Alcohol throws an additional challenge to people aiming for fat loss or even “just” transitioning to a healthier lifestyle, because – as usual- there are lots of myths surrounding it. From “it completely impairs fat loss” to “you should drink red wine every day to live longer” you will find everything. Let’s have a closer look to it.
Biochemistry and Metabolism of Alcohol in a Nutshell
What is commonly known as “alcohol” is chemically ethanol, which is a quite energy dense compound providing 7 kcals/gram (pure ethanol). It is quite a lot if you think that carbs and proteins have 4 kcals/gram and fats 9 kcals/gram. In addition, alcohol per se does not bring any micronutrients or fiber when you consume it and the body considers it a poison. This means the body prioritizes its metabolism and while your liver oxidizes ethanol, it can not oxidize fats, carbs and proteins.
Nevertheless, this is not the reason why you may gain weight when you drink alcohol: the short time frame while ethanol is metabolized has little impact when considering net fat gain or loss at the end of the day. As hopefully accepted to most of our readers, it is energy surplus that lets you gain weight and, indeed, alcohol can put you in a surplus but also ice cream, cookies or a pizza can 😉 . One note on the side for the real geeks which are familiar with signalling pathways: ethanol is known to interfere with muscle hypertrophy by suppression of mTORc1 and reduction of leucine oxidation.
Alcohol and Overeating
The most insidious effect of alcohol is that it affects hunger and impulse control as well. What does it mean? After cheering with one or two glasses of champagne or drinking a good pint of strong craft beer you will rather choose a nice big burger with potato wedges and have also dessert afterwards instead of eating just steak and veggies. In addition, alcohol is often consumed on social events, where you are also more prone to overeat due to social pressure and dumb comments of people telling you what you should or should not eat. After considering this two aspects, you may be a bit insecure if it is still a good idea to consume alcohol while dieting or trying to put on a decent amount of muscle.
Alcohol and Health
What is a “safe dose” of alcohol just for health first? This very good article on the Renaissance Periodization page cites a source which places an upper limit to 90ml (pure alcohol) per week for women and 130ml a week for men, as long as no single drinking session exceeds 40ml. How do you do the maths? It is quite simple if you know the percentage of your alcoholic beverage:
- 100ml of a 12% wine have 12ml pure alcohol, one 125ml glas of the same wine have 15ml pure alcohol.
- If you are a woman it would mean drinking approximately one glass six days a week or one and a half if you are a man.
- If you do not want to exceed the 40ml pure alcohol, you should not drink more than two and a half glass of 12% wine.
This recommendation is for health and gives a nice starting point but let’s have look at the relationship of drinking and training.
Alcohol and Training
Short term studies do not show any negative effect if alcohol consumption in the range described above. Binge drinking of course does affect performance but this is outside the topic of the article as someone who is somehow serious about training shouldn’t behave that stupid.
But even if you are not binging and you want perform well in the gym, the recommendations above are still too high and I would rather reduce the alcohol intake as much as possble. In this article the impact of alcohol on sports performance and recovery in male atheletes was analyzed and they came up with a dose of approximately 0,6ml/kg which should not impact most aspects of recovery. I’ll do the maths again for you: if you are a male with 80kg it means 48ml of pure alcohol per week. Again, as above, this is rather a guideline for an upper-limit dose and the more competitive you are as an athlete the more far away you should be from this limit.
As mentioned above, alcohol also inihibts muscle protein synthesis, therefore it makes sense to distance your drinking from training times as well, for example by not drinking on training days at all or at least to not include alcohol on the meals before or after your training sessions. In addition, if you know you are going to overconsume alcohol on a specific event, it would be good to not plan a heavy training on the next day or, even better, to rather skip the training session. A hangover is not a condition with which you should train as it causes drowsiness, fatigue, dizziness and countless other undesired effects: best case your training just sucks, worst case you get severly injured.
By the way, there is no magical cure to hangover, but you can help your dehydrated body by drinking lots of water.
Alcohol and Sleep
Everyone knows how important sleep is and alcohol is known to disrupt sleep by inhibiting REM sleep and shortening sleep time. This effect seems to be dose-dependent but it is not clear where the line is drawn as alcohol metabolism has high individual variability. If you would like to consume alcohol in the evening and a good night of sleep matters to you, a good rule of thumb would be to consume your alcoholic beverages at least three hours before bedtime. You may argue that alcohol has sedative effects as well but it’s for sure not a recommendable habit to drink in order to fall asleep because tolerance developes quickly.
In many western countries alcohol is part of social life and it may be difficult to completely avoid it. If it is part of your lifestyle, try to make it fit to your goals:
- keep it as far away from training as possible.
- keep it as far away from sleep as possible.
- consume always in moderation.
- if you count calories and do not have much room of freedom: chose rather dry wines and spirits as they have the least calories.
- be aware that alcohol affects hunger and impulse control: plan wisely by having a healthy protein-dense meal ready at home or saving up calories before.
I hope you enjoyed the article and I am looking forward to read your thoughts in the comment section below.
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