Can you drink alcohol without sabotaging your fat loss or muscle gains or is the casual glass of wine or beer going to ruin your progress and leave you skinny fat?
It’s a question as old as time that leaves most people praying for a YES but expecting a no.
The truth is the answer is somewhere in between; on the one hand alcohol has some detrimental effects but these effects can be minimised to allow you to include alcohol in your diet without sabotaging your progress.
Personally, I don’t drink too often but now and then I do enjoy a drink. You know, that ice-cold beer at the first BBQ of summer or a couple of glasses of wine when catching up with friends and family. That's something I actively look forward to.
For so many of us drinks like these are a ritual interwoven with the experience of relaxation and joy in the company of friends and family. It has become so heavily associated with connecting on an emotional level, being able to be yourself and let the stresses of the world melt away, even if just for a moment.
It’s more than just ‘alcohol’ or just ‘a drink’, it’s the bigger picture, the moment and the experience that accompanies it. So, when you’re told that your new workout and diet plan involves cutting out all alcohol, all the time, you start to push back and any chance of meaningful progress is lost there and then.
I’m not going to tell you that you have to be teetotal.
I understand it’s all of the above rolled in with the pressure of social situations where it’s almost an obligation to have at least one drink, a social convention if you will, you’re expected to drink so you do.
Someone saying, “don’t drink” makes it seem so easy and in principle it is, but in life things are rarely that cut and dry. Alcohol isn’t always binge-drinking and puking in a corner, for many people it’s a release or an escape enjoyed on occasion.
In addition to exploring the research and laying out the facts I’m also going to provide you with an action plan to use on the days you do want to drink to minimise the negative effects and keep you on track to reach your goals.
What happens when you drink alcohol?
When you consume alcohol, it enters the stomach and small intestine where it’s transported to blood vessels which move it into your bloodstream. Through this process approximately 20% of the alcohol is absorbed through the stomach with the remaining 80% absorbed by the small intestine.
The alcohol is then metabolised by your liver where enzymes break it down into acetate.
How does alcohol impact your health?
Alcohol is often associated with bad health and rapid weight gain and whilst there are some negative effects, research shows that it’s not all bad and there are some health benefits to drinking alcohol.
In fact, drinking 1-2 drinks a few times a week has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce the risk of hypertension, protect cardiovascular health (1, 2) and even slightly improve your immune system.
Now I’m not suggesting you drink every day, far from it, but I did want to show you that there are some health benefits to drinking alcohol. Arguably it’s healthier to drink occasionally than it is to remain teetotal.
What does this mean for fat loss? – Alcohol, energy balance & fat storage
Alcohol is 7 calories per gram which is nearly twice as much as protein and carbohydrate at 4 calories per gram and not too far from fat at 9 calories per gram.
However, research shows that due to the high thermic effect of alcohol that the actual amount metabolised by the body is about 80% making the actual calorie amount per gram closer to 5.5 kcals per gram.
When you consume alcohol, it is processed by the liver and broken down into a substance called acetate. Acetate is toxic and as a result your body prioritises the metabolising of alcohol above everything else.
As a result, the digestion of fat, carbohydrates and protein will be halted until all alcohol has been cleared from your body. A research study investigated the extent to which (acute) alcohol consumption inhibits the oxidation of fat, carbohydrates and protein.
This study found that total body fat oxidation was reduced by 79%, protein oxidation was reduced by 39% and carbohydrate oxidation was “almost completely abolished.”
Now you’re probably wondering given this just how fat alcohol will make you.
The truth is whilst alcohol when consumed with food tends to lead to an “increase [in] food intake, (probably through enhancing the short-term rewarding effects of food)”, alcohol itself is not necessarily the lead contributor to weight gain, with researchers giving more weight to an individual’s “personality and habitual beverages preferences.” (1, 2)
So, if you drink high calorie drinks every night in moderate excess, you probably will gain weight. Not to mention your decision making when drunk isn’t exactly going to be 100% so you’ll tend to overeat as well as over drink which will lead to rapid weight gain if done regularly.
However, if you drink lower calorie drinks less frequently and account for this in your daily calories then alcohol won’t necessarily contribute to weight gain. Remember alcohol suppresses fat oxidation which allows your body to store fat and carbohydrates more easily but the conversion of alcohol itself into fat is negligible if it happens at all.
What this means is;
- If you drink alcohol and are in a calorie surplus you will gain weight
- If you drink alcohol but account for it in your daily calories you will lose weight if in a calorie deficit
This correlates with the bulk of research done on this topic; “Experimental evidence from several metabolic studies showed a suppression of lipid oxidation by alcohol and thus the enhancement of a positive fat balance. The non-oxidized fat is preferentially deposited in the abdominal area. The experimental metabolic evidence suggests that the consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol has to be accounted for in the energy-balance equation and may represent a risk factor for the development of a positive energy balance and thus weight gain.”
Alcohol directly doesn’t make you fat, it’s all the calorie rich food you eat with abandon when you’re drunk that does, i.e. a calorie surplus.
In your action plan, we’ll look at exactly how to do this will minimum detriment to your aesthetic goals.
How does alcohol effect muscle building?
Good news so far but this isn’t the full story, to get a full picture on how alcohol effects muscle building we need to look at the impact is has on testosterone, recovery and performance.
Let’s jump right in.
Alcohol, testosterone and protein synthesis
You’d be mistaken for thinking that a drop of alcohol will eliminate your testosterone, ruin any chances you have of building muscle and turn you back into a weak child.
Alcohol is so often touted as a testosterone killer and a severe no-no in the fitness industry, but is it as bad as you’re led to believe?
One study conducted a “randomized, diet-controlled, crossover study, [with] 10 middle-aged men and 9 postmenopausal women, all apparently healthy, non-smoking, and moderate alcohol drinkers. [They] consumed beer or no-alcohol beer with dinner during two successive periods of 3 weeks. During the beer period, alcohol intake equalled 40 and 30 g per day for men and women, respectively.”
At the conclusion of the study researchers recorded that there was only a 6.8% decrease in testosterone for men and no reduction measured for women.
Let’s put this into perspective, one drink is considered to be about 15 g, that means these participants were drinking 2 – 3 drinks a day for at least 3 weeks and after all that alcohol testosterone levels decrease by 6.8% for guys and nothing at all for women.
Another study gave 8 male volunteers alcohol to amount of 1.5 g per kg of bodyweight, totalling an average of 120 g or 10 beers over a 3-hour period.
This resulted in a drop in testosterone of 23% between 10 – 16 hours after the drinking had started.
What does this mean?
Well, I think we can quite safely say that unless you’re going binge drinking regularly or on some sort of 3-week alcohol retreat then the occasional after work drinks are not going to interfere with your muscle building.
What about protein synthesis?
The research here is pretty limited and the main study I found was conducted using rats.
The study did find that alcohol reduced the rate of protein synthesis however, it’s hard to say conclusively what this means for us humans as we do not necessarily react the same way as rats, it could be an indication of alcohol’s ability to decrease protein synthesis but it could also be nothing.
Upon further research, I found an additional study that measured the effect of a protein and alcohol mix on protein synthesis after working out.
The study got 8 males to perform the following workout:
- 8x5 reps of leg extension with 80% of their 1 rep max
- 30 mins continuous cycling at 63% of their peak power output
- High intensity intervals on a bike consisting of 10 x 30 second sprints at 110% of their peak power output
Immediately after exercise and 4-hours after exercise they consumed one of the following at both periods:
- 500ml of whey protein amounting to 25g of protein
- Alcohol to the value of 1.5 g per kg of bodyweight (approx. 12 drinks) co-ingested with protein
- An energy-matched quantity of carbohydrate (25g of maltodextrin) with alcohol
In addition, the participants also ate a carbohydrate meal (1.5 g per kg of bodyweight) 2 hours after exercising.
The results showed a decrease in protein synthesis for both the alcohol and protein group (24%) and the carbohydrate and alcohol group (37%).
However, it’s hard to know the extent to which protein synthesis will be effected when drinking something closer to a ‘normal’ amount instead of the excessive 12 drinks used in the study. One would imagine the degree to which protein synthesis rates are decreased would be less so.
In any case, more research is need.
At this juncture, a logical conclusion to draw would be that drinking post workout is best avoided, but if you are going to drink post workout then to keep the amount of drinks to a minimum. If you do this then it is likely the impact on protein synthesis rates will be small.
Alcohol, recovery and performance
How does alcohol impair your performance and recovery?
Well one study showed a loss in force production and impaired recovery after consuming alcohol.
However, you can’t put much stock in this study and its relevance to yourself as the participants were performing “300 maximal eccentric contractions” which is a brutal training regime and an unlikely training methodology for the average gym goer to be using.
It’s safe to say that volume that crazy, especially using eccentric reps is going to be hard to recover from regardless of alcohol intake.
Another study found a reduction in glycogen storage with acute alcohol (1.5 g per kg for a total of 110 – 120g per participant) consumption after exercise.
However, again the participants were subjected to tough workouts consisting of 2 hours continuous cycling followed by 4 all out sprints of 30 seconds with 2 minutes of recovery in between. Not only this but the alcohol intake was excessive and 3 participants had to withdraw from the study due to vomiting as a result.
What does this mean for you?
Well unless you’re planning on smashing out a ridiculous number of eccentrics, perform long endurance feats and drink 10+ drinks it doesn’t really apply to you. This doesn’t mean you have free reign to drink 6+ drinks and expect to be fresh and ready to go, but relaxing with 1 – 3 drinks on occasion is ok and will have little to no impact on your recovery.
Different alcohols and their calorie values
Your social drinker action plan
Below are the exact steps you can use to enjoy a few drinks without the excess fat gain. However, please note that this plan is ineffective and cannot help you lose fat or preserve muscle if you drink too often.
I strongly recommend you use this plan once a week at the most.
Try and know when you will be drinking, putting this plan into action will be impossible with spur of the moment drinking
On the day that you’re going to drink aim to keep your fat intake at 5 – 10% of your daily calorie intake or 0.3g per kg
Keep your carbohydrate intake at 10 – 15% of your daily intake or 1.5g per kg. Try to get your carbs from vegetables for this day
Eat lots of protein, at a minimum hit your usual daily protein goal. Stick to lean sources as this will keep fat low, whilst helping with satiety
When drinking stick to low calorie drinks like dry white wine or spirits with a diet mixer
Don’t go crazy, nothing will save you from an all-out drinking binge. Enjoy yourself but know your limits and don’t let one night impact the next 2-3 days too.
Fitness is what you do 90% of the time, not the other 10%. If you slip up on your diet, overindulge or drink too much on occasion then don’t worry. Instead, of spiralling into a negative, shame filled slump with day long fasts and restriction just focus on getting back to your normal routine as quickly as possible.
Try to reflect and understand why it happened, maybe you were particularly exhausted and willpower was low, maybe you were celebrating something, whatever the reason is, if you can understand it and move on then you’ll be fine.
The bottom line is that unless you ‘re drinking every day for prolonged periods or drinking infrequently but excessively then the effect on fat loss or muscle gain will not be significant.