When I’m coaching one of the main obstacles I find a lot of my clients face is that they enjoy drinking alcohol. Now, I’m based in the North East so I don’t know how important my geographical placing is here, but I can say from experience that this is so much of an issue with some people that the idea of cutting out alcohol is a dealbreaker when it comes to improving their health, performance and body composition.
Put simply, the assumption is that it’s a choice between health and fitness, and having a beer...and beer wins.
In fact a lot of what you will read online or in magazines backs this up. Every day there are articles telling you to cut out booze. Every day people tell me via my Facebook Feed (My main interaction with ‘other people’…) that they are cutting out alcohol in the run up to a holiday/wedding/other thing which they want to not be fat for; and there is a very large percentage of people who train at my gym (my other interaction with ‘other people’) who abstain completely - but this isn’t necessarily warranted.
No, it is possible to have beer, wine, rum (yes please) and any other alcoholic beverage which you desire and still reach any goal you have, and I can prove it. Here’s a quick primer on alcohol and what drinking some of it means for your body, and some practical recommendations to enjoy it within your plan.
Alcohol and Calorie Balance
First of all Alcohol is a macronutrient just like carbs, fat and protein which delivers 7kcal per gram. Interestingly, though, it has a really high thermic effect, meaning that you lose a lot of this energy as heat (hence, you feel hot and get flushed when you drink). You actually lose 20% of ingested calories immediately, which is pretty cool. Because of this the caloric value of alcohol is actually closer to 5kcal per gram than 7.
What this translates to, in real terms, is that a 25ml shot of vodka, rum or gin at 40% alcohol has 10ml alcohol which, through the voodoo of liquid density translates to 8g with the rest of the spirit being made up of water and magic. This 8g delivers 54 calories at 7kcal per gram, but in terms of USABLE calories you get 40. Not bad.
When you consume nutrients your body burns them in order of preference based upon the amount of that nutrient that you are able to store for later use. The order is:
This doesn’t really mean anything for fat loss, so don’t read too much into it and think that this is me saying that if you eat carbs you don’t burn fat because it isn’t. I won’t go into the full details here as it would take up another article to cover properly and throwing it in now would create a boring-ass tangent; just suffice it to say that whether you eat carbs or fats as your main energy source, fat loss/gain will be about the same as your body ‘balances it all out’. (1) It’s a complex topic, but all you need to know from a practical standpoint is that it doesn’t make a difference.
What this DOES mean in lay terms is that consuming protein and carbs shuts off fat oxidation until that protein/carb energy is used up or stored, then fat oxidation starts happening again (again, if you eat a high fat diet then fat oxidation happens much more, but you are also eating more fat, so it balances out). Put alcohol into it and it also stops fat oxidation, but it also stops carb and protein oxidation, too.
Alcohol breaks down into acetate when digested, which has just about no chance of ever being stored as fat directly, so it effects fat loss in the same way as carbs do, by making you store dietary fat if you consume too many calories over the course of a day.
What THIS means is that, provided you don’t consume alcohol over and above your calorie need (done by replacing some of your usual intake of carbs/fats with alcohol, explained in a moment) you won’t experience any extra fat storage because you went for Wednesday lunchtime G&T’s.
The MAIN issue with alcohol for most people reading this is the fact that it lowers inhibitions. This might mean that you make yourself look daft on the dancefloor, try to kiss some hot co-worker, or indeed kiss that weird co-worker who tries to kiss you, but it also means that you won’t think twice about eating a ton of food you’d not usually eat.
Ever come home and eat a whole box of cereal, or a greasy kebab, or a family sized pizza then regret it? Yeah – THAT is where alcohol associated fat gains come from.
If you are going to drink quite a bit, a big night out for example, eat lightly during the day.Tweet
Alcohol and Hormones
What we eat can affect our hormones. That’s a very true sentence, and its simplicity makes potentially the most complex topic in nutrition seem very straightforward, but true it remains and alcohol is no exception.
You are probably familiar with the idea that alcohol can lower testosterone levels in men. This is often cited as the reason that men who consume alcohol develop female pattern fatty deposits (man boobs and big hips and such) but it’s ALSO given as a rationale behind the idea that those who want to make mad gains in the gym should abstain from alcohol use.
Lowered testosterone = less gains, they say.
Well this is kind of true, alcohol DOES lower test levels a bit – but fortunately it’s only a bit. According to one study (2) men and women who were given 40 and 30g of alcohol respectively (which equates to 5 units for men and just under 4 in women) every single night for three weeks experienced a reduction in testosterone of 6.8% in the men and zero effect in women. That’s not a lot in the scheme of things, and I don’t think that it comes as much of a surprise that a 21 day stretch of drinking 5 shots of vodka might have some small effects on a man’s hormone levels.
If you wanted to REALLY screw your hormones up you’d need to get really wasted. Another study (3) involving around 120g alcohol (that’s 15 units…) consumed as a binge indicated that this can reduce testosterone levels by around 23%, but again – if you are going to go and get properly drunk often enough for this to harm your gym progress from a hormonal standpoint then these effects are probably the least of your problems.
Testosterone and oestrogen, the chief anabolic hormones in men and women respectively, ARE messed up in chronic alcoholics, but there’s a big difference, you see, between a chronic alcoholic and someone who drinks a bit every now and then.
So if alcohol doesn’t really harm your gains from a hormonal perspective, what about in other ways? I’m sure you’ve heard that alcohol will harm your recovery, right?
Alcohol and Post Workout Recovery
One thing I love about this section is that most nutritional randomised controlled trials are performed on college kids from the US. That means that one half of the study are being paid (or at least incentivised) to train and then get drunk while their college classmates have to sit there sober and watch them have a good time…
Drinking alcohol pre-workout has been tested (yeah, really) to see if this had any impact on muscle damage and it came up with no difference (4) while another looked at post workout drinking and found no impacts on strength gains (5). It’s not all gravy, though, as there have been studies which show the opposite if training is really exhaustive or inherently difficult to recover from (the researchers used a lot of slow negatives to cause a lot of muscle damage (6,7). This kind of training sucks no matter what you do, though, and it’s efficacy for actually building muscle is questionable at best, so I wouldn’t read too much into this bit because it’s not all that relevant to the real world.
Even when it comes to hydration you’re going to be OK. A very recent paper (8) determined how well 2 beers (660ml total) could replenish lost water and electrolytes after training and it performed just as well as mineral water, bottoms up!
But is it healthy?
Of course we’re not just about getting lean and jacked (…are we?) so what about the health effects of alcohol? Now up front I’m not going to bang on about the ‘healthy effects of red wine’ like most alcohol articles do, because largely they don’t actually exist. The benefits of red wine supposedly come largely from the resveratrol content but in actual fact the amount found in red wine is negligible in most cases, and there are even significant questions surrounding the ‘fact’ that Resveratrol actually does anything at all anyway (9).
No I’m talking about the health effects of the actual alcohol itself. MODERATE alcohol consumption is correlated with improvements to lifespan (10), insulin sensitivity (11) and even some forms of cancers (12). Remember that this DOES NOT mean causation, but it’s a decent indicator that the opposite effect is unlikely to happen – so if the correlation between a moderate alcohol intake and lifespan is a good one, it’s unlikely that a moderate intake of alcohol is actually killing you.
Of course, huge binges or even moderate to large amounts of daily drinking are likely not a good thing, but having 1-2 drinks most or even every day (a drink being a pub measure, I’ve seen people pouring spirits at home….) isn’t likely to cause you physical harm and might even do you some good over the longer term.
Always remember, too, that health is described as ‘A complete state of mental, social and physical wellbeing, not just the absence of disease or infirmity’ (13) and that means that abstaining from alcohol completely to the detriment of your happiness and social life is in fact BAD for your overall health.
If you choose not to drink for your own reasons – if it brings out the worst in you, if you would rather not tempt yourself to overindulge or if you just straight up don’t want a damn beer - and you still enjoy mental and social wellbeing then all power to you, but if this isn’t you then don’t feel like your healthy lifestyle has to get in the way.
So, my recommendations
If you are going to drink quite a bit, a big night out for example, eat lightly during the day.
Focus meals on protein and vegetables to make sure you get to your protein goal and get your micronutrient quota for the day whilst creating a ‘calorie sink’ that allows for the calorie load of your drinking. When drinking, focus on light beers, glasses of wine and spirits with calorie free mixers then DO NOT GET A PIZZA while you wait for a taxi. Cocktails, cider, liquers like Jaegarmeister or Disoranno, and those luminous bottles of weird stuff I see children drinking in parks aren’t going to make you instantly gain a stone, but that’s where the bulk of liquid night-out-calories lie, so beware.
If you are going to have a beer or glass of wine with an evening meal (or two), simply reduce or remove your added carb/fat load from lunch or breakfast by dropping cheese, oil or the rice and don’t worry about it.
Practice common sense. A 200 calorie pint or glass of wine is not going to ruin goals, a huge bender likely won’t either if you follow the above advice, but if you do this every week it will affect your recovery and performance because you’ll be hung over all the damn time, as well as your appetite.
It’s probably not a good idea to get rat-arsed post workout, but one beer isn’t going to hurt and it might hydrate you pretty well, to boot.
Finally - enjoy your life, stress is harmful in and of itself!
- (1) Sacks et al (2009). ‘’ Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates’’. The New England Journal of Medicine
- (2) Hendriks et al (2004). ‘Effect of moderate alcohol consumption on plasma dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, testosterone, and estradiol levels in middle-aged men and postmenopausal women: a diet-controlled intervention study.’ Alcohol Clin Esp Res.
- (3) Huhtaniemi et al (1990). The pulsatile secretion of gonadotropins and growth hormone, and the biological activity of luteinizing hormone in men acutely intoxicated with ethanol. Alcohol Clin Esp Res
- (4) Clarkson and Reichsman (1990). ‘The effect of ethanol on exercise-induced muscle damage’. J Stud Alcohol
- (5) Andersen et al (2007). Motor performance during and following acut alcohol intoxication in healthy non-alcoholic subjects).
- (6) Barnes et al (2010). Post exercise alcohol ingestion exacerbates eccentric-exercise induced losses in performance. Eur J Appl Physiol
- (7) Heikkonen et al (1996). The combined effect of alcohol and physical exercise on serum testosterone, Leutinising Hormone and Cortisol in males. Alcohol Clin Exp Res.
- (8) Castillo et al (2015). Effects of a moderate intake of beer on markers of hydration after exercise in the heat: a crossover study. JISSN.
- (9) http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/resveratrol
- (10) Gazanio et al (2000). Light to Moderate alcohol consumption mortality in the Physician’s Health Study enrolment cohort. J Am Coll Cardiol
- (11) Arima et al (2002). Alcohol reduces insulin-hypertension relationship in ta general population: the Hisayama study. J Clin Epidemiol
- (12) Akesson et al (2005). Alcohol Consumption and risk of renal cell cardinoma: a prospective study of Swedish women. Int J Cancer
- (13) http://www.who.int/about/definition/en/print.html