It’s the holiday season. Throw out the pumpkin spice lattes and pour yourself eggnog, the little black dress of drinks, perfect for adding to everything from breakfast coffees to spiked evening cocktails.
But one too many eggnogs can cause a less-than-jolly experience, especially in terms of digestive distress. Let’s unpack why that is and whether there is such a thing as too much eggnog (unfortunately, yes) so you can celebrate the season without giving up this favorite tradition.
Think about it: Can an alcoholic milkshake really be that good for you?
“Eggnog is just an alcoholic Christmas milkshake,” registered dietitian and nutritionist Amanda Frankeny told HuffPost. “Think what’s in it: heavy cream, milk, sugar, whipped eggs and alcohol.”
And with the recommended serving size a paltry half a cup, eggnog is easy to over-indulge. High in fat and sugar, a single serving contains one-third of the fat Americans should eat daily. Add spirits such as bourbon, whiskey, brandy or rum and you can increase your risk of dehydration-related effects (aka a hangover) as well as digestive discomfort (more on that later).
While food is neither morally good nor bad, just nutritionally different, we can easily overlook how much we consume over the holiday season, especially when it is a liquid. That can impact how we physically feel if we imbibe too heavily. The final breakdown tallies old-fashioned eggnog at 200 calories per half-cup with 24 grams of sugar and 10 grams of fat.
Why do many people often feel sick after drinking eggnog?
For many Americans, this drink is a no-go at face value. People with diabetes, lactose intolerances, or egg and dairy allergies, as well as those abstaining from alcohol would all find this drink to be problematic. For the rest of people who don’t mind ice cream and whipped cream every so often, imbibing a glass or two can still raise a red flag to the digestive system.
“For some, the heavy combination of sugar, heavy cream, milk and alcohol could be a disaster waiting to happen,” Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, a registered dietitian, told HuffPost. “That’s because all of these can compound into a difficult-to-digest situation, requiring digestive enzymes like lactase, sucrase and alcohol dehydrogenase to kick into high gear all at the same time. This could lead to gas, diarrhea, cramping or abdominal pain within 30 minutes to a few hours after drinking.”
The most common ingredients and foods that can cause diarrhea were identified in an article by Harvard Health Publishing. Drumroll, please: eggnog’s main components — sugar, dairy and alcohol — are on the list.
Rich, delicious foods like cream contain more fat and are slower to digest. This is great when we want to feel satiated and prevent feeling hungry, but it can be less than ideal when we overeat or combine other foods that are slower to digest.
“Eggnog is made with ‘heavy’ ingredients that, eaten in exclusion of anything else, might cause stomach distress,” registered dietitian Barbara Ruhs said. “Cream is full of fat and that takes longer to digest. Raw or pasteurized raw eggs are not typically consumed at any other time, so the novelty to the GI tract can also be problematic.”
How much eggnog can you drink before it wreaks havoc on your health?
“My recommendation is to enjoy eggnog in small doses — treat eggnog as you would a glass of expensive champagne — sip it and serve in small doses,” Ruhs said.
While most of us won’t stop at half a cup of the sweet stuff (and the dietitians we spoke to concede that the correct portion size is different for everyone), what feels right for you depends on your sensitivities, tolerances and a whole host of other factors.
“Indulging during this time of year isn’t going to overhaul your long-term health,” Frankeny explained. “We all can get carried away at holiday parties! The best thing you can do is note that you had too many sips, feel the repercussions, ponder why you might have done that, and move on!”
Is there reason to be nervous about raw eggs in eggnog?
Most commercially available eggnogs are pasteurized, so the risk of falling ill from uncooked eggs is pretty minimal. They have been cooked and held at 160 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that foodborne illnesses, such as salmonella, E. coli, listeria and campylobacter, are no longer present. If you choose to make your eggnog, start with pasteurized eggs, as this process can be pretty challenging and potentially dangerous for newbies.
But even if we are chugging store-bought, pasteurized eggnog, a tummy ache is possible.
“Be aware of how long your eggnog sits out during holiday parties,” Frankeny warned. “Don’t let this perishable item stay at room temperature for no more than two hours, or else it should be discarded. It can also be kept safe in a fridge.”
The classic holiday party scene of a bowl of eggnog dusted with nutmeg and left out all night for guests to enjoy may be nostalgic and Rockwellian, but it is an invitation for food poisoning. Keep your eggnog in the fridge and serve individually.
Frankeny elaborated, “always be aware of an off color, scent or flavor, which may mean your drink has gone bad, even if it’s before the actual expiration date.”
You may have seen someone add alcohol to a dubious vat of eggnog (or other concoction) and explain that the alcohol has antibacterial properties, so all is well. Not so fast. Despite that being true (when you scraped your knee as a kid, your parent may have wiped your leg with rubbing alcohol), alcohol’s antibacterial properties can take weeks to take effect.
“Some may think that alcohol can ‘kill’ any bacteria that is in the drink, but that’s just not the case. Alcohol does not prevent bacteria from growing and it does not sterilize bacteria if added to a drink or consumed at the same time,” Ruhs said.
The added alcohol in your drink may also be adding to your digestive discomfort.
“Alcohol absorption into the body happens in the small intestine, Frankey explained. “The presence of fatty food or drinks can significantly slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream because these things sit in the stomach longer. The slower alcohol is absorbed, the slower it affects the body.”
Try these hacks for making your eggnog healthier (and safer).
An alt-nog might be a better option if dairy is tricky for you. Oat, soy, nut and seed varieties are widely available and typically contain fewer calories and less sugar, should that be of concern.
“Vegan options may be slightly easier to digest than the non-vegetarian versions, however, they are still susceptible to foodborne illness,” Ruhs said. “Keep them in the fridge after opening and don’t let them sit out for too long without refrigeration.”
But not all is lost when it comes to downing the traditional version of the drink.
“In terms of nutrition, dairy acts as a fabulous source of calcium,” Frankeny shared. “A half-cup of eggnog delivers about 13% of your daily dose. It also packs in magnesium, phosphorus and vitamins A and D. You’ll get about 4-6 grams of protein, too. However, if you’re allergic to dairy, lactose intolerant or looking for a lower-fat option, skip the milk and cream and try the vegan nogs.”
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