Whisky and water and not a bite to eat
November 15, 2004 6:51 AM   Subscribe

You're stuck somewhere without food for two weeks. You only have fresh water .... and an unlimited supply of whisky. Let's say you have only a moderate tolerance for alcohol, gained by drinking three or four beers on Friday and Saturday nights. Let's say you're in average health with plenty of body fat. Do you drink the whisky for its sugar content, or will the cost to your body (for your liver and kidneys to process and remove the alcohol) outweigh the caloric benefit?

P.S. Obviously it's a hypothetical. No worries, I have plenty to eat ;-)
posted by Shane to Food & Drink (16 answers total)
While this is not strictly an answer to your question, you could try to evaporate much of the alcohol out of the whisky before consuming it.
posted by transient at 7:19 AM on November 15, 2004

For a week and a half, I'd drink my own urine, use the alcohol as lampfire fuel, and the water for bathing. If there was any wood nearby, I'd soak it in some of the whiskey; I had more hair, i'd consider trimming it, knotting it up, and swallowing it for its calcium, though it wouldn't really help much. The remaining days would consist of one shot of whiskey per two hours of waking time, followed by one and a half glasses of water in between. By the same time, I'd have started eating the wood. But that's just me.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:21 AM on November 15, 2004

Your body will run just fine on your body fat; it's only your brain that needs the glucose. At first, your body will start breaking down protein from muscle, sending it to your liver, and making glucose.

To prevent a major loss of muscle, you'll just go into ketosis (what happens to diabetics and Adkins people) and start forming ketone bodies, which your brain can use instead of glucose.

Your main problem is dehydration leading to electrolyte imbalances and acidemia, and probably vitamin loss as well. You'd probably be breathing a bit faster, to breathe off more CO2 and maintain your blood pH. With that hypothesis, I'm not sure how helpful the alcohol would be; alcohol basically gives you central diabetes insipidus, which is why you pee so much when you drink. You'll lose urine that way, which you don't want to do. Alcohol (and acetylaldehyde, the metabolite) are hepatotoxic (liver damaging), so I don't know that I'd want to insult my liver if it's keeping me alive by making glucose for my brain.

Back in the 60s, before they really thought of IRBs and review boards, they did studies where they would fast obese patients for like, 38 days, in the hospital, and according to my professor, they did just fine (obviously with vitamin and electrolyte support).

I might take a shot once a day, but that's a total stab in the dark.

I wouldn't start eating wood; I believe it's all the B-form of cellulose or something, and humans can't digest it, just like grass. Very smart about the alcohol for heating; you'd probably want to boil the water if you can.
posted by gramcracker at 7:37 AM on November 15, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, folks. GREAT stuff.

On the subject of eating wood, isn't there an island tribe somewhere in the Oz/New Zealand area that eats food derived from wood-flour part of the year, and subsists on large grubs the other half? I believe the grubs propogate in the trees, so the trees really provide all their food (directly or indirectly.)

I wonder if any good studies of the effects of their nutrition have been done? I imagine immense protein-deficiency for large time-periods. I also wonder why they don't fish ...
posted by Shane at 7:52 AM on November 15, 2004

Being a distilled beverage, whiskey contains essentially no sugar.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:45 AM on November 15, 2004

On the subject of eating wood, isn't there an island tribe somewhere in the Oz/New Zealand area that eats food derived from wood-flour part of the year, and subsists on large grubs the other half? I believe the grubs propogate in the trees, so the trees really provide all their food (directly or indirectly.)

Correct. They're on Irian Jaya, and they "wash" the trunks of trees until they can harvest a form of flour. The only problem is, the nutritional value of those trees is so low that they are... cannibals. I remember a couple of Danish guys that made a documentary about it and nearly did get eaten.
posted by NekulturnY at 8:57 AM on November 15, 2004

Response by poster: Being a distilled beverage, whiskey contains essentially no sugar.

My bad: No sugars, but calories ... unless we're talking about something like Yukon Jack, which just has to be sweetened, right?
posted by Shane at 9:07 AM on November 15, 2004

I think i'd save the alcohol for emergencies, like pulling a tooth, cutting off a finger, something hurty.
posted by sadie01221975 at 9:29 AM on November 15, 2004

Yeah, it looks like Yukon Jack has honey added to it after distillation.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:31 AM on November 15, 2004

This is a nutty thread.

Scotch whiskeys don't have much sugar, though some pick up a bit from the sides of the sherry casks they're aged in. Kentucky bourbon has sugar added, and Tennessee whisky picks a little bit up from the maple charcoal it's filtered through after distillation.

But the main caloric value in whiskey is the ethanol itself - 7 kcalories per gram. You need water, fats, proteins, carbs, vitamins, and minerals to survive; whiskey doesn't satisfy any of these needs (the diuretic effect of the ethanol causes you to lose more water than is in it) but you can survive a very long time (months) using the ethanol for energy if you don't get dehydrated.

The first problem you'll have is B-vitamin deficiency; whiskey may actually have some but ethanol seriously impairs its absorption, and these vitamins are not stored in the body. Head on over to the general medicine, psych, neuro, and surgery wards of your local city hospital for graphic living illustrations of the other ill effects of subsisting entirely on alcohol.

Other comments: The whiskey I drink won't burn. Eating hair will make you very, very sick with no nutritive value whatsoever. Same goes for wood.

Also, scanning the above, alcohol does not give you central diabetes insipidus. Rather, it's an osmotic diuretic. Owing to its water and lipid solubility, it passes freely through membranes, including those of the kidney and its tubules, spoiling the osmotic gradient your body tries to build to allow it to manage water movement. Water, preferring to dilute that which is osmotically active, follows it out the kidney and out the spout.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:05 AM on November 15, 2004

a) Was this thread inspired by that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where Johnny Depp gets stranded on an island and digs up his old treasure chest full of 'XXX'?

b) Just for fun: alcoholic hepatitis, alcoholic pancreatitis, pancreatic pseudocyst, gastric and esophageal ulcer, alcoholic neuropathy, alcoholic dilated cardiomyopathy, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is just the common stuff.

c) If you are a uisce pedant, you will spell it 'whisky' in Scotland and 'whiskey' in Kentucky and Tennessee.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:11 AM on November 15, 2004

Man, I forgot pellagra. The only case I ever saw was a guy who'd more or less adopted this diet for 6 months.

If the dermatologist hadn't diagnosed the fellow (the 3 reversible D's of pellagra: diarrhea, dementia, dermatitis, and death), he'd surely have died.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:16 AM on November 15, 2004

Response by poster: Was this thread inspired by that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where Johnny Depp gets stranded on an island and digs up his old treasure chest full of 'XXX'?

I hadn't thought of that specific scene, but I was thinking of scenes in various books and films in which the protagonist has no food but does have hard alcohol. The latest one I recall is the remake of Dawn of the Dead (in "Andy's Story" or whatever it's called in the DVD extras, probably inspired by Matheson's book I Am Legend.)

Usually the protagonist happily consumes the booze, even if he is portrayed as being very intelligent and survival-hip. I guess it's the tough, cool thing to do.

Unless the protagonist(s) are also short on water, in which case there is invariably one "hard case" character who prefers to be drunk even though the other "intelligent" character points out that alcohol will only result in dehydration. Sometimes they both end up swigging. The first example of this that springs to mind is the film Pitch Black, although I think both of the cases I describe here are ubiquitous cliches.

In Bookland and especially Filmland, it seems someone is always stranded in a desert with a few bottles of hooch.

I guess I had just always wondered, as my own instinct is that drinking the alcohol would cost your body more than it would help it.

Actually, the question was probably inspired by another question I should post to AskMe: I've heard it claimed that digesting an apple consumes more calories than the apple itself provides. I tend to doubt this is true, although it opens up an interesting line of thought ...

It's all kind of interesting, isn't it?

Re "whisky," I guess in some circles "whisky" also implies single-malt, betraying my own personal preference when it comes to drinking "whiskey,"whereas I was thinking more along the line of some kind of bourbon. Sugar-content in the alcohol, as well as my spelling of "whisky," were definitely variables I should have thought of.

Thanks, ikkyu2, and all.
posted by Shane at 11:54 AM on November 15, 2004

Wow, thanks for a review of my entire human biochemistry and disease class, gramcracker

I wouldn't start eating wood; I believe it's all the B-form of cellulose or something
It's the beta form of glucose monomers which create cellulose.
posted by jmd82 at 11:58 AM on November 15, 2004

I personally know people who have fasted for thirty days. Didn't kill 'em.

If you have water you will do fine. You will be pretty darn hungry for several days, then the appetite leaves. At some point it will come back-at the thirty or forty day mark-and that means it is time to find something to eat.

It is very very very important to not eat just anything to start with. Broth, then later fruit or vegetables...breaking one's digestive system back in needs to be a slow process or it can be dangerous.
posted by konolia at 12:41 PM on November 15, 2004

Re the tribes in Irian Jaya: it's not a tree, it's a sago palm they are eating, and the flour really is a starchy substance - the sago you can buy in the supermarket, in fact. Sago is not especially spooky or special, which is why I can have it for dessert tomorrow if I feel like it. If there are practical reasons for cannibalism among the Dani etc it is lack of protein that's the problem - they don't have any grains or legumes that are protein rich, pigs are a virtual currency and can't be slaughtered too often, and they are too good at hunting for there to be much in the way of game.

Lots of cultures eat large grubs. In Australia the classic grub is the witchetty grub. Here in New Zealand we occasionally eat the grub of the huhu beetle. They really do taste like peanut butter. Anyway, grubs are very nutritious and you would be smart to eat them anywhere that isn't crawling with easy game.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:41 PM on November 15, 2004

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