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Here’s why you should eat when you drink

The effect of food on your body’s ability to metabolise alcohol is “considerable” and “underestimated” according to a Danish doctor, who told db why you should eat when you drink.

The moderate intake of alcohol with meals should be seen as part of a healthy lifestyle, according to Dr Erik Skovenborg

In a virtual seminar in October chaired by Alcohol in Moderation’s Helena Conibear, the topic of whether moderate drinking is a healthy lifestyle choice was considered in detail and featured the views of a number of specialists on the topic of alcohol and health, from Australia’s Dr Creina Stockley to Boston university’s Prof. Curtis Ellison, and Dr Erik Skovenborg.

Speaking specifically on the subject of drinking with meals, the latter figure, who is a general practitioner in Denmark, and author of Wine and Health – Myths and Facts, said that not only is the impact of food on your body’s ability to process alcohol poorly recognised by many, including those compiling drinking guidelines, but also that “the moderate intake of alcohol with meals should be seen as part of a healthy lifestyle” – which, he added, is one with a balanced diet, regular exercise, and no smoking.

Commenting that while most scientific studies consider the number of drinks consumed over a period of time, he said that drinking habits should also be looked at, particularly the issue of whether alcohol is drunk with or without food.

That’s because drinking with a meal will “increase the gastric and hepatic metabolism of ethanol,” he said, adding, “So some parts of the alcohol you drink will be metabolised before it reaches the bloodstream, and the brain and the heart.”

Continuing, he stated, “Drinking with a meal will considerably lower your blood alcohol content (BAC),” before drawing on data to show that a male weighing 75kg had a BAC of 15mg/100ml (15%) having consumed two drinks with food, compared to 53mg/100ml (53%) after having the same quantity of alcohol on an empty stomach.

Highlighting the difference, he said, “So if you drank with food, the blood alcohol content was low enough for you to be legally driving a car in Oslo, but if you had drunk in a fasting condition, you could not drive a car in Denmark.”

As a result, he said, “Drinking with food will protect you from a high level of alcohol in the blood, which is underestimated.”

He then drew on a piece of Swedish research to show that food can also increase the metabolism of alcohol after drinking.

In this case, participants of the study ate a meal five hours after drinking, which is a time when the “post-absorptive phase” of ethanol metabolism is “well established”.

According to the study, the average rate of disappearance of alcohol from the blood was increased by 36-50% compared to fasting after the last drink.

Consequently, Skovenborg said, “So if, after a party, you are feeling a bit intoxicated, then if you eat even a light meal, you will increase the metabolism of alcohol and reduce the amount of alcohol in your blood.”

He also said that further research had shown that drinking with a meal reduces the risk of liver cirrhosis, citing the UK Million Women Study, which concluded that “at every level of alcohol consumption, cirrhosis incidence was 31% lower in women who usually drank with meals compared with women who did not.”

So, he concluded on this topic, “The risk depends not only on how much you drink, but whether or not you drink with meals, with those drinking without having a higher risk at all levels – there is a protective effect of drinking with meals.”

Finally, he raised the subject of drinking patterns, with data from Denmark to show that it is less harmful to drink a little and often, or even a larger amount on a regular basis, than occasionally, but heavily.

“If you are a frequent drinker, at every level of drinking the risk of mortality is lower than if you are a non-frequent drinker,” he said.

“So drinking frequently in small volumes is much safer than binge drinking on weekends,” he summed up, before pointing out a range of problems due to bingeing on alcohol – from injuries to strokes, liver disease and sexual dysfunction ­– which he stated, was “a long list, that could be longer”.

In other words, Skovenborg was keen to state the dangers of excessive drinking, but also at pains to point out that moderate, frequent drinking with food could be considered as part of a healthy lifestyle.

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