Why Are My Friends Drinking Vinegar?

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If you’ve walked down the aisles of a healthfood store recently, you may have noticed an increase in products promoted as ‘drinking vinegars.’ Let’s take a closer look at this health food trend and asses whether or not it has any nutritional value.

Vinegar has been used for hundreds of years for homeopathic purposes. Even Hippocrates recommended its use for treating sores, abrasions, and a variety of other ailments. Most recently, people have begun drinking vinegar to aid in weight loss. While apple cider vinegar is the vinegar most commonly used (probably due to its palatability), any type of vinegar can be applied to this discussion. Proponents of this trend claim drinking vinegar can increase fat loss, suppress your appetite, and control blood sugar.

Let’s take a look at each of these claims, starting with the idea vinegar can aid in blood sugar control. Of the benefits associated with drinking vinegar, the one relating to blood sugar control has the most evidence to support it. Vinegar contains a substance called acetic acid that helps block the absorption of starch. Numerous studies have shown that consuming small amounts of vinegar before a meal containing starches (carbohydrates) may inhibit a rise in blood sugar afterward. The effect of acetic acid can reduce your body’s glycemic response by as much as 20 to 40 percent.

Acetic acid does this in two ways, first, it works to interfere with the enzymes that break down starch in our intestines, making it hard to digest. Second, vinegar reacts with the starch itself and makes a portion of it fiberlike, rendering it indigestible. An added benefit of this fiber-like undigested starch is that it becomes food for the good bacteria in your gut, acting as a prebiotic that supports overall digestion and a healthier immune system.

Sounds great, right? Well, in order to reap some of these potential blood sugar lowering benefits, you want to consume the vinegar RIGHT BEFORE you eat the main portion of your meal. A ‘drinkable vinegar’ beverage in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do anything for your glycemic control. Also, you want to make sure the vinegar you drink contains at least 5% acetic acid (many manufactured products do not meet this requirement). Finally, be wary of fancy flavored vinegars with added sugar as they may interfere with the acetic acid’s ability to affect blood sugar.

It is important to note that this starch blocking effect of vinegar is seen as most beneficial for people who are prediabetic, or are at risk of developing diabetes. Healthy individuals may not see as much benefit and individuals who already have diabetes need to consult their physician before deciding to incorporate apple cider vinegar into their daily lifestyle.

Next, let’s address the claim that vinegar is beneficial for weight loss: The most cited study surrounding this claim was done with 175 overweight but otherwise healthy Japanese male subjects. The study involved a 12-week treatment of the experimental group with vinegar, and when compared to the control group, the vinegar supplementation resulted in lower body weight, lower BMI, and decreased visceral fat and triglyceride levels in the men from the experiemtnal group. So, case closed, right? Not so fast. First, this study is not only limited in size, but also limited in its applicability to anyone who is not a Japanese male. Also, while the subjects lost weight, they lost between 2 and 4 lbs over the course of 4 months. That is minimal compared to the results someone would see with a more individually tailored program. There are some studies that correlate blood sugar control to weight loss, so there is a line of thinking that says the blood sugar controlling effect of vinegar may aid in weight loss, but there is still a lot more research that needs to be done on the topic.

Finally, lets address the use of vinegar for appetite suppression: There are a few studies out of Sweden that do correlate vinegar consumption to appetite suppression, however the current consensus of the medical community is that the appetite suppression is related to nausea or negative reactions to the vinegar rather than an active component of the vinegar itself.

And since we are on the topic of negative reactions to drinking vinegar, there are some risks to its use, specifically if consumed incorrectly or in really high doses. Some studies have shown drinking vinegar can erode the enamel on your teeth and cause nausea and stomach upset. Straight, undiluted vinegar can be hard to swallow and may cause you to gasp and inhale vinegar into the lung, which can cause pneumonia. And finally, there are numerous case studies that have linked vinegar consumption to vocal cord spasms esophageal injury.

Because of these risk factors, it is always recommend that you dilute vinegar with at least 8 oz of water before consumption. If the idea of drinking diluted apple cider vinegar sounds gross (you aren’t along in this) a vinegar based dressing on a salad consumed before the starchy part of your meal has the exact same effect. Also, simply incorporating more vinegar as a part of a healthy diet may also be beneficial as vinegar contains good-for-you nutrients like pectins, and small amounts of vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron and magnesium.

So what’s the verdict? Drinking vinegar is not a magic bullet for weight loss (no surprise there) and if you chose to consume vinegar it should be done safely, ideally diluted or in a more organically occurring form like salad dressing, and in conjunction with an otherwise healthy diet.

-Maggie McDaris, RD, LDN

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