You, Illuminated

Commonsense explanations of neuroscience

What’s the Best Meal to Sober up After Drinking?

Protein, fat and carbohydrates help clear alcohol from your system.

I just discovered the answer to the age-old after-the-bar question: what should you eat to help sober up? Some friends swear by migas, saying that the protein and fat in the eggs and cheese help you sober up. Others insist on big pancakes—a sugary, carb-heavy meal—to absorb the alcohol. History books tell us that humans have been drinking alcohol since ancient Egyptian times, so after 6,000 some years, why haven’t we come to a consensus?

Part of the problem is that it’s challenging to study how alcohol affects us. It’s complicated because many factors determine how we process alcohol. If you ate a big meal before you drank, you’ll slow the rate your body absorbs alcohol, so it will take longer for alcohol concentrations to build up. Determining whether eggs or bread clear alcohol from your system better is nearly impossible if you don’t know how fast the person is absorbing alcohol in the first place.

In the past fifteen years, we’ve finally figured out a way to control for the rate of absorption. In 2001, while at the University of Indiana, Vijay Ramchandani and his mentor and future director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Ting-Kai Li developed a system to deliver alcohol to the human body without going through the stomach. They sent alcohol straight into the bloodstream with an IV.

Using IV administration, Ramchandani and Li tested which types of food helped eliminate alcohol from the body fastest. They gave four males and four females alcohol on four different days. Participants fasted for twelve hours before coming to the lab. On three of the days, they received a 550 calorie meal an hour before the alcohol IV. The meal was either high in protein, fat or carbohydrates. On the fourth day, they ate nothing.

All participants achieved a breath alcohol concentration of approximately .05—slightly below the legal limit for driving—showing that the IV administration worked. When will one of these show up in a bar? Yes, bartender, I’d like a shot of Jack Daniel’s, a beer for my friend and a direct line of vodka that stays with me for the rest of the night.

As far as eliminating alcohol, not eating anything was the clear loser. It took 45% longer to clear alcohol from the system if participants ate nothing.  Males cleared alcohol faster than females in general, but eating a meal led to faster alcohol clearance in both genders.

When comparing the three types of calories, however, no winner emerged. It didn’t matter what type of meal the participants ate, as long as they ate something. Carbs, protein and fat all worked just as well.

While they didn’t test why eating led to faster alcohol processing, the authors speculated that it was because more blood flowed to the liver after eating, which helped liver enzymes digest and clear alcohol.

So the next time you wind up at a Waffle House after the bars close and find yourself stuck between a ham and cheese omelet and a pecan waffle, go with your taste buds, but rest assured that both will help you sober up.

Image credit: yortw

Study:

Ramchandani VA, Kwo PY, Li TK. Effect of food and food composition on alcohol elimination rates in healthy men and women. J Clin Pharmacol. 2001 Dec;41(12):1345-50. PubMed PMID: 11762562.

Follow me on Twitter: @joshuagowin

Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

more...

Subscribe to You, Illuminated

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.