This is what happens to your body when you tailgate

Tailgating is one of the few socially acceptable excuses to drink tons of alcohol and eat way too much food long before five or six o’clock in the afternoon. Typically taking place in stadium and football field parking lots before a big game, tailgating is a beloved weekend ritual for millions of sports fans.

Even if you’ve never attended a tailgate yourself it’s easy to understand why such get-togethers are so popular. Few forms of camaraderie are quite as bonding as a shared love for a sports team, and it can be very thrilling meeting up with fellow fans before a pivotal game. Not to mention all the alcohol, junk food, and sweets.

So, no one heads into a tailgate expecting to do their health any favors. These events are about fun and fandom, not calorie-counting. Still, all the gluttony promoted by tailgating must extract a heavy toll on the human body, right? 

Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine set out to examine the effects of an afternoon of heavy tailgating on a group of 18 overweight but generally healthy men. More specifically, the study authors looked to see how each man’s liver reacted to all that excess alcohol and carbohydrates. This was accomplished via both blood tests and a liver scan. What they discovered surprised even the study authors themselves.

Essentially, the results suggest that different people’s bodies react in different ways to an afternoon of gluttony. All of the participating men drank enough alcohol to maintain a 0.08-0.10 blood alcohol level all afternoon, and alcohol consumption is known to cause a buildup of excess fats in the liver. However, subjects’ livers reacted in a variety of ways; only nine out of the 18 subjects showed increased levels of fat in their liver. Another five men actually displayed lower fat liver levels after tailgating, and one didn’t experience any liver fat fluctuations whatsoever.

“Surprisingly, we found that in overweight men, after an afternoon of eating and drinking, how their bodies reacted to food and drink was not uniform,” says Elizabeth Parks, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and exercise physiology, in a release. “In some people, the body responded in a unique way to take the stress off the liver. These findings reveal that both genetics and lifestyle can work together to protect us from overconsumption of nutrients.”

Importantly, and unexpectedly for the research team, the men who did show higher levels of liver fat had drunk 90% less alcohol but more carbs than other participants. This particular finding is especially of interest because it suggests that certain people’s livers may be more vulnerable to carbs than alcohol.

“A potential explanation of these findings is that high carbohydrate consumption may have a greater impact on liver fat than alcohol in some people,” Professor Parks adds. “Given the high prevalence of overconsumption of food and alcohol in the U.S., further studies are needed in a larger population. Our goal is to understand differences between people in how they respond to excess food and alcohol. It may be that limiting meal carbohydrates may protect the liver.”

To facilitate these findings, all 18 participating men were given lots of alcoholic drinks for a full afternoon (five hours), all while simultaneously indulging in tons of hamburgers, cupcakes, and chips. Sometimes taking part in a scientific study involves enduring unpleasant sensations, challenging tasks, or awkward moments. In this case, though, it’s fairly safe to say most of the men involved in this study were happy to do their part.

On average, each man ate a total of 5,087 calories during the five-hour timespan; more than enough to raise their insulin, fat, and glucose blood levels.

In-person tailgates haven’t been as prevalent as usual over the past year due to COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean fans aren’t partying before games. Many NFL fan bases have started holding “virtual tailgates” on game days, so it’s important to keep in mind that three boxes of cupcakes and six beers will be just as bad for you no matter where you’re eating and drinking.

The full study can be found here, published in Alcohol.