Everyone has their guilty pleasure that they enjoy as a treat from time to time. For some it is sweets, while other reach for savory cheesy snacks that are high in fat. Others simply want to relax with a big glass of red wine. Shape teamed up with a clinical assistant professor of gastroenterology at NYU Langone Medical Center, Dr. Ira Breite, to explain how each indulgence is processed by your body after you enjoy it, and give some tips on how you can make even your cheat days a little healthier.
Alcohol: When you consume most foods, they pass through your food pipe, down the esophagus and into your stomach where the food sits until it is processed and nutrients are absorbed by the small intestine. However, alcohol is processed differently by your body. It is absorbed into the bloodstream as soon as it hits the stomach, unless there is food sitting there to slow it down. A higher alcohol content means it will stay in your system longer, and for women the body processes alcohol more slowly. The more alcohol remaining unprocessed, the drunker you feel. To keep drinking healthy, drink a moderate amount over time to give your body enough time to metabolize the alcohol. Drinking after eating is preferable to on an empty stomach, but it will not stop you from being drunk if you drink a lot very quickly.
Sugar: Real sugar, not artificial sweeteners, is absorbed in the small intestine after it is broken down into glucose and fructose. In this form, your body can pull on sugar for an easy, but short-lived energy boost. It does not have any real nutritional value, and falls into the category of empty calories that stack onto your daily total without keeping you feeling full or energized. To stay healthy, avoid sugars that don’t satisfy your craving for a sweet treat, like sports drinks, sodas, or the candy dish on the neighboring cube that you pick at only because you are bored or stressed.
Refined Carbs: Refined carbohydrates are processed foods like white rice, that had fiber and nutrients stripped from them. They are low in nutritional value, and easily converted into sugar by your body. When you have high levels of sugar in your system, your body uses that for energy instead of burning fat, making you feel hungrier sooner, and leaving the fat cells around your midsection. Instead, try to choose complex carbohydrates whenever possible on a day to day basis, including whole grains, beans, whole fruits and vegetables. Eat refined carbs as a treat when that stack of pancakes at brunch is really calling your name.
Saturated and Trans Fats: Foods with a high percentage of animal fat, like steak and cheese, or artificial trans fats in preserved cookies or chips, are risky choices for your body in two different ways. First, they can cause stomach disruptions like indigestion. Over time, they increase the bad (LDL) cholesterol in your body, which can stiffen arteries and up your risk for life threatening diseases like heart attacks or strokes. Even worse, trans fats lower levels of good (HDL) cholesterol. Luckily, many manufacturers have taken trans fats out of their products completely, but not all. To ensure you are not consuming them, read labels when you shop, and don’t purchase foods with ingredients you don’t recognize. Try reducing your intake of cheese except as a treat, or opting for lean meats without marbled fats.