We’ve long known that alcohol triggers appetite (and overeating), but we’ve never really been sure of why. As I’ve written before, alcohol is almost as calorically-dense as fat and alcohol itself actually lowers blood sugar levels. The combination of no insulin spike (assuming you didn’t pick a sugary drink) and hundreds of calories coming in should signal your brain to suppress appetite, but the opposite occurs. A new study found an interesting explanation why alcohol triggers overeating.
Alcohol sends the wrong signal
Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute and University College London wanted to see the effects of alcohol on the appetite-regulating neurons in the the brains of mice. They were specifically examining the agouti-related peptide cells (AgRP) found in the hypothalamus. When operating properly, activation of these cells triggers appetite and hunger and the pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons suppress appetite.
The researchers injected mice with pure ethanol that worked out to be the human equivalent of about a bottle and a half of wine. They wanted to ensure the dosage was equal across test subjects and that there was no taste left in their mouths that might impact their eating behavior. They found the mice ate about 10 to 25 percent more food on the days they were injected with alcohol and that the AgRP cells experienced spikes in electrical activity.
They then repeated the experiment in mice whose AgRP cell activation was chemically-blocked. As expected, the mice injected with alcohol continued to eat a normal amount. The researchers also found that blocking the AgRP cells in the group of mice that were not injected with alcohol did not have much of an effect either way. This demonstrated that it wasn’t the cells themselves that effected appetite, but the interaction between these neurons and alcohol.
Advice remains the same
The researchers concede these findings in mice may not correlate to humans but mechanistically it does make sense. Something is spiking appetite despite the huge influx of calories. Unfortunately, alcohol also impairs judgement, so as your appetite increases, your willpower diminishes. In general, if you’re hoping to lose weight, limit your alcohol consumption as much as possible. If you do want an occasional drink, focus on spirits since they have no additional sugars that will spike your insulin and cause fat storage.
Alcohol is eventually going to ramp up your hunger and lower your inhibitions, so instead of testing your willpower when it’s too late, focus early on foods that won’t impact your waistline, but will fill you up. Protein is always ideal, but make sure to pick lean sources like chicken, turkey, low fat cottage cheese, and yogurt. If you’re going to eat fattier protein sources, make sure they contain good fats like omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and nuts or CLA found in grass-fed beef. One benefit of healthier fats is that your body can more easily mobilize and burn them. Just because you stored those fats during a night of drinking doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck with them forever, if you focus on the right fats. And of course, whole fruits and vegetables are always a safe and filling choice when you’re in storage mode.