and marketing (and I am not just talking about processed food in the grocery store…there are also ethnic foods and flavors, baked goods, alcohol, lack of sleep/time in the day, socializing without alienating ourselves, etc). I can’t help but wonder if the emotional and mental stress of trying to maintain “perfect” primal health and the guilt we feel when we occasionally cannot do it doesn’t negate the health benefits from going primal in the first place. I appreciate Mark’s understanding that we still have to live vibrant, individual lives – and hopefully if we are as primal as we can be under the circumstances (80/20), healthy and long ones, too!

      SK wrote on October 8th, 2009
  2. Duke

    Like the military web forums attract certain types of people. Most internet forums have “internet tough guys”. This site has very, very few of those people. Try reading through a bodybuilding forum it is hard to beleive there are such acid people around. Also I think comments are worded harsher than is meant.

    Regarding Grok and alcohol though, Grok would most certainly have consumed ethanol. Yeast uses sugar to produce ethanol. Yeast has been around way longer than humans or mammals even and is found naturaly on the blush of fruits.

    So sure Grok would not have drank beer, wine, mead, spirits, etc. but certainly fermented fruit of some sort.

    The fact we can use ethanol as fuel is proof. It’s not like we can use isopropyl alcohol for fuel.

    chima_p wrote on October 8th, 2009
  3. Yeah!

    I’d say it’s about time this article came out, nice job guys!

    Personally, I’ll stick to the Light Beer but if I come across any Red Wine, I’ll be sure to take it.

    I’m sure that Grok did somehow drink fermented fruit in his lifetime, but I’m sure it was an occasional thing. I keep my drinking very sparingly and because of that, I get a great buzz from only two or three beers. Party on!

    Martin P wrote on October 8th, 2009
  4. Light beer? Are you f*&@ing kidding me?

    Alex wrote on October 8th, 2009
  5. I have always been confused by the calorie counts of alcoholic beverages. If you look at a beer and do the math on calories per gram of fat, carbs, and protein as listed on the label, it does not sum to equal the number of calories on the label!
    Does any one know what the other calories are?

    Tom wrote on October 8th, 2009
    • BTW, I guess this applies to all alcohols.

      If a shot of vodka has 96 calories and zero carbs, are we to assume there is fat and protein in the 1 1/2 ounce shot?

      If so, fat-free vodka could be an excellent source of protein (19 grams)!

      Tom wrote on October 8th, 2009
      • pardon my math error…it would be 24 grams of fun-loving protein.

        Tom wrote on October 8th, 2009
      • The body metabolizes 7 calories per unit(g,ml?) of alcohol.

        chima_p wrote on October 8th, 2009
        • So shouldn’t that be considered a carb, at least for dietary reasons? And I am speaking in terms of health concerns not FDA definitions.

          Messages above indicate the body metabolizes alcohol like it does fructose.

          Is this the right way to view it?

          Tom wrote on October 8th, 2009
      • No protein in Vodka, sorry :(

        7 calories/gram alcohol.

        Jenn wrote on July 14th, 2010
  6. 80/20 is adequate probably for “healthy” people but those with a weight or health problem should stick to a strict primal diet until their problems are resolved. I recommend the “phase one diet” by Doug Kauffman. It is Prima and Mark often appears on KNOW THE CAUSE as a guest and advertiser. Go to http://www.know-the-cause.com and view thw FAQS. One of the no-nos on the diet is alcohol as it is mycotoxic. Also grains, peanuts, and sugary fruits.

    Gordon wrote on October 8th, 2009
  7. I’d like to think Grok would skip ETOH altogether and go find a coca leaf or Peyote.

    I have a question as to relation of alcohol use and ability to perform working out.
    When I go out, I usually exceed the suggested dosage and go for a higher theraputic level, somewhere in the 2-3 pints of beer. I do this once a week.
    Sometimes I feel sluggish at the daily workout at 1730, sometimes I don’t. How long does drinking like that affect performance?

    Tim wrote on October 8th, 2009
  8. FWhile discovering the many benefits of going Primal…it seems that some people take a turn towards the fanatical.

    Some of you need to lighten up. You don’t “win” because you are MORE primal than somebody else.

    Moderate alcohol consumption has health benefits? Maybe that is debate-able on a purely biological level…but for every person that becomes an alcoholic and destroys their life through abuse, there are an exponential number of people that do not abuse it, use it moderately, and gain a lot of benefits from it.

    Is not the whole point of “living primal” to give you the best opportunity to live an enjoyable life?

    So what’s wrong with eating healthy, exercising regularly and being in great shape physically…unwinding once in awhile and having a few drinks with good friends and having a good time?

    Some of you deride it as “conforming to peer pressure.”

    Moderate alcohol consumption FEELS GOOD. To deny this is just dumb.

    Used moderately, it is relaxing, and yes, it does help people “loosen” up.

    That being said…once in awhile, my wife and I will have dinner parties…and sometimes, we like to have “mexican” night.

    And let me tell you, I would be an asinine, OCD-head case if I were to stop making my excellent, home-made Hawaiian mango margarita’s that everyone I know loves, simply to adhere to some concept of Primal perfection.

    But what I have done, is throw out the use of commercially made, HFCS laden sweet and sour mix. Instead, I buy organic, fresh squeezed lemon juice and mix it with fresh squeezed lime juice and sweeten it up with a bit of Grand Marinier or Contrieau.

    Yeah, there’s a bit of sugar in it. But so what? I eat Primal 95% of my life. An occasional indulgence is not going to “de-rail” or “ruin” all of the efforts and personal focus I’ve put into eating wholesome and healthy for the majority of my life.

    And it is certainly a blast to make margarita’s and have long time bartenders tell me I make the best margarita’s they’ve ever had. They can’t believe my secret — that the key is to avoid the HFCS-based “sweet and sour mix” and use the real thing!

    Dave from Hawaii wrote on October 8th, 2009
    • AMEN BROTHER!

      Tom wrote on October 20th, 2009
  9. I can think of no other thread on this blog that justifies compromise. Most threads unequivocally teach us how to live primally. The recipes are primal. This is the first one I have seen that celebrates a bad habit…drinking alcohol. The purpose of primal living is not getting a buzz or feeling good but being healthy in the modern world.

    Gordon wrote on October 8th, 2009
  10. I can think of no other thread on this blog that justifies compromise.

    Than you haven’t read or you don’t remember probably one of the most important threads found here, “The 80/20 Principle.”

    This is the first one I have seen that celebrates a bad habit…drinking alcohol.

    Not all alcohol drinking is a bad habit. That’s why Mark stressed MODERATE CONSUMPTION.

    The purpose of primal living is not getting a buzz or feeling good but being healthy in the modern world.

    You don’t think primal living has anything to do with feeling good?!?!?

    Dave from Hawaii wrote on October 8th, 2009
  11. I’ve heard it said that alcoholism is a really extreme sweet tooth. I find that when I avoid sugar and starches entirely my craving for alcohol disappears (and I can drink like a college freshman, only without passing out in my own vomit or hooking up with frat boys). For those who can enjoy a daily glass of wine or a beer without wanting to empty the bottle or case, more power to you. For me and for now, however, I have to stay away because it causes problems. Going primal is helping immensely with that.

    Trish wrote on October 8th, 2009
  12. I gave up caffeine, starches and sodas. I be damned if anyone dares to take away my beer and smoke.

    I’ve made piece with my vices and I will have fun and enjoy them. I’ve always been a tiny girl… 5 feet, 102 pounds since adulthood. Even if I weren’t, I would still keep in mind where my 20% is going and what I think it’s worth to me. Better than pharma drugs any day, I say.

    I no longer have the innocence and naivete of youth but I have my beer and my smoke and that makes people MUCH easier to deal with. I will not make any excuse or apologies for it. It is what it is and life (for the most part) is good. 😉

    Good post Mark.

    seporter003 wrote on October 9th, 2009
    • “peace”, not “piece”. *sigh*

      seporter003 wrote on October 9th, 2009
    • All addicts say the same thing about their addictions.

      Gordon wrote on October 9th, 2009
      • Gordon,

        Mind your business and I’ll mind mine.

        Thanks!

        seporter003 wrote on October 9th, 2009
      • Gordon,
        you are kind of a tool. I am sorry to hear your life does not include “feeling good”. What a waste! Maybe a stiff drink now and then would help!

        Jenn wrote on July 14th, 2010
    • > I’ve always been a tiny girl… 5 feet, 102 pounds since adulthood.

      Exactly. You’re a girl, that’s why you’re tiny. Wait until you get older enough and you won’t keep your tininess that easily anymore.

      Peace.

      Elena wrote on September 1st, 2010
  13. All addicts say the same thing about their addictions.

    I guess no one is as PRIMAL as Gordon!

    DUDE, YOU WIN!

    Even Mark is a failure, since it’s obvious that this thread fails to live up to the standards of what exactly constitutes PRIMAL perfection!

    Get over yourself.

    Dave from Hawaii wrote on October 9th, 2009
  14. Really Mark? This one is fail.

    Guinness has 14g for the extra stout and 10g for the draught. If you had a salad with your dinner (a whole whopping 5-6 carbs) and that beer you are talking 16-20g…

    It is also equal or lower in calories per 100mL than MOST comparable beers that taste like watered down horse pee.

    Remember alcohol is 7 cal per gram, while carbs are 4 cal per gram. Again…fail. Alcohol is more calories and yup, calories count.

    George wrote on October 9th, 2009
  15. Not eating grains and limiting dairy, eating abundant amounts of vegetables, meats and fruits, skipping juices… this gets you indeed 80% down the road or more. Sticking to that yet having a glass of wine, a hard drink here and there is a totally different story than when someone is eating a horrible diet and having an occasional drink (or even smoke). I don’t smoke, and wouldn’t recommend someone to start, but if you are, I’m glad that you’re eating a paleo diet rather than a high sugar/carb diet.

    Zach wrote on October 10th, 2009
  16. Finally got around to reading this as I’ve been meaning to for a while. Glad I mostly have been staying away from drinking, mostly sticking to red wine and straight gin when I do. Surprising to see that light beer may be a better choice than gin due to the benefits.

    RogerDeRok wrote on October 10th, 2009
  17. Some folks around here are fanatics. There’s nothing wrong with having a drink now and then especially if your regular diet is healthy.

    Perhaps the people who have extremist views on the subject had an alcohol problem in the past and now they want to impose their ideas on alcohol consumption on everyone else. Kind of like how some folks got together and decided that a grain and wheat based diet is healthy for everyone. The fact is, for every one person who cannot handle alcohol, there are many more that have no problems using it and no health repercussions from it.

    Not everyone has issues with alcohol and on rare or occasional use there is no problem (unless you are an alcoholic). To each his own. Great post!

    vargas wrote on October 10th, 2009
    • Well said.

      I choose not to drink because I know I probably would be an alcoholic (tons of family history & I love the taste). I gorge myself on highly fermented foods. I get enough alcohol from that.

      Easier for me to not drink it at all. Just like grains :)

      Grok wrote on October 10th, 2009
  18. I suffered from stomach pain and burning mostly, couldn’t sleep well and just hated those extra pounds I couldn’t get rid of no matter what I did. Now I stumbled upon this system that is easy and it doesn’t require expensive medication or difficult exercises.

    master cleanse recipe wrote on October 30th, 2009
    • Hi my name is spam.

      Grok wrote on October 30th, 2009
    • yo – Mark! – i think this one is a “remove by moderator” one… :-)

      moksha wrote on November 3rd, 2010
  19. So where does non-alcoholic beer place on this scale? I love beer but quite dislike being drunk so am a huge fan of the stuff.

    Joe90 wrote on November 16th, 2009
  20. Just started P90X and stumbled upon this site. Is there any question on correct eating that you DON’T answer?
    I am a huge fan of Merlot and other red wines. This is great news. Here’s to our health! Cheers!

    Robinana wrote on February 2nd, 2010
  21. Stop peddling this antioxidant bullshit. Please do some research, and you’ll discover that antioxidants have never been proven to do anything.

    chris wrote on May 17th, 2010
  22. I’ve been researching where my favorite drink ‘Sake’ would be on this list, but I’m at a loss. I know this is an old thread but hopefully someone will update it.

    Mike Wootini wrote on June 2nd, 2010
  23. In college I beer was my drink of choice and as a result I struggled with my weight. I switched to Vodka waters and haven’t had a problem since.

    That being said, moderation is really the key of course.

    nathan wrote on June 4th, 2010
  24. “Life is too short to drink light beer…thus it is written…thus it shall be!”

    Buddha wrote on July 16th, 2010
  25. Alcohol may not be good for the liver, and it may not be primal but I drink a cup of red wine with my evening meal anyway. Let me share why it is healthy even those it is mycotoxic.

    After a hard days work we are a little stressed. Our muscles tighten up, we feel stiff in the shoulders and back and neck. This is not healthy. Tight muscles cut off the blood circulation, and starve tissue’s of oxygen. After a cup of red wine I am very very relaxed, and all my muscles are relaxed, and my circulation improves.

    So it is not all bad, my liver may have to do a little extra work, but since I don’t eat grains my liver is not flushing out near the amount of toxins as it used too.

    After reading Dr Eades book ‘Protein Power’it said according to one study of people who ate low carb diets, wine drinkers lost even more weight then those who did not indulge.

    I know that meditation will also relax me too, but life is to short not to enjoy some things.

    Cheers everybody.

    Shauna Ninjagirl wrote on July 24th, 2010

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