Booze and Your Body
Surely as I write this it’s 5 o’clock somewhere… I get asked A LOT about how alcohol affects not only fat loss goals, but also your performance in the gym or your sport. How many cocktails can I have each week and still lose weight? Does booze affect my muscle building or strength related goals? Etc… Obviously the topic of alcohol is huge, complex and multi-faceted, and there is no way I can cover everything (nor do I have the expertise) related to how alcohol affects us in one short article. So, focusing on the aspects of body composition and physical performance, I’ll share a little of my personal experience, as well as some science-y stuff.
First, let me assure you I’m no teetotaler. Like most adults I know, I enjoy having a drink fairly regularly. In fact, if I could have a drink everyday with no negative affects to my health and fitness goals, I totally would. I love wine, liquor, I make some awesome cocktails, and my margaritas are pretty legendary. Ok, so now that’s out there.
HOWEVER, I have noticed that the more I drink, the less aligned I am with where I feel most happy fitness wise. For example, I’m not obsessive about my weight or body-fat percentage having to be a precise number. But I have a range where I feel most comfortable about how I look, and where I know I will perform my best as an athlete. Not to mention that it’s easier for me to stay closer to where I need to be for my weight class for powerlifting, than to have to do a big cut when I’m going to compete. And unfortunately, booze is a big factor in this. I know this because I have tried (more than once) to (unsuccessfully) drop body fat while still enjoying a nightly cocktail. I’ve carefully tracked my macronutrients, cut all processed and refined carbs, and been just about as strict as a person can be in terms of food, but kept my alcohol consumption unchanged, and have seen my weight and body fat remain the same for weeks on end. But as soon as I drastically reduce my alcohol consumption, I find it’s a pretty quick change – even adding back in a couple of “splurges” of other varieties.
Ok, so right now you might be thinking – why? Aren’t calories just calories? What makes calories from alcohol different from any other calories you consume?
Well if you think about it for a minute, you already know there’s a difference. The average 6oz glass of red wine is about 144 calories, which is a few more calories than half a bagel. Without knowing anything else about the nutritional breakdown of these two foods, I know there is a difference in how they affect my body just from how they make me feel. After half a bagel I’m not going to feel a little tipsy, start getting louder, and be convinced my stories are hilarious. Not that I’m advising that you should eat bagels… Just that it’s pretty obvious that alcohol affects the body differently from other calories you take in. Here are a few specifics:
The alcohol we consume in boozy drinks is ethanol, which we can’t metabolize directly. It gets broken down into acetaldehyde, acetate and acetyl-coA. Our bodies can’t store these metabolites, so when they are present (when you are drinking) our bodies turn to burning these off, instead of burning any stored fat or sugar. Which means you have taken your body out of fat burning mode, and into fat storage mode – not what you want if you have fat you’d like to lose. The metabolic byproducts acetaldehyde and acetate are toxins that are responsible for why we feel sick when we drink too much.
Alcohol consumption also affects our blood glucose levels, and our hormones. After drinking, the liver and muscles have a harder time storing sugar to convert into glycogen to later use for fuel. This can cause blood sugar fluctuations, food cravings, disrupted appetite and wreck our energy levels. While we are drinking, our bodies actually release adrenaline (your fight or flight hormone), which at the same time releases glucose into the bloodstream. If we aren’t using this excess glucose to fight an epic battle (They’ll never take our FREEDOM!!) our bodies are likely to end up storing it as fat. Alcohol is also known to increase the “stress” hormone cortisol (which is the hormone associated specifically with belly fat when its levels are too high) and decrease our “sleepy” hormone melatonin – so now we are in a perfect storm for poor quality / lack of sleep, which is a whole other series of articles in terms of how this negatively affects your health and fitness. And of course those cocktails mess with your estrogen and testosterone levels, so over-indulging in booze isn’t helping there either.
Ever gone to happy hour with the intention of having one drink and then leaving, only to find yourself ordering another round for the whole table, plus the large order of nachos? Sure, maybe we could all have better willpower, but the cards are stacked against us in this case because alcohol actually changes our brain chemistry by releasing dopamine. This is our “feel good” neurotransmitter that makes us just want to keep “rewarding” ourselves with more… more booze… more starchy, fatty foods… more good times. And of course all those extra ‘rewards” can add up pretty quickly to sideline our fitness goals.
But what about if I just save my calories for my wine and skip some snacks instead? This might sound crazy to some of you, but I’ve heard it, so I’m bringing it up. This isn’t advisable for a variety of reasons, but from a fitness standpoint, substituting booze for food leads to muscle loss. Muscles that are regularly exposed to large amounts of ethanol decrease in size, and your body is less able to recover, rehydrate and preserve lean muscle mass after drinking.
So how much is too much alcohol? Well, it depends on a person’s size, activity level, genetics and a few other factors… and of course your fitness goals as well. The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee defines “moderate” drinking as up to 7 drinks in a week, with no more than 3 per day for women, and up to 14 drinks a week for men, with no more than 4 per day. A drink in this case is about 12 oz of beer at about 5% ABV, 5 oz of wine around 12% ABV, and1.5 oz of liquor at 40% ABV. If you have a fat loss goal, or want to maintain a very lean physique, you will likely have to drink MUCH LESS than these guidelines. For me personally I have found that it’s pretty hard for me to lose fat if I am drinking more than 3 drinks per week. I can usually get away with one or two more if I’m just trying to maintain.
Yes, there are some mutants who seem to be able to drink as much as they want and never gain weight. Yes, men do seem to have a bit easier time with losing weight while still being able to have a bit more booze. Life isn’t fair.
If you have a body composition goal (meaning you’d like to lose weight or add muscle hypertrophy) and you train hard at 3 or 4 times a week and follow a good nutrition plan, but still aren’t seeing results, taking a look at your alcohol consumption is a good idea. It’s also worth taking some time to ask yourself a few questions about how alcohol is really affecting your fitness goals: How am I feeling after I drink? Do I end up having less energy for my training sessions? Am I recovering well in between sessions? Can I drink without binging on more booze or unhealthy foods? Am I getting the results I really want?
At the end of the day, it’s a very personal decision as to how much (if any) alcohol to include in your nutrition plan. As Breakthrough’s nutrition coach, I’m always happy to help our members make a plan for their food and make decisions about what to include in their diet. And please know that if reading this article or asking yourself any of the above questions brought up some challenges for you, never be afraid to ask for help!
Strength & Love,
PS – Yikes! I’ve just realized I’m publishing this article on Labor Day weekend… when probably a lot of us are (myself included) are planning to have a drink or two. Worst timing ever? Maybe. Or perhaps the best – you’ve got an extra day for self-reflection to examine what’s right for you personally where booze and your body are concerned 🙂 Sláinte!