Alcohol appears to drive increased eating. What to do?

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Last week, one of my blog posts featured a letter which highlighted the relationship between television viewing, sleep and body weight. Television viewing is associated with increased risk of obesity, and this association may be due to the tendency for people to eat more as a result of falling prey to TV advertising as well as some ‘mindless eating’ in front of the box. Short sleep is associated with heightened risk of obesity too, again perhaps as a result of a tendency to stimulate food consumption (sleep deprivation is known, for instance, to alter hormone levels in a way which stimulates the appetite).

Today saw the on-line publication of a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which the evidence relating to TV watching, sleep and food consumption was assessed [1]. This review was interesting in that it was based on clinical studies, in which individuals were exposed to TV watching, or sleep deprivation, to see what affect this had on their food intake. These studies give us a very good idea if TV viewing and/or sleep deprivation might actually cause weight gain. And the results of the review show that this does indeed appear to be the case for these two lifestyle factors.

However, this study was also interesting, I think, because it assessed the impact of a third lifestyle factor on food consumption – alcohol. Here again, it appeared that drinking alcohol stimulated increased food consumption. There is some evidence that this might be because alcohol can make food more ‘rewarding’, and drive individuals to eat more than they need to. Alcohol may also, of course, lower our ability to exert self-control.

This is purely anecdotal, but when I see someone who is keen to lose weight, I often ask them where they think their problems stem from. Many individuals cite alcohol and eating a large meal in the evening as their ‘downfalls’. I’ve come to realise over the years that these two things often go together, and this research suggests that the association may not be entirely coincidental.

For a lot of people, one way to get weight moving in the right direction is to have them drink less alcohol. This may have obvious benefits in terms of dispensing with some calories, but might reap dividends here in terms of a reduced food intake too. One other thing worth bearing in mind, is that the observation that drinking less almost always leads to better, less disrupted sleep, which might have a positive impact the following day in the form of lowered appetite and reduced food intake.

Back in August I wrote this blog post about how alcohol can disrupt sleep, as well as offering some tips about simple steps that can be taken to reduce alcohol intake without conscious restriction. Here are the three tips I shared then:

1. Do not start drinking when you’re thirsty
It stands to reason that the thirstier we are, the more we will tend to drink. I know it’s obvious, but the less thirsty we are, the less alcohol we will tend to drink. It makes sense, therefore, to ensure we’re properly hydrated prior to starting drinking. The aim should be to drink enough water to keep our urine pale yellow, and there should be no sense of thirst prior to starting drinking any alcohol.

2. Do not start drinking when you’re hungry
While the fact that thirst can stimulate drinking is quite obvious, what is less well recognised is that hunger can be a factor here. Alcohol can provide ready fuel for the body, and at least some people will find that hunger can stimulate the desire to drink. Some people will, for instance, crave alcohol if their blood sugar level drops below normal levels.
One common manifestation of this phenomenon is a tendency to drink a glass of wine, beer or short with mixer prior to food in the evening. Individuals coming home or entering a restaurant in a quite-hungry state will often reach for the alcohol before anything else. I’ve found in practice that when individuals manage their appetite better, they almost always drink less without thinking. One simple tactic here is to eat something properly sating such as some nuts at the end of the afternoon or early evening.

3. Match each alcoholic drink with one of water
One tactic that generally works wonders to quell alcohol intake is to match each alcoholic drink (e.g. glass of wine) with a glass of water. This usually leads to less wine being drunk, and also ‘dilutes’ any negative effects the alcohol may have.

To this last tip, I’d like to add the suggestion of starting with a whole glass of water (before any wine or beer is drunk). Another tactic is to drink the wine/beer/water out of the same glass. So, imagine you’ve drunk a glass of wine, then the same glass is filled with water, and not more wine is drunk until the water is finished (and so on).

And here’s another tip I’d like to share regarding alcohol consumption: As much as possible, avoiding drinking your favourite forms of alcohol.

I feel the need to quickly add that I am not the sort of person who believes we should go through life denying ourselves what pleasures it has to offer. However, there is an argument for, some evenings at least, opting for forms of alcohol which are palatable enough, but that are not too ‘rewarding’. Some people find that certain forms of alcohol cause them to ‘get on a roll’, and then may find it difficult to stop once they’ve started. A classic example of this is people who love red wine, and find it difficult to leave a bottle undrained at the end of the evening. Beer can have a similar affect in some, I’ve found.

If I was going to suggest a form of alcohol which can ‘do the job’ but which most people can easily take or leave, I’d suggest vodka, lime and soda. Vodka is a quite flavourless spirit which most will not find very ‘moreish’, even when mixed with a squeeze or two of fresh lime and soda. Because of this, many individuals find that drinking it allows them to be, say, sociable and may give them the perceived relaxant effects of alcohol, but that the fact that this drink is not very ‘rewarding’ puts a sort of automatic ceiling on how much they drink of it. Vodka, lime and soda can therefore be a perfect drink during extended drinking sessions at social events (e.g. sporting events, weddings, barbeques). The relatively pure nature of vodka is perhaps another boon: This might be why many people will find that even if they get drunk, they are left the following day with little or no hangover.

Now, there are some circumstances where this drink will not feel right or will be wholly undesirable, such as an accompaniment to a steak or during a celebratory dinner. However, on a day-to-day basis, it’s sometimes useful to default to a form of alcohol which does not drive us to drink.


Chapman CD, et al. Lifestyle determinants of the drive to eat: a meta-analysis. AJCN. First published ahead of print July 25, 2012



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