Alcohol… Whether it’s Monday Night Football, summertime BBQ’s, date night with your wife, or just another Saturday with your buddies or girlfriends… alcohol is more than likely involved somewhere in your lifestyle.
If you’re not a drinker and can remain sober, this article may not apply much to you. You also have an easier time staying lean, because you won’t need to worry about alcohol’s effect on body composition. But I know for myself personally, I want abs AND some cold beers here and there…
Yet as I got into this fitness space, years ago, everything I read and everyone I talked to said I just can’t have both. I had to choose one or the other and deep down, I just knew that had to have been bullshit. I understand the principles of thermodynamics and have coached too many people towards successful fat loss to buy into that.
Luckily, over the years, more and more info has come up about flexible dieting and how incorporating foods that may not be considered “clean” or even straight alcohol into your diet, won’t make you fat, kill your testosterone, or lose a bicep through muscle atrophy due to insufficient protein synthesis – assuming you go about it properly.
However, I have to be cautious going into this simply because if I tell someone, “No, alcohol won’t make you fat! It’s called flexible dieting!”…. Then they may go lift and drink beer post workout, every day until they ARE fat. Because taking all of this out of context, WILL make you fat.
Now that I’ve taken care of the disclaimer here… We can move onto the good stuff.
Yes, that picture above explains the “Good stuff” – i.e. being lean, lifting heavy, enjoying the process of your diet, and drinking beer during the process.
Although we can’t take this out of hand, you absolutely can have your cake (or beer) and see your abs, too
So let’s break down alcohol from the meathead’s perspective and more importantly, how you can incorporate it into your diet plan.
When we do this, we need to look at things in calories and macronutrients. Whether or not you personally decide to track your macros is up to you and either can provide successful results, but in our experience macronutrients allow us to get much more specific inside of our client’s diet plan AND allow us to use more flexibility to increase long-term adherence (the real key).
Because of this, we’ll be focusing heavily on macros during this article because it is by far the most accurate way to fit alcohol into the plan.
Macros & Alcohol
When diving into alcohol, nutrition, and learning how to safely combine the two – we need to look at macronutrients and what their caloric value is:
Protein → 4 Calories Per Gram.
Carbs → 4 Calories Per Gram.
Fat → 9 Calories Per Gram.
Alcohol → 7 Calories Per Gram.
Yes, alcohol is it’s own macronutrient… This can be debated because the energy provided by alcohol is obviously not nearly as beneficial or essentially needed as those from carbs, fats, or proteins – but the reality is that it may be needed for social and lifestyle adherence, which is just as important when considering the long-term progressions of a successful nutrition plan.
Many people look at alcohol as a sugar (carb) and that would lead us to believe it has 4 calories per gram… Not true, as you can see. Alcohol is a separate type of nutrient, called ethanol, which has 7 calories per gram and is processed inside our body much differently than carbohydrates and sugars.
Why is this even important to know?
Because it allows you insight on how to calculate alcohol into your dietary budget (aka your calories) and it provides you with the understanding that all alcohol has calories, even if you’re taking it straight.
Many people make the mistake of saying, “Oh but I was just having vodka soda’s 4 times a week, not beer or wine or anything with sugar in it.”
That’s great, because vodka sodas are lower calorie than many other drinks at the bar… but a vodka soda has MORE calories than some sugary non-alcoholic drinks, knowing that alcohol as a nutrient actually has more calories per gram than carbs do.
The beauty of knowing this is just that it allows us to fit alcohol into our calories. If you have 2,500 calories to work with and you know you’re going to have three 8oz glasses of The Dreaming Tree Cabernet tonight (Excellent taste and not too expensive – by the way), which is an extra 576 calories (192 cal per 8oz) – I better cut some carbs and fats from my earlier meals in order to make room (never protein, more on that later).
This is why having a flexible approach to dieting is KEY for long-term success. To provide you with a non-alcoholic example, let’s say I decide to have an extra fatty rib eye steak for dinner, but I didn’t plan ahead for this. So when I add it into MyFitnessPal, it sends me well over my fat intake for the day… What do I do?
I simply drop some carbs from today to ensure my total daily caloric intake remains the same. If my calories and protein needs are still in check and balanced, my results will not suffer.
Let’s get even more specific and say that it sends me over, but it’s too late to cut carbs or I just don’t care to cut carbs and make it all fit because it’s date night and I’m paying a pretty penny for this dinner…
I’m going to rob Peter to pay Paul, which is a cool way of saying I’ll cut some carbs tomorrow. What does this do? Ensures my WEEKLY total caloric intake is still in check and balanced, which will allow my results to once again not suffer at all.
What this does is give us freedom to eat how we want to eat and still see positive body composition changes.
Now, there are definitely reasons I set specific macronutrient ratios for specific clients. It does have a big effect on performance, muscle growth, and enhanced fat loss, because each individual needs a different macronutrient prescription for optimal adherence and progress. So if you alter too frequently, switching up macronutrient ratios or adding in alcohol, results can definitely suffer.
But the big key takeaway here is that on occasion, flexibility is totally fine and will not cause negative repercussions to our success. In fact, it will improve our success due to less psychological stress and better long-term adherence.
Is Alcohol It’s Own Macronutrient…? (Yes – Ethanol)
Ethanol is the nutrient or chemical compound alcohol is made up of. It’s like glucose and carbohydrates, they’re one in the same – but it’s a nutrient-name vs. the actual compound itself.
The interesting thing about ethanol, or alcohol, is that it immediately burns up a small percentage of what is consumed. Meaning that when you ingest alcohol, 80% of that is absorbed (to get you drunk) and 20% of that is burned up during thermogenesis.
Ever wonder why when you’re drinking you get red, hot and sweaty a lot easier then when you’re sober? Well this is a big reason why.
So if alcohol (ethanol) is 7 calories per gram and we burn 20% of it immediately, that means it can technically be around 5.4 calories per gram.
But now we’re just splitting hairs and it can be way too much to try and consistently factor that into your macros. On top of that, when you type in a drink from a bar into your myfitnesspal app and it tells you its 1.5oz per shot, which is about 80 calories, you really have zero idea if that’s really how much made it into your shot glass – so it’s more advantageous to error on the side of more and just leave it as 7 calories.
That’s why in the flexible dieting world, we estimate to our best abilities – it’s not just about being flexible enough to fit in what you want to eat, food selection-wise, but also so that you understand close ranges to macro and caloric totals are absolutely acceptable as well.
How Does Alcohol Affect Your Body Composition?
So then the questions arise, “Does alcohol get stored as fat easier? Can it stop fat loss? Will it cause muscle loss or less muscle gains?”
In the shortest answer possible, not if it is in a controlled manor. Meaning that – from what we know as of now – if you have a few drinks, you’ll have zero negative effects on fat loss or muscle gain as long as calories are controlled and accounted for.
The issue then arises when we get into the 4, 5, 6+ drinks range. In this range it can stop or dramatically slow down muscle protein synthesis, which can hinder recovery and the rebuilding of muscle tissue, as well as lipolysis or fat oxidation (the breakdown of fats).
What this really means is that if you drink enough to get drunk – you’ll probably hinder your body composition results, temporarily. I say temporarily because this basically means we’re stopping the process of muscle growth and fat loss, for the amount of time alcohol is present in the body. Once this “toxin” has left, your body will proceed with the aesthetic changes its attempting to create.
Alcohol has also been shown to lower testosterone when over consumed, yet raises testosterone when mildly consumed. Basically, 1-3 drinks showed an increase in testosterone levels – very insignificant amounts, nothing that would increase noticeable muscle growth – and 5+ drinks showed a decrease in testosterone levels. There’s also less, but some, data to show that alcohol can impair female functioning hormones, as well – there’s just not as much info compared to how a male’s testosterone levels are affected.
This means alcohol is a hormonal double-edged sword and when you’re consuming enough to get drunk, it’s likely that you’re doing more harm than good. But having the occasion drink or two may just be of some advantage – not too mention it may lower some psychological stress, which has a gang of benefits to it as well.
Next, we have to consider alcohol’s affect on lowering your inhibitions. This is a fact and I don’t think it’s hard to prove, but we’re much more likely to make poor decisions when consuming alcohol. Couple that with the idea of using calories for a nutrient that’s extremely un-satiating (alcohol), we’re much more likely to consume poor food while under the influence. This is the main culprit of a drinker’s inability to lose weight; it’s the habit of drinking and eating – or losing self-discipline and going into a caloric surplus too regularly.
How To Fit Alcohol Into Your Macros
Now you understand the in’s and out’s of alcohol, from a nutritionists point of view.
It’s a unsatisfying nutrient that stores more calories than carbs and slightly less than fats, however is burned pretty quickly therefore you don’t stay very full for long AND lose control of your abilities to refrain from junk food, which may lead to a caloric surplus that causes fat accumulation. To throw the cherry on top, you may be negatively impacting your ability to build muscle or burn fat in the short term. However if you fit it in your caloric intake then you won’t digress in results, you just won’t progress during this period of time.
Clear? Make sense? Is that a pretty well rounded summary?
Now the question begs, how the hell should we fit it in to cause the least amount of damage?!
My suggestion is just to take either carbs or fats and substitute it for alcohol, but never protein.
You might be saying, “well I like carbs and fats way more than protein… so why the f#%k not?!”
Because protein has a higher TEF, is more satiating, is less likely to store as body fat, you’re already impairing your ability to rebuild tissue (via MPS), and it’s very hard to eat junk protein (protein is almost always whole food sourced).
So, if you tend to be a lightweight and need some carbs in your stomach to absorb some of the alcohol, take away fats to make room for the drinks. If you have more carbs to play with in your daily macros, sub out the carbs instead. Don’t know how to make a decision? Split it down the middle and take a bit of both. The beauty here is that it’s really all-caloric balance, meaning you can be flexible and use what you personally prefer.
At the end of the day, focus on hitting your protein needs and keeping close to your calorie limit (within 100 calories) and you will be absolutely fine.
For anyone who is very focused on building an aesthetic physique and wants my science based answer or opinion on what to do, I’d say take as much as you can via fat. Carbohydrates are more filling to most people, pack fewer calories per gram, and are less likely to be used for fat storage than fats. Can you store carbs as body fat? Of course, but only when you’re in a caloric surplus and even then your body will opt to store fat as fat because, well… it’s fat. The process of storing it doesn’t require much, compared to a preferred fuel source like carbohydrates where it does. This is why I tend to lean towards a high carb approach for those looking to build muscle or get shredded (read more about carbs, here – and for a scientific approach to Carb Cycling, check this out).
For the people not tracking macros, the easiest thing to do is to plan on eating lean proteins and veggies for your earlier meals – adding starchy carbs like rice or sweet potatoes if you’re training, too.
This could be an egg white omelet for breakfast and a mixed greens chicken salad with minimal dressing. With this, you’re walking into dinner with plenty calories left, plenty protein already consumed, and some of your micronutrients checked off from the greens in both meals. Now, without tracking calories, you can enjoy your dinner of choice and a few drinks without overdoing it.
At the end of the day, alcohol is a part of life – so restricting it completely isn’t going to aid you in long-term adherence, which is the golden ticket to sustainable results. But over doing anything is never a good option to choose because there will more than likely be unfavorable consequences you’ll have to deal with.
Be moderate, track your macros, and enjoy a few drinks.