When we consider getting in-shape and healthy, most of us focus on eating and exercising. While paying attention to what we eat, (single ingredient, pasture-raised, local, organic and wild food), and being involved in healthy, fun movement, (dancing, skiing, biking, running, walking in nature, yoga, bowling, tennis, rowing, kickball, gardening, etc.), are both important for great health and body reshaping, the buck doesn’t stop there.
Frequently, we forget to look at what we drink. I’m referring to both alcoholic as well as non-alcoholic beverages. So much of what we guzzle down is loaded with sugar, carbs and high, empty calories. (Empty calories, such as those in alcohol and sugar, offer no nutritional benefit and cause us to get fat.)
This article looks at certain alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and their impact on us. My intention is to raise awareness of the sugar content in these beverages. Such knowledge will hopefully lead to a new drinking mindfulness as well as improved drinking options. My wish is for this information to support and assist in your quest for optimal health and body.
While alcohol is a toxin if over consumed, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect all people to stop drinking all together. Nor should we necessarily abstain from drinking given the documented health benefits gained from moderate alcohol consumption. Certainly, if we want to lose weight, the less alcohol, (and soda, juice, sports drinks and flashy coffees) we drink, the more likely we will reach our desired weight.
Consider this. When we prepare our favorite foods, there are tweaks we can make so the meal is healthier while still tasty and satisfying. Frequently, this can be accomplished by removing a food with less nutritional value for one loaded with nutrients. I think of my replacement of regular pasta with spiralized zucchini which makes for a lovely spaghetti-like zucchetti! Fantastic!
The same is true of the beverages we drink. Truth be told, if we give our taste buds a chance to catch up to the tweaks we make, it’s not unusual to feel equally satisfied or even more satisfied with the newer, healthier version of our favorite food/drink.
Let’s talk sugar
Sugar in all its forms is harmful. Whenever we eat or drink, one of our most important goals is to become actively aware of the sugar content. You can accomplish this by looking, usually on the side of the package, for the nutritional information of the beverage or food. There you will see the ingredients as well as the grams of carbohydrates and sugar.
Since one teaspoon of sugar equals four grams, to find out how many teaspoons of sugar are in your favorite sports drink, soda, protein bar, etc., simply divide the number by four. Also, make sure to read how many servings are in the bottle, can, or package. If there are more than one, (which frequently is the case), you need to multiply the number of servings with the sugar or carb grams, then divide by four.
There are all types of sugars including honey, fruit sugar, (fructose), maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave, coconut sugar, etc. Sugar also goes by many names and frequently ends in ‘ose’ on the food/drink packages– sucrose, glucose, lactose, etc. The most important point: whichever type of sugar you consume, keep it at a minimum. Between six to nine teaspoons daily spread over the course of the day is tops. Also, try not to ingest more than two teaspoons of sugar at any one time. This tweak alone will lead anyone to a healthier body and mind.
Shockingly, the average American consumes 48 teaspoons of sugar daily in their food and drink! Sugar is an addictive substance and lights up in the reward center of the brain in the same way as alcohol, heroin, cocaine and other drugs. Therefore, the more sweet things we ingest, the more our brain sends us messages to eat and drink sugar.
According to the Jelly Bean Study, liquid sugar is significantly more dangerous than sugar from solid foods. When compared to people who drank 450 calories of soda, people who ate 450 calories in the form of jelly beans ended up eating less food later.1 This research shows that when you drink your calories, your brain doesn’t elicit the same fullness signals that are generated when you eat them instead.
Soda, sweetened iced tea, unsweetened orange juice, unsweetened grape juice, fruit punch, lemonade, and sports beverages all have between 32 and 54 grams of fat-storing sugar per 12 oz. serving.
This is a huge contributing factor to the obesity epidemic because food manufacturers purposely use label loopholes like all natural or 100% fruit juice to trick folks into believing these sugar-laden drinks are healthy.
Don’t be fooled. Beware instead of the deliberately misleading marketing terms on packaged, processed drinks and food! By honing in on the nutrition content box for actual grams of sugar and carbs we have a fighting chance for accurate information.
Sad, but true, artificial sweeteners are even worse than sugar. They have potential to cause inflammation, some cancers and to even confuse the brain. After drinking a Diet Coke, for example, our brain is initially satisfied by its sweetness. Shortly thereafter though, the brain realizes it was not fed sugar. Consequently, we are bombarded by our brain with messages to eat or drink sugar. Not complying with these messages, especially when we’re not mindful, is nearly impossible.
Healthier Beverage Options
Romy Dollle’ in Fruit Belly² writes, “When drinking alcohol, stick with good quality gluten-free products. A glass or two of dry, organic red wine, a shot of rum, (made of sugar cane), brandy or cognac, (made of grapes), or a good quality tequilla, (made of agave), are options. Beer is better to avoid since it contains gluten, (which hurts the gut), and carbohydrates which contribute to the well-known beer belly. If beer is a must, try a light, gluten-free version.” Green’s Gluten-Free beer is a popular option.
Let’s have a look at some of the more popular types of drinks, and see what can be tweaked into a healthier, cleaner, less caloric and lower sweetened beverage. Reducing empty calories, carbs, sugar, (without resorting to artificial sweeteners), will help us to reshape and maintain optimal health.
Please note, I never insist on the notion of never again. I believe that the poison is in the dose. If you want to drink a Budweiser here and there, go for it and enjoy. Having several beers daily though will invariably lead to growing a beer belly. So, intermittent consumption of our favorite foods or beverages is fine provided it doesn’t lead to out of control binging. If you find you can’t stop eating or drinking something once you start, it’s most likely better to abstain. Use your best, honest judgement.
Coffee and Coffee Drinks – For starters, I recommend making your coffee at home and upgrading to an organic coffee bean. An 8 oz. cup or two of black coffee daily can actually be beneficial due to the caffeine and its impact on our alertness. Too much though becomes acidic and can damage our teeth and body. If you take your coffee with sugar or artificial sweetener, try reducing the amount of sweetener used by ½ teaspoon every two weeks. Should you enjoy milk or cream, consider buying organic.
If you’re into those sugary coffee beverages, Frappuccino and all the others, buy the smallest cup size available. I also recommend strongly that you give Bullet Proof Coffee, aka Super Joe, a try. It tastes just like a cappuccino and it’s so darn good for us! Speedy recipe: After making your organic coffee, pour the same into a blender and add one tablespoon of unsalted, grass-fed butter and one tablespoon of 8MCT oil, (the crème della crème of coconut oil.) Blend for approximately 30 seconds, then pour the contents back into your cup. It’s frothy and truly luscious. Plus, you’ll get all the healthy benefits of these great fats. (Healthy fats by the way don’t make us fat. Sugar makes us fat and sick.)
Juice/Smoothie – Fresh squeezed orange juice sounds like a great way to start the day, right? Not really. Did you know that one glass of orange juice contains about as much sugar as a glass of soda? It takes about four oranges to make a glass of juice. With fiber removed, plus all the extra fruit needed to make a glass of juice, insulin (the fat storage hormone) levels spike. The same thing of course holds true for a seemingly healthy smoothie. My strong recommendation is to eat, rather than drink, fruit. I doubt that any of us are up for eating four oranges in one sitting.
Fruit is nutritious but too much and it becomes glorified candy. If you enjoy some juice in the morning, I recommend drinking out of a smaller glass. Adding fresh, filtered water to dilute the juice also goes a long way in reducing the calories and sugar content. Do you like tomato juice? It contains far less sugar than most other juices and therefore is a much healthier juice option.
Sports Drinks – After running around and working up a sweat, we frequently reach for those artificially colored and flavored sports drinks. Yikes! They are loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners. Not good. The most effective way to hydrate continues to be good, old-fashioned water. The body is simply able to assimilate water the easiest.
Adding cucumber in water is delicious and extremely alkalizing for the body. A mix of fresh citrus squeezes are tasty as well. Lemon/lime is one I especially enjoy. I recommend you drink three to four quarts of this superstar beverage daily.
Alert: When drinking from a plastic bottle, make sure it’s a BPA-free container. I drink Fiji water which is clearly labeled BPA-free. BPA, a chemical used in the production of plastic and the lining of aluminum cans, is known to leach out from these bottles into our drinks and food. The BPA causes estrogenic hormone abnormalities which influence the development of man boobs and reduces testosterone. Women, the estrogenic disruptions of BPA is harmful to us as well.
Coconut water is healthy and contains high levels of electrolytes. It makes for an excellent substitute of laboratory created sports drinks. Make sure to avoid flavored coconut water, (or flavored anything for that matter), as it always means more added sugar. If you’re not fond of coconut water, be creative. Cut up an organic strawberry or two, drop in the pieces and enjoy the wonderful strawberry essence.
Soda/Tonic Water – Regular soda, including tonic water, contains more than nine teaspoons of sugar per 12 oz. serving! The maximum amount of daily sugar the American Heart Association recommends in teaspoons is: Men- 9; Women-6, Teenagers-5-8, Children-3/4. Also, just for the record, tonic water is SODA. It is not club soda or seltzer. Unlike tonic water, neither club soda nor seltzer contain sugar.
Artificially sweetened beverages are worse for the body than sugar. Studies also show that people who drink artificially sweetened sodas gain more weight than those who drink regular soda. It’s frustrating, but true. Moreover, carbonation in any beverage is highly acidic and leads to depletion of calcium in our bones. Ugh!
If you must have soda, then try this very interesting alternative: Zevia Soda – zero calories, zero sugar, no artificial sweeteners, no caramel color, non-GMO. It’s sweetened with Stevia Leaf Extract. While some are not fond of stevia, I recommend you give this soda a try just the same. It’s available at Whole Foods Market, Fairway, Gristedes Supermarket, D’Agostino’s, your local health food stores, etc.
While toxic in larger quantities, there are some legitimate scientific reasons to enjoy alcohol in moderation. Alcohol is a blood thinner and thereby enhances vascular health. Moderate drinking* appears to lower the incidence of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and more.
Pacing ourselves while drinking alcohol is always a good idea. For those of us who tend to guzzle, try breaking up those beer cans or glasses of wine with a glass of water in between. This will help to keep you better hydrated, (thus helping to alleviate hangover symptoms), as well as give your body extra time to break down and discard the alcohol from your body.
As I coach in eating, I coach in drinking; go slowly, be mindful and enjoy. If getting a buzz is part of what you like from your alcoholic imbibe, then have a drink on an empty stomach. It will take less alcohol to feel the impact of whatever you’re drinking.
If getting a buzz is not of interest, then eat something fatty like a rich cheese before and while drinking. An old secret in certain Mediterranean countries is to take a spoonful of olive oil before a night of drinking. It coats the gut and prevents some alcohol absorption.
Note: If you’ve overdone it with the drinks, down a container of coconut water before going to sleep. Non-alcoholic fluids before bed can mitigate the worst of what’s to come the morning after.
The following alcoholic beverages are listed in order from healthiest, (fewest additives, carbs, and sugars), to least healthy.
Red Wine – Dry red wine is your best option. With 3-5 grams of carbs per glass, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Malbec, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, etc. are all good options. Health-wise, red wine offers polyphenols, (compounds that have anti-oxidant properties), and resveratrol, (a super anti-oxidant). Moreover, studies indicate that people who drink two glasses of red wine per day had higher levels of beneficial gut bacteria and lower levels of pathogenic bad bacteria in the gut. Red wine consumed with a meal can also slow and moderate blood sugar!
When drinking wine, please seriously consider organic red wines. Grapes are one of the most heavily sprayed crops. Drink organic to avoid pesticide consumption and build up in your body. Also, organic red wine boasts higher anti-oxidant and resveratrol content. Reasonably priced organic wines can be found on-line and in more and more wine shops. If your local shop doesn’t have any, let them know you’d like organic.
I buy organic red wine both in-shop and on-line. FitVine Wine is available on-line. It is non-GMO, pesticide-free, has zero residual sugar, a ten times higher level of resveratrol and 1/3 fewer carbs, sulfites and calories! Plus, it tastes terrific with an evening meal. Cheers!
Wood Aged Spirits – Whiskey, Brandy, Scotch, Tequila and Cognac – Zero carbs are a bonus right from the start with these choices! Also, research has found impressive antioxidant levels in Bourbon whiskey, Armagnac brandy and cognac. Whiskey in fact contains more free radical fighters than red wine. And, attention diabetics and pre-diabetics: a small study has found that a daily serving of tequila in a 30-day period decreased insulin sensitivity. Wood aging is believed to deliver these benefits.
Fun Hint: Add some alcohol to organic berries and you’ll get a 30% hike in the fruits’ antioxidant activity! Years ago, my grandfather would put cut up pieces of a peach into his glass of red wine. He was certainly on to something.
White Wine – Red wine contain five to ten times more phenols than white. Plus, there is no resveratrol in white wines. If you’re a white wine fan, you can still enjoy a nice dose of anti-oxidants for 3-5 grams of carbs per glass. Always stick with dry wines whether red or white.
Light Beer – Beer holds its own with white wine in terms of anti-oxidant activity. Carb content is usually around 3-6 grams, (although Michelob and some others are more like 11). They contain around 100 calories. I don’t like the gluten-factor with beer. More and more of us are becoming gluten-sensitive and beer only exacerbates this gut-wrenching condition.
Other Spirits – Vodka, Gin, Clear Rum – They don’t come with carbs nor do they offer much of anything in the way of anti-oxidants. The alcohol content itself though can boost vascular health.
Hard Cider – While offering an impressive and healthy anti-oxidant boost, the carbs typically measure around 15 grams per glass.
Regular Beer – Beer offers an anti-oxidant boost, but at 10-15 grams of carbs, there seem to be better choices to be had. The basic Guinness variety falls into this category as well. Calorie and carb count for beer can often be deceiving. Darker and heavier doesn’t always mean more calories and carbs. You can explore more here.
Sugary Alcoholic Imbibes – Goodness me, with the following sugary drinks you could be looking at 15 grams of carbs and up to a whopping 40+ grams of added sugar. Hard lemonade, jello shots, packaged or otherwise sweetened hard liquor drinks like Smirnoff Ice, Fuzzy Navels, American schnapps, cordials, liqueurs – Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Irish Cream, Kahlua, and Frangelico, etc. are all loaded with sugar.
Within this category also falls frozen drinks. Did you know that a 20 ounce Frozen Margarita contains approximately 1,400 calories and 39 teaspoons of sugar! Most pretty, fun, frozen summertime vacation drinks are loaded with calories, sugar and carbs. Buyer beware but don't despair. There are options that will tremendously reduce your calorie and sugar intake of this type of imbibe.
Traditional packaged mixers contain high fructose corn syrup, colorants, preservatives and stabilizers. If you love your margarita and can’t bear the thought of going without on a special occasion, try Be Mixed. This is a cocktail mixer that is zero calorie, sugar-free, (sweetened with erythritol which doesn’t cause gastric distress like other sugar-alcohol sweeteners), gluten-free, preservative-free and colored with organic vegetable juice.
The mixer comes individually packaged in small glass bottles and flavors include Cucumber Mint, Ginger Lime and Margarita. This is a far healthier mixer option! You can also use Zevia soda with Be Mixed for a greatly reduced calorie and sugar imbibe!
This article is not an endorsement of drinking alcohol or sugary beverages. However, if you do enjoy drinking in moderation, then consider trying the options presented to help maintain your body’s health and authentic size. Keep it simple and be mindful while drinking and eating.
Of course, you aren’t missing out if you choose to abstain from drinking beverages other than water. In some cases, I’d even recommend it. The aim of this article is to support readers who do drink in making educated, healthier choices amongst the many drinking options out there.
To your good health. Salute!
2 R. Dolle’, Fruit Belly, (Malibu CA, Primal Blueprint Publishing, 2015): 94-96
* According to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism, (NIAA), a moderate amount of drinking is defined as up to four alcoholic drinks for men and three for women in any single day with a maximum of 14 drinks for men and 7 drinks for women per week.