It’s one of those things that everyone KNOWS is bad for you.
When you’re dieting to lose fat, it’s the number one enemy you need to remove from your life.
If you read all the bodybuilding magazines, you’re sure that it will prevent fat metabolism and cause you to lose lean mass.
Alcohol really doesn’t seem to have much going for it, and the general consensus is that if you’re serious about getting results, you need to completely abstain from drinking.
But what if you could still drink alcohol and reach your goals?
What about if it didn’t slow down progress at all?
How about, as crazy as it seems, allowing yourself to drink alcohol (even on a regular basis) could actually lead to quicker progress?
It sounds absurd, but actually, this could well be the case.
Why we Demonise Alcohol
It’s fair to say that alcohol gets a pretty bad rap from fitness professionals, personal trainers, nutritionists and diet experts.
It’s put on a pedestal as something that really doesn’t have any place when it comes to fat loss.
The main reason for this is because alcohol can’t be used for energy in the same way as other macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats.)
Alcohol is actually a macronutrient in its own right, containing 7 calories per gram, as opposed to the 4 calories per gram in protein and carbohydrate and the 9 calories per gram in fat.
The other macros, however, all have fairly important roles –
- Protein is needed for cell growth and repair.
- Fat is essential for hormone production.
- Carbs are our bodies main source of energy.
While there is an argument that theoretically, we don’t NEED carbohydrate, even if you follow a zero carb diet, your body will manufacture glucose (carbohydrate) from protein and fat, so even though dietary carbohydrate isn’t essential, we still need carbs within the body.
Alcohol, however, doesn’t really serve a purpose. Therefore, as it’s nutrient void, many consider it the macronutrient to avoid completely.
Losing All Your Gains
Bodybuilders are about as afraid of alcohol as they are of the gym closing for maintenance for a week, or having their protein powder taken away from them.
The truth is that alcohol does have a very minor effect on protein synthesis (the amount of protein absorbed and utilised by the muscle tissue.) However, in the grand scheme of things, this effect is so small, that it simply isn’t worth worrying about.
A beer or glass of wine here and there will have no significant impact on muscle protein synthesis.
Likewise, it’s hypothesised that alcohol can interfere with lipolysis (fat burning) for similar reasons, but yet again, when we look at drinking in moderation, this isn’t anything that even someone going for the body of a bikini model or fitness competitor needs to worry about.
Could it Even Be Beneficial?
The research suggesting that direct alcohol consumption can have a positive impact on your physique and performance is sketchy, so I wouldn’t advise anyone to start drinking, but think of it like this –
If you tell yourself you “can’t” have something any more, what does that do?
It makes you crave it more than you’ve ever craved it in your life.
Gradually, those cravings build and build, until one day, you give in to them, which doesn’t just mean one drink – it means one massive bottle (or two or three) of your chosen tipple.
This will have a far more detrimental effect on your progress than just having the odd drink every now and again.
Therefore, I would summarise that moderate alcohol consumption, if it’s something you enjoy, will help you stick to your diet more consistently, and give you better long term results.
The Calories in Alcohol
This was mentioned a little earlier, but alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, which actually makes it less calorie dense than fat.
Additionally, alcohol has the second highest thermic effect of all the macronutrients. (The thermic effect is the amount of calories burned through the digestion process of a macronutrient.)
Protein has a thermic effect of 25 to 30%, carbs have 6 to 8% and fat has just 2 to 3%.
Alcohol on the other hand has a thermic effect of around 20%. So actually, out of those 7 calories per gram, you only take in and absorb around 5.6 of them.
Counting the Macros
Many people assume that the best way to track calories and macros from alcohol is to create a separate monitoring system for alcohol on you’re My Fitness Pal account (or whatever tracking software or app you use.)
This is doable, but it makes things extremely complicated, and unless you’re giving yourself a set alcohol target every day (which isn’t recommended) it means chopping and changing too much.
The best thing to do is to count alcohol as a carbohydrate or a fat.
In reality, it’s neither, but this makes it simple.
Obviously, if you’re just tracking total calorie intake, or maybe calories and protein, then you don’t need to worry about this – simply factor the calories from your alcoholic drink into your day’s numbers.
For those of you watching each individual macro though, the following will be useful –
- If you want to count alcohol as a carbohydrate, divide the total calorie content of your drink by 4, and count it as this many grams of carbs.
- If you want to count alcohol as a fat, divide the total calorie content of your drink by 9, and count it as this many grams of fat.
For example, a glass of wine containing 140 calories would work out to roughly –
35 grams of carbs (140/4)
15.5 grams of fat (140/9)
You could even count half the calories as carbs and the other half as fat, which would give
17.5 grams of carbs (70/4)
7.8 grams of fat (70/9)
This can get a little convoluted though, so the best method is to pick carbs or fat. Then, if you’re having more than one drink, maybe alternate by counting one as a carb, the next as a fat, and so on.
Moderation Rules the Day
While it’s perfectly possible to drink alcohol and get exactly where you want to be – whether that’s standing on stage in front of screaming fans, looking lean and toned in a swimsuit on the beach, or just feeling great and being the most in shape at your family reunion – you don’t want to overdo it.
Moderation is key.
You still need to place your emphasis on nutrient-dense foods; fruits and veggies, lean proteins, oily fish, whole-grains and the like.
A fantastic idea is to set up a “budget” for junk food, and include alcohol in this.
I tend to advise a 10 to 20% junk food budget.
If you’re on low macros and dieting, shoot for the 10% range. If you’re at maintenance, or are lucky enough that you can lose fat on a higher calorie intake, then 20% works just fine.
So someone aiming to eat 2,000 calories per day could get 200 to 400 per day from “junk.”
Even if that means you’re only on 200 calories, that’s still enough for one and-a-half small glasses of wine, or a pint of beer every day.
As always, a sensible, sustainable approach is best. Don’t make alcohol a main focus of your diet, but realise that in moderation, it won’t do you any harm, and could even make you more likely to stick to your plan.
Result Based Training