For many physique orientated athletes alcohol is avoided like the plague; however, there are some people who drink on a weekly basis and still stay in great shape year round. Are these just genetic freaks or is it possible for anyone to achieve a balance while still enjoying the occasional alcohol beverage?
In this article we will break down the science of the famous ‘beer belly’, investigating the effects alcohol has on your goals and the best way to approach drinking, if /when you do drink.
How Alcohol Works
On a basic level the human body reacts to alcohol as a toxin; we simply weren’t designed to consume it on a regular basis.
When we ingest poison, our body’s, and especially our liver’s, primary concern is to remove these toxins as quickly and efficiently as possible. Just like multi-tasking in daily life, our metabolism must put a halt on the rest of our body’s normal metabolic processes, such as the metabolism of glucose (carbohydrates) and fat to focus on this detoxification process.
Once alcohol is consumed, it is broken down through a complex process with the end-products being:
- Acetyl CoA: Plays an important role in the synthesis of fatty acids. Based on this, an excessive build-up of Acetyl-CoA after “excessive” alcohol consumption can lead to increased fat storage .
- NADH (Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide): NADH signals to the body that there is an excess of energy / calories available. As our body’s biology wants to naturally store energy, the extra NADH can also mean an increase in fatty acid formation and storage, i.e. fat gain 
Because alcohol decreases fat oxidation or utilization, increases fatty acid storage and also decreases muscle protein synthesis, it is clearly not going to further your physique .
Here is a brief review of one well-designed study that highlights this process:
Six male subjects were recruited for the trial and provided with alcohol, with researchers monitoring its metabolic effects over a 4 hour period.
They received two standard alcoholic beverages and witnessed a decrease in total body fat oxidation by 79%. So, instead of utilizing fat or glucose for energy, the body was turning to ethanol (alcohol) as its primary fuel source. Interestingly, this depression in fat oxidation remained for more than four hours post consumption !
Next up they found that eating alongside the alcohol reduced fat-oxidation rates to nearly 0 milligrams per minute! In practical terms, while having a few drinks along with your appetizers, you are essentially blunting your body’s ability to burn or metabolize the fat you are consuming .
Sadly, the bad news does not stop there, with other research showing that alcohol also causes a decrease in MPS (Muscle Protein Synthesis), the key biological mechanism behind new muscle growth !
In summary, even a few alcoholic beverages will negatively affect fat breakdown and your overall physique in the short term. If this occurs often and is paired with an energy surplus, you will of course end up accumulating extra energy and fat stores .
Alcohol & Calories
If you are concerned with your physique there are ‘better’ options to reduce the total calorie intake, especially when you account for several drinks or the added sugar from mixers etc.
Here’s a list of the calories per drink for some of the popular beverages:
- Beer 12oz: 150 calories.
- Light Beer 12oz: 75-100 calories.
- Red & White Wine 5oz: 125 calories
- Spirits (Vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, tequila) 1.5oz / 1 shot: 80 – 100 calories.
- Martini or Cosmo Cocktail 2.5oz: 150 calories.
- Spirit with Coke/Redbull: 200 – 300 calories.
- Pina Colada 10oz: 400 – 500 calories.
As you can see, it’s best to stick with straight spirits on the rocks or mixed with tonic water, diet soda etc. Additionally, lighter beers or the odd glass of wine can be a better choice.
To keep calories down, spirits mixed with sugary soda or juice and most cocktails should be avoided, which can quickly add up to over 1000 calories.
Finally, while drinking it’s very important to avoid the urge for fast food, as your rational decision-making can often be compromised. In these situations, large weight gain can occur when you consume several drinks and a 2000 calorie pizza at 2am. If you do wish to eat late at night, stick with something sensible or wait until you get home and snack on something high in protein.
What About The Hangover?
The dreaded hangover.
While alcohol can certainly provide a fun-filled night that you may or may not remember, the hangover is universally the worst aspect about it. Not only can it be painful, it can directly affect your performance in the gym and your decision-making even on the following day.
As you probably know, the symptoms include headache, fatigue, thirst, dizziness and nausea, with the severity of each varying from person to person and alcohol consumption. Importantly, if these symptoms are present it can be much harder to train the next day. In addition, for many, it can also lead to poor food choices or ‘hangover’ meals.
While there are plenty of, “hangover cures,” on the market, the evidence and legitimacy of them is scarce and often unsupported by research. While we are still yet to find a true hangover cure, here are some techniques based on the research:
- Drink in moderation: The severity of hangovers is directly related to the amount of alcohol consumed. Therefore, logically the most beneficial approach is to focus on self-control and just have a couple of drinks .
- Avoid whiskey, cognac and tequila: These alcoholic beverages contain a higher amount of congeners (methanol, isopentanol, acetone), which are the toxic by-products of alcohol we discussed above. Based on the research, the more congeners in your alcohol, the more intense and frequent hangovers tend to be. In fact, clearer beverages such as vodka, gin, white rum are lower in these by-products and therefore may reduce the effects of a hangover .
- Drink a lot of water before, during, and after consumption: Alcohol is a diuretic, causing you to urinate more frequently. This contributes to dehydration, thus causing symptoms like thirst, headache, fatigue and a dry mouth – many of the symptoms we associate with a hangover. Drinking water can help mitigate these symptoms and also aid in you flushing out the excess toxins .
- Sleep, sleep, sleep: Alcohol impairs both sleep quality and duration, while skewing your entire sleep schedule if you stay up too late as most drinkers tend to do. This partly explains the hangover – after all, it is the combo of poor sleep, loud music and excessive alcohol consumption which causes the worst kind of hangovers .
- Eat a nutritious breakfast: Hangovers can be associated with low blood sugar levels and are worse in those who have chronically low blood sugar. A hearty high protein breakfast can attenuate the symptoms of fatigue, weakness and headache found in a common hangover while also re-stimulating muscle protein synthesis .
- Pills or Supplements may help: Some hangover symptoms are thought to be caused by low-grade inflammation. Advil or Ibuprofen can alleviate these symptoms or at least mask some of the pain/discomfort. If you wanted to go with a holistic approach, red ginseng, ginger, and/or prickly pear have also been shown to be effective in reducing hangover symptoms and duration .
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach: If you’ve ever made this mistake in the past, you can vouch for the fact that alcohol is more rapidly digested when taken on an empty stomach, increasing its effects and the severity of your hangover. Try to consume a protein-based meal before drinking to reduce muscle protein breakdown and delay gastric emptying.
Should You Eliminate Alcohol?
Just like chocolate or candy, nothing is categorically bad and the answer always depends on the context of your goals, health, physique and lifestyle.
An elite athlete or bodybuilder 8 weeks out for a comp should probably be eliminating alcohol entirely; however, a regular individual just trying to drop 10LB may have room for a couple of glasses of wine on a Saturday night out.
Additionally, while the statistics and findings above show scary reductions in your ability to utilize fat, this is only an acute issue (i.e. it happens that night or for just a few hours). Therefore, it may make a less significant effect over a one week window or over a 10 week diet etc. Ultimately, alcohol is just adding empty calories and if it’s limited to an extra 300 calories once a week it will not significantly impact your goals.
In contrast, if you do binge drink every weekend, which also leads to a late night pizza, hangover brunch, poor sleep and skipped gym sessions you can be sure that your physique and health will take a significant hit.
On the occasions that you do drink, it may be wise to schedule the next day as your weekly rest day. For weight loss, it may also be wise to reduce your calorie intake that morning or the next day, simply to compensate for the extra calories you will have consumed from the alcohol, any mixers and food etc.
With clients, I often advise that they treat the odd alcoholic drink like any other ‘treat’. If they are heading out for a meal and drink, they should stick with a main course and replace the starter or dessert with the alcohol. Additionally, just like you wouldn’t eat a pizza every day, you shouldn’t drink every day and should focus on building a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.
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