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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. This is totally value packed. I was so misguided. I love hennessy(cognac) but had this idea that it was heavy in carbs for some reason. Also underestimated the carbs in beer. Will definitely pay attention to what I order next time I’m out drinking.

    Mike wrote on December 28th, 2011
  2. Hey guys. If you want a list and info about REAL beer and how it fits into a paleo lifestyle check out http://www.itsbetterwithbeer.com

    It’s a record (still in progress…day 77) of a year of 365 Crossfit wods and 365 quality craft beers while eating within Paleo restrictions (minus the beer obviously).

    It’s not so black and white.

    Kristin wrote on January 10th, 2012
  3. What about eating before you drink? I just started the Primal Blueprint, and I feel great. It’s a shock to my system, and after day 4, I stopped craving all the bad things I used to eat. However, I am Irish, and I do drink once or twice a week. Before going Primal, I’d load up on breads and rice, things like that, to keep my stomach calm.. but now, I don’t know what to do! I understand I should just collect my losses and go on with life. But, are there any Primals out there that drink like an Irish man? What do you eat before you drink?

    Rebel_Conservative wrote on June 8th, 2012
  4. Well, I hope a few light beers won’t do too much damage because after the say I have had I am quite certain that all 5 of the miller lites In my fridge will be gone tonight :)

    Jena wrote on June 14th, 2012
  5. Stout, Porter, and Wiskey. If it doesn’t fall in to one of those categories I’d rather have water. I can do Rum and Tequila at least, Vodka and Gin do not sit well with me, not only do I feel like crap later but I get wasted off barely any.

    Morghan wrote on June 28th, 2012
  6. Very rapidly this web page will be famous amid all blog visitors,
    due to it’s pleasant posts

    treatment of cancer wrote on July 7th, 2012
  7. Isn’t most beer made from grains which we’re not supposed to eat anyway? In that context I would say drink the cider over the beer no?

    JesseJe wrote on July 10th, 2012
  8. Moderate alcohol consumption may benefit women’s bone health and lower their risk of developing osteoporosis.
    http://www.besthealthmag.ca/blog/post/news-can-alcohol-improve-bone-health

    Animanarchy wrote on July 14th, 2012
  9. Red wine is oh, so fine. Beer is the enemy! (I let him win for a little bit when it’s hot out…HA!)

    Jim W wrote on August 9th, 2012
  10. I want to try mead.
    Got Mead says “The Norse sagas are littered with mead references, as are many of the old Celtic tales.”
    I’m of Swedish, Scottish, and English heritage and I love honey. Convinced this a good enough basis to try mead beyond curiosity.

    Animanarchy wrote on August 9th, 2012
  11. What about meade?

    William wrote on October 2nd, 2012
    • “mead”

      William wrote on October 2nd, 2012
  12. Hi Mark.
    I do agree that alcohol has some benefits for the human body but overall, it seems that so many studies indicate that the net effect is more detrimental.

    Your comments are appreciated.

    Saeed wrote on October 3rd, 2012
  13. White Russians are not good for us?! Grok is a real reactionary, man. That mastodon fur really tied the cave together…

    skunkbear wrote on October 3rd, 2012
  14. I have just finished Lesson 7, and efore going fully primal,I need to knwo how it would affect my standardised lunch of homemade lunchs more so than my night out. I eat like a Provincial Queen at lunch, Chicken Chasseur or Cacciatore, Beef Bourguignon/ &Guiness and was concerned I might have to sacrifice this amazing tasting food But this post has shown me I can stil eat like a Queen at lunch without too much sacrificed.. Beef and Guiness maybe once a month

    Nicoll wrote on October 28th, 2012
  15. According to Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Diet Solution, the only “Paleo Friendly” buzz is the infamous “Nor-Cal Margarita”. It is as follows….
    2 shots of gold tequila
    Juice of one lime (the whole damn thing!)
    Splash of soda water

    Drink one or two of these on an empty stomach early in your evening.Wrap up the night with some protein and fat, and you are set. You socialized, got your head changed, and didn’t do too much damage to yourself. There is also some chemistry behind the recommendations. The lime juice blunts the insulin release and the carbon dioxide in the soda act as what’s called a “nonpolar solvent”. This extracts the alcohol from the drink and delivers it to your system much faster. Better living through good chemistry! Alcohol is not paleo. This is your best choice if you choose to drink. Most beer is loaded with gluten. The dry red wines have less sugar.

    Marshall Stephenson wrote on January 5th, 2013
  16. What about champagne and prosseco Mark?

    Rayan wrote on January 19th, 2013
  17. Um most beer contains gluten so i really don’t think it makes for a healthy choice at all. Mark isn’t gluten an addictive anti-nutrient? I have noticed regular beer drinkers always look like their skin is sooo dry & red whilst regular wine drinkers, particularily red wine drinkers look like they have a healthier skin colour compared to beer drinkers, also wine drinkers have skin that looks just as moist as those who don’t drink. I suppose this helps to show that beer does inhibit nutrient absorbtion? whilst red wine doesn’t? Since our skin is our bigest organ. For those that hate wine let me say there are many different tasting red wine so i would suggest people sample a few before declaring they hate red wine. Same goes for the second best choice which is white wine. If people try a huge variety of red/white wines and are still replused THEN go to gluten free beer.Regular beer is made from barley. A GLUTENOUS GRAIN! & we all know what damage thise do.

    Ben wrote on February 5th, 2013
  18. Hi Mark,
    I heard that on a Primal Diet, Hard Cider was better than beer because it’s gluten free. Is this true?

    Clara wrote on February 17th, 2013
  19. This is good news, I love my wine and whiskey.

    Bob wrote on March 9th, 2013
  20. Alcohol has been part of human culture for longer than was officially believed, apparently. http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/alcohol-s-neolithic-origins-brewing-up-a-civilization-a-668642.html

    9,000 years ago isn’t quite Paleo (though it misses Late Paleo by an eyelash) but the archeological evidence of mead brewing from that era, already refined to an active cultural art and science, means that 9000 years ago was not the very dawn of alcohol discovery and use by humans. So quite likely, it was going on, before that, as well, and could reasonably be assumed to be part of Late Paleolithic cultures; at least some of them. We are limited to what archeological evidence has been found.

    It seems pointless to me to argue about whether a Paleolithic person might possibly have enjoyed alcohol (and therefore, draw conclusions about whether alcohol is “primal” enough to be healthy) when we have solid enough science showing that for some individuals, moderate alcohol intake is indeed healthy, (with measurable benefits to blood pressure, blood viscosity, cognitive health, and so forth), and for some individuals, the harm seems to outweigh any benefits.

    I don’t think we are all alike. Epigenetics allows for more rapid differentiation of subgroups than previous understandings of human evolution allowed for. We know that descendants of certain tribes of First Peoples in North America, whose ancestors lived healthfully on beans, squash, and maize primarily, with far less meat than their herd-following contemporaries enjoyed, aren’t healthy at all on a diet that strays too far from what their ancestors were healthy on, and their health is optimized, apparently, when they return to their ancestral diet, which was a far cry from the diet of the herd-followers.

    In other words, there is no one universal human “best” for everyone, even genetically. Food and medicines that help a descendant of one group, can be harmful to a descendant of another group. One person’s genetic blueprint may reflect very different reactions to the same inputs, from another’s.

    So I totally respect each person seeking out their own “Grok” to attempt to follow, for better health. Not as easy when most of us are such amalgams of so many different groups, but that’s when you get down to seeing for yourself, what makes you feel healthier, and making decisions on your own, instead of making decisions based on what someone else says. And then stepping back and allowing for the possibility that someone else’s “healthiest” may not be yours, and that doesn’t necessarily make one of you wrong.

    Meg wrote on March 11th, 2013

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