Most of us will have had a drink or two on an empty stomach at one point or another – the after work trip to the bar where you didn’t have chance to grab food beforehand, or your friend’s wedding reception where you filled up on Prosecco before the starters came out.
But what’s happening in the body when you drink without eating first?
Keith Grimes, a general practitioner for online doctor service Babylon Health, explains that when someone drinks alcohol, it is absorbed into the blood stream from the small intestine – the part of the bowel that starts where the stomach ends.
“About 80% of the absorption of alcohol happens here, and it happens quickly,” he says. “The stomach plays an important role in determining how quickly alcohol makes it into the small intestine.”
If your stomach is empty, this happens faster. But if your stomach is full of delicious grub, alcohol enters your bloodstream more slowly ― and generally more safely.
Tony Rao, a consultant for the United Kingdom National Health Service and a specialist in alcohol and mental health, says eating food usually coats the stomach and slows down absorption of alcohol ― but not always. Fatty foods tend to be the exception.
How fast the alcohol enters the bloodstream depends on stomach “motility,” he explains, which is basically a fancy term for how fast the stomach empties.
Eating unhealthy, fatty foods can increase motility, which results in alcohol entering your bloodstream quicker. “So, eating your kebab and chips may result in alcohol being absorbed sooner than, say, drinking a glass of milk,” he says.
The type of alcoholic drink you have can also determine motility. “Stronger drinks such as spirits and fizzy alcoholic drinks increase motility and speed up alcohol absorption,” Rao says. “Sugary drinks and caffeine reduce motility and delay it.”
People who eat a meal before drinking tend to be better off, because the rate of alcohol absorption into the bloodstream slows...