01/07/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

The Morning After the Extra Nightcap

Christmas and New Year's have flown, likely passing by as one extended cocktail party, with a heavy emphasis on the cocktails. But what most men don't realize is that in just that week's time, they can actually set themselves back by as much as a quarter of a year in terms of achieving their weight, health, and fitness goals. Here's why.

Alcohol is the No. 1 deal-breaker for most of my patients when they offer me explanations for why they can't stick with a diet and exercise program. This is especially true around the holidays, with the combination of office parties, family reunions, neighborhood events, and more. In part, the problem is the obvious: A couple of drinks into an evening and most people would toss aside the "healthy eating" mantra. The bigger issue is that when men (and women) drink, they begin a vicious cycle, where alcohol leads directly to increased eating and decreased motivation to get to the gym. This pattern can cause an average weight gain of 5-10 pounds in just the span between Christmas and New Year's Eve. Now, when the confetti has fallen and these men (and women) want to get back to the gym, they have to spend the first three months of the New Year getting rid of this new weight gain instead of making further progress. Worse, getting back to working out at your fullest can take as long as 1-3 weeks.

If that is not enough, alcoholic beverages jumpstart the addiction cycle and cause cravings for high glycemic carbs, especially sweets, which directly affect your weight and your health. As we age, the ability to metabolize and fully digest both alcohol and carbohydrates changes. When this happens, alcohol becomes your enemy, not your friend. These metabolic changes are slow and insidious, and it takes most people a long time to figure out the connection between how bad they feel and what they drank and ate.

The signs that your ability to metabolize alcohol and carbohydrates has been comprised include:

  • Interference with sleep (frequent awakenings and the possibility of sleep apnea)
  • Early morning fatigue
  • Hangover severity increased with a decrease in overall consumption
  • Retaining fluid and feeling bloated
  • Inability to have an effective workout at the gym
  • Erectile performance issues

Recently, I was on a two-week cruise around Italy and indulged in breads, pasta, and consumed far more alcohol than I should have almost every day. The trip was wonderful, but after about a week, I realized that I shouldn't be eating or drinking in this way anymore. Even though I typically exercise every day, on the trip I blew off exercise and was short of breath and felt just like I did when I was fat and unhealthy back in my 50s. And when I came home, I was shocked to find out that I had gained 16 pounds and could no longer see my abs at all -- they disappeared. I've since been able to take the weight off, but it wasn't easy. When I think back on the trip, even though I had a great time, all the drinking and bad eating just wasn't worth it. Now I know that I have to really work at avoiding alcohol so that this never happens again. This is a battle that I have to fight all the time. And I think this is true of many men I meet in and out of my office.

You can completely avoid this trap and the New Year's rush to the gym if you don't let drinking and bad eating affect your health to begin with. Start by making good choices now that will carry you through the year. Allow yourself to indulge only if you can rapidly regain control over your eating, drinking, and your workouts. But if your partying is quickly putting you on a downhill course of binge eating and drinking and a loss of desire to exercise, then don't even start. Never mix alcohol with fruit juices or sodas,because it has an even greater impact on your brain's addiction centers and increases the caloric value of every drink. While wine and beer have a lower alcoholic content, they are just as hard on your body in terms of impacting blood sugar modulation. Beer can also affect your digestion if you have a gluten sensitivity. So if you are going to indulge, and don't have a problem with alcohol, stick with a single vodka and club soda, and sip, sip, sip.

I've come to learn the hard way that the best thing for me is to not drink. This doesn't mean that I'm a teetotaler; I just know that I can't do it anymore. When I go to a party I drink club soda or sparkling water with some lime, and no one bothers me. I don't make a big deal about it, and my friends are totally comfortable around me when they are drinking. I won't lie: I wish I could tolerate a drink or two every once in a while. But I'd rather be healthy and lean, and most importantly, be present for my wife, my kids, and my grandkids for all the holidays to come.

Jeffry Life, M.D., Ph.D., New York Times bestselling author of The Life Plan, is a senior partner with Cenegenics, the leaders in age management medicine, and has a thriving age management medicine practice in Las Vegas. His book Mastering the Life Plan (Atria), will be published Spring 2013. For more information, visit his website at or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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