Ah, January, that loveable month of contradictions. The cold weather, combined with holiday overindulgence and credit card bills, makes some of us want to hibernate. Since we (sadly) can’t sleep the winter away, we often do what seems like the next best thing: eat comfort food and open those bottles of wine we got as holiday host gifts.
But for others, January is the time for self-improvement, especially physical, as anyone who goes to the gym in January and wonders at all the suddenly unfamiliar faces can attest. The result? Vowing to get more exercise, eat better, and in many cases, cut out the alcohol.
My neighbor, chef and restaurateur David Hagedorn, wrote a piece in today’s Washington Post about six DC-area chefs who have lost weight over the past year or so. Being surrounded by good food and wine all the time is an incredible temptation, compounded by late hours and little time for exercise. Each of the six has his or her own system for keeping weight off, but three of the six explicitly mention eliminating or reducing the amount of alcohol they drink.
Of course, as a wine merchant, I’d rather they all kept on drinking. Why give up alcohol?
Believe it or not, I was an aerobics instructor in the 1980s and 90s. (No, I don’t have any pictures to show you 😛 ) In order to get our required certifications to teach in better gyms we poor spandex-clad crazies (again, sorry, no pictures) had to take a smattering of nutrition and exercise physiology courses. They taught us some things about alcohol – granted, this was a long time and many bottles of wine ago, but here goes.
First, the bad news:
Calories. Alcohol contains seven calories per gram, which means that the average five-ounce glass of wine contains 100-120 calories. That’s not all that many per se, but they’re still calories you might not want to consume. And since they’re in liquid rather than solid form, it’s easier to forget about them.
Metabolism, or the rate at which you burn calories. Alcohol slows it down. So the strict calories in/calories burned formula for weight loss might not be as straightforward here. Alcohol works on your metabolism three ways. The first is that alcohol is a depressant and slows down all your body’s systems, including metabolism. The second is that alcohol interferes with proper sleep, which is essential for regulating your bodily functions, again including metabolism.
Finally, alcohol dehydrates you (stealing water to dilute the alcohol and alcohol breakdown products in your bloodstream), which has an effect on your kidneys and liver. Without enough water, your kidneys won’t work as efficiently, and some of their function gets taken over by the liver. This means that your liver has to devote some of its function to the work of the kidneys instead of its major job of metabolizing fat for energy. Not to mention that the liver has to break down the alcohol in the first place, making the poor thing multi-task even more. You know, like being in a car and trying to drive, text, and talk to your passengers at the same time.
The Munchie Effect. Less empirical evidence for this, but in general we eat more when we drink alcohol. Whether it’s our bodies demanding more food to keep us relatively sober, or because we get a little tipsy and eat things we otherwise wouldn’t, the food calories pile up. And, in turn, we drink a bit more, and eat some more and, well, you get the idea…
Well, that’s depressing, isn’t it? Makes you want to run to the wine cellar and pour those bottles down the drain! But before you do, keep in mind that fit people have been drinking alcohol, especially wine, for millenia. And even back in the Jane Fonda Workout days, we knew something about the health benefits of alcohol:
Longevity. People who drink alcohol moderately live longer than those who drink too much or don’t drink at all. There are plenty of theories why, which change every decade. But the primary effect is probably from so-called blood thinning. Alcohol prevents your blood platelets from sticking together as much as they might otherwise, which in turn prevents blood clots from forming and getting stuck in your arteries. Less chance of heart attack or stroke that way.
Quality of life. Jokes about how my drinking makes you look better aside, moderate drinking does relieve stress, which is important for good health (and weight loss too). Wine, in particular, is a complex mix of hundreds of compounds, few of which have ever been studied. Among those that have are antioxidants, which promote organ health. There have also been animal studies of resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, that indicate potential positive impacts on cancer and cardiovascular endurance. Of course, there are likely other foods that could produce the same effects, but they may not provide the third benefit, which is:
Sheer enjoyment. OK, strenuous exercise can lead to the endorphin effect and make you bliss out a little. And asceticism through better eating does occasionally produce a sense of well-being beyond mere self-righteousness. (Please just don’t go on about it.) But if you like food and wine together, nothing else will do. And if you really like something that’s not illegal, why not try to find a way to keep it in your life even if you’re trying to lose weight? Here are a few tips:
1) Those 100-120 calories in a glass of wine are the same number of calories in a tablespoon of olive oil. Think about that if you’re making like Rachael Ray and slinging around the E.V.O.O. as if it were the elixir of life. (Honestly, it looks like she goes through a bottle every 30 minutes.) Seriously, though, wouldn’t you swap a tablespoon of oil for a glass of wine?
2) Speaking of fat in general, try to eat a little less of it. I know it’s in vogue to minimize carbs, but if alcohol distracts your liver from metabolizing fat, it makes sense to give your liver a helping hand. Come to think of it, isn’t that what we do in the summer anyway, eat lighter and still drink wine?
3) Drink lots of water – and not just when you’re drinking alcohol. Keeping yourself well hydrated will make it easier for your body to deal with the alcohol you’re drinking in moderation.
4) Exercise has benefits beyond weight loss, so don’t neglect it even though the cold and dark make you want to curl up and watch television. And a little more of it to offset any decrease in metabolism couldn’t hurt.
Now for the recipe. It’s tough to eat summer salads in the winter when what we really want is meatloaf and mashed potatoes. (OK, that’s what I want…) This puree of parsnips, white beans, and onion makes a great mashed potato substitute, nice and creamy from the beans without the butter/milk/cream, and with a complex, roasty flavor. Serve it with a pan-roasted protein like steak, chicken breast, or fish (in moderate portion, say four ounces), and a nice green vegetable. Deglaze the pan with some of the wine you’re drinking and serve it over the protein as a sauce. (You’ll boil off a lot of the alcohol and bring the calories down, too). Since you’ll only be having one glass 😉 make it something really good: Domaine de Montvac Vacqueyras Red ($22) or Domaine Chaume-Arnaud La Cadène White ($20). The same amount of calories as lighter-bodied wines, so why skimp?
2 large parsnips, ends trimmed, peeled, cut in quarters lengthwise, then cut into ½-inch pieces
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained, rinsed, and drained again – reserve some of the liquid from the can when you first drain them
1 large onion, cut into ½-inch dice
2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Using your hands, toss the parsnip and onion pieces together on a rimmed baking sheet with the olive oil. Spread the pieces out on the sheet and season with some salt and pepper. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring them up halfway through to allow them to brown evenly. They should be a little bit browned all over.
A few minutes before the vegetables are done, put the beans in a microwave-safe container and heat for a couple of minutes until hot. Put the beans in the bowl of a food processor. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and, using a spatula, scrape the vegetables into the food processor with the beans, taking care to get everything on the sheet into the bowl. (If you’ve got some brown bits stuck to the bottom, pour a little of the bean liquid diluted with water onto the sheet and scrape them up and add to the food processor). Pulse the mixture until it is as smooth as you’d like, scraping down the sides of the bowl a couple of times. Add some of the bean liquid if the mixture won’t puree or is too thick for your taste. Check for salt and pepper, and serve hot.