Ask your average Joe about alcohol and he’ll likely tell you it’s a necessity for winding down after a stressful day. Ask grandma, and she’ll fall over even thinking about you considering taking a sip of that Devil’s Brew. Pose the same question to the super serious bro at the gym with his gallon jug and skin tight tank top, and there’s no way he’s going anywhere near that aesthetics annihilator.
For those of you reading this, you’re likely somewhere in between these schools of thought. You realize alcohol isn’t exactly “healthy,” but then again- life’s pretty short. However, if you’re like most people- the specific effects of alcohol aren’t exactly clear, and knowing how exactly to balance your social and gym life can be a challenge.
I’ve teamed up with the BioLayne crew to provide you with a full breakdown of how alcohol is metabolized in the body, its effects on physique and performance, and strategies to help decide how to best enjoy nights out with friends while keeping your physique, and health, in mind, and don’t worry… we won’t tell Memaw.
Physiology and Metabolism
To fully appreciate the effects of alcohol, it’s important to first consider just what alcohol contains, and how the body processes it. Just as protein, carbs and fat contain different caloric values and metabolic requirements for digestion, so too does alcohol. Realizing the cascade of events and demands required by the body upon alcohol consumption can lend to better understanding of why it’s so important to determine how, if any, alcohol should be incorporated in day-to-day life.
It should first be noted that contrary to many fitness info-graphics, calories aren’t solely derived from protein, carbohydrate and fats. Alcohol is another significant contributor, and actually comes in at a whopping 7 calories per gram. Considering fat contains 9 calories per gram, and the fact alcohol is so easy to consume, this alone helps to explain why weight gain is so quick to occur with regular drinking. You wouldn’t drink fat by the glass for fear of sudden weight gain, so keeping in mind that alcohol isn’t much different than the caloric value of fat can help put each mixed drink in perspective for physique-conscious individuals.
It should also be noted; this calorie content is just in the alcohol itself, and not yet considering the calories in mixers and preparation methods.
Menace to Metabolism
Speaking of fat, this brings us to another misunderstood fact on the metabolism of alcohol in the body. Generally, weight gain and reduction are dependent on the use, storage, and breakdown (oxidation) of carbohydrate, protein, and fat consumed each day. Over simplified for the sake of this article- oxidize more substrates than are stored and body fat begins to decline. Store more than is oxidized and you have weight gain. Now introduce alcohol and you’ve thrown a wrench into your fat burning furnace.
As alcohol is consumed, the metabolism of protein, carbs and more importantly, fat are all put on hold, and the focus of the body is turned to metabolizing and getting rid of the newly introduced alcohol.  Since alcohol itself has no nutritional value to the body, and is toxic in substantial amounts, the body’s new goal is to break down and rid itself of alcohol before metabolizing any other source of calories. For the physique athlete, this means that any effort to lose body fat (or keep body fat off) is put on hold until the alcohol is completely broken down and on its way out- resulting in delayed fat loss and more easily accumulated body fat. Between the calories in alcohol, and the effects on substrate metabolism- it delivers a 1-2 punch against fat loss.
As athletes, we’re constantly looking for the next big edge on our competition or to improve our physiques. Nutrient timing, training periodization, supplementation, hydration- all factors any serious athlete considers when looking to optimize their efforts. These same athletes can benefit from considering the various effects chronic alcohol consumption can have on mental & physical performance, recovery, and even hormone balance.
Performance can be effected by as little as 3-4% dehydration.  Seeing as our performance in the gym directly effects the improvements in strength and appearance we see, keeping in mind that alcohol itself acts as a diuretic can help direct whether or not we decide to drink often.
Through inhibiting the hormone, ADH (anti-diuretic hormone), alcohol encourages the loss of water through increased urine output.  For reference, urine output has been shown to increase by 10ml for every 1 gram of ethanol consumed.  Although this may seem minuscule, considering one fluid ounce of ethanol converts to roughly 24 grams, and most people have multiple drinks, containing multiple ounces of alcohol- this can add up rather quickly.
This, compounded with the typically neglected water consumption when drinking, leads to dehydration. Dehydration itself, along with its contribution to hangovers can make the following morning workout after a night out drinking suboptimal to say the least.
For someone that drinks frequently on weekends- creating an insufficient environment for optimal training 1-2 workouts per week can add up over time to create a significant loss in potential improvements over the course of a training career.
On the nights you do decide to have some drinks, having some low-calorie sports drinks before and after going out, and having 1-2 glasses of water for every alcoholic drink consumed will help accommodate for the loss in water and electrolytes likely to occur throughout the evening.
Protein intake, peri-workout nutrition, keeping our masseuse and chiropractor on speed dial- we athletes know just how important it is to recover as best we can to get bigger and stronger. As tempting as it can be to kick back and enjoy a cold brew after a long day of work and gym session, it should be noted that alcohol intake has been shown to inhibit recovery of muscle tissue after exercise through reduced muscle protein synthesis, as well as other mechanistic effects. 
One study showed a roughly 10% greater reduction in lower body force output in subjects consuming alcoholic beverages compared to non-alcohol beverages after resistance training.  In a culture where supplements are purchased even if a 1-2% increase is even slightly possible, ensuring a 10% better force output by simply limiting alcohol intake is an easy method to ensure progress.
Another study helped highlight the deleterious effects on muscle fiber size with chronic ingestion of alcohol. Although resistance training helped to mitigate these effects, it’s important to realize that instead of training stimulus going toward positive muscular adaptions, in this case it would instead merely go toward mitigating unnecessary reductions in muscle quality from drinking on a normal basis. 
If you weren’t already second guessing your tickets to this weekend’s Beer Olympics, alcohol not only effects the above, but can also effect hormone balance in chronic drinkers. It’s commonly known that testosterone is a major factor in optimal improvements in muscle size and strength.  As a powerful determinant of muscle growth within the human body, it can be easy to understand why avoiding lifestyle factors that would reduce anabolic hormones like testosterone would be prudent for the performance and physique athlete.
This said, alcohol has been shown to reduce testosterone levels independent of nutritional interventions or weight change, showing that alcohol can reduce testosterone levels when all other factors remain constant.  Especially considering testosterone levels are know to decline during long-term dieting phases anyway, it makes sense to avoid any further depression of testosterone levels in order to maintain muscle tissue and support fat loss as well as possible.
Wine & Dine
After reading about the many drawbacks of alcohol consumption, you may feel like grabbing a drink just to make the news a bit easier to take. Before all hope seems lost, keep in mind that it is possible to still enjoy life without giving up alcohol altogether.
In the growth season when dietary changes can be a bit more flexible, there are some strategies I suggest to clients to help accommodate for occasional alcohol consumption to best mitigate any potential weight gain that could arise from it. This usually means allocating calories from daily carbs and/or fat totals to go toward the caloric intake of the expected drinks for a given evening.
Knowing some go-to options that are available at most bars and restaurants, then allocating the associated calories can help keep total daily caloric intake within reason, and fat gain to a minimum. Most athletes are going to have more carbs than fat to play with during their growth season. For this reason, I’ll have most clients to lower their carb intake relative to the type of drinks they plan to have later that night. If their go-to drink contains 150 calories, allotting around 38g carbohydrates per drink will help mitigate the effects on body composition those drinks will have.
Whether calories are allocated from carbs, fats, or a combination of the two- the point is that with some mindfulness and moderation, periodically attending a night out with friends having a few drinks can be enjoyed without feeling like all physique progress is lost. Below is a list of easy to order, lower calorie drink ideas that can make those nights out a bit easier on your physique.
Calorie Content of Common Alcoholic Beverages
|Liquor (1.5oz serving)|
|Samuel Adams Cream Stout||190 Calories|
|Blue Moon Belgian White||164 Calories|
|Bud Light||110 Calories|
|Miller Lite||96 Calories|
Low Calorie Go-To Options
Captain Diet (12oz serving)
Captain Morgan & Diet Coke
Approx. Calorie Content: 170 Calories
Jack & Diet (12oz serving)
Jack Daniels & Diet Coke
Approx. Calorie Content: 195 Calories
Vanilla Vodka & Diet Club Soda (12oz serving)
Vodka & Diet Coke (or other diet drink)
Approx. Calorie Content: 260 Calories
Vodka, Grape Juice & Cranberry Juice
Approx. Caloric Content: 175 calories
*Asking for mostly cranberry juice can help cut calories a bit further
Approx. Caloric Content: 75 calories
*Typically contain ½ the calories of a full glass of wine
- Ordering drinks “neat” or mixed with various diet colas or seltzer can help keep calories to a minimum and are easy to order at most establishments.
- Avoiding beer is generally a good idea since they can be very carb-heavy.
- Seltzers are calorie free, making for an easy addition to many drinks without adding extra calories.
- Lighter colored wines tend to be lower in calories than darker wines.
- Alcohol content of drinks (Alcohol by volume, or ABV) will be a large factor in the total calorie content, so keeping in mind what the ABC of a drink can help in keeping calorie intake in check.
Worth a Shot?
In midst of the many negative effects alcohol consumption can have on physique and performance, it should be noted that many of these disruptions occur with chronic, or at least somewhat frequent alcohol consumption. While delayed fat metabolism and increased calorie intake are obviously acute effects seen within any consumption of alcohol, the disruptions in hormone balance and muscle fiber size are likely exclusive to chronic drinkers.
For those limiting their alcohol intake to special occasions, and are conscious of their drink choices, many of the drawbacks can be prevented, or at least mitigated, while still allowing social enjoyment. Just as flexible dieting can allow athletes to enjoy their food choices while still supporting performance goals, so too can alcohol be enjoyed with a bit of mindfulness and moderation. Using the above considerations, and being strategic with your drink orders- you can now enjoy the occasional shot without your physique taking a major hit.
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