Ever wondered what effect that ‘one drink’ is really going to have on your diet or exercise goals? Probably not.. but read what the science has to say on the subject anyway because you may be surprised by the results…
If you’re a subscriber to health and fitness magazines, you’ve probably been subjected to the complete demonization of alcohol if you’re on a diet. For us guys, you may have read about how a couple of beers will limit your gains, or nullify them completely – and if you’re a girl, then that glass of wine you’re holding is actually just gagging to flab up your thighs. While neither of these statements are completely unfounded (again, every good lie is based roughly on a truth), they are pulled out of all sensible proportions by the health and fitness media.
“Alcohol is high in calories and halts the fat burning process“
This is true. Alcohol contains more calories per gram than either protein or carbohydrates, and is not far behind fat in the competition for the most energy dense nutrient per gram. Alcohol is regularly noted as 7.1 calories per gram, and it’s effects promote looser eating patterns and can lead to over-eating.
Not only this, but because a metabolic by-product (created in the process of breaking down the alcohol) is toxic (in this case acetate), your body stops whatever its doing (including burning fat) and prioritizes breaking down the alcohol. This means any energy source you were previously burning, is now left alone until your body has dealt with its poison. So if you’ve got your weight-loss diet all in order, and you’re burning off body fat for energy – that oh, so tempting glass of wine could stall all your hard work, at least for a short time.
However, despite these facts, several studies have shown that drinkers are generally lighter in weight than their non-drinking counterparts, and accelerated weight-loss has been seen in subjects when carbs and fats have been replaced within their diets by alcohol (of an equivalent amount in calories). Within the studies on the subject, there have been weak or neutral links between moderate alcohol consumption and lower body weight in men, but these links are much stronger in women. Because the metabolic prioritization of alcohol stops fat oxidization, any fat you may eat during the period of intoxication is easy to store as body fat, and this is its likely destination. It is what you’re eating around the alcohol that is the cause of any fat gain, not the alcohol itself.
“Alcohol reduces my testosterone levels, and protein synthesis also takes a hit“
Again, this is true. Or at least, the part about reducing testosterone is true – and a reduction in protein synthesis is a likely but unproven effect of alcohol consumption. But the effects are often wildly over-stated. For those slightly out of kilter with the science – testosterone is a vital hormone in muscle building (and being a man), and protein synthesis is the main mechanism for body growth and changes (you want it to be higher so that you can gain more muscle).
For starters, the amount of time that your testosterone levels are affected by a drinking binge (say 10 beers) if you’re not a chronic alcoholic is about 16 hours. One study in 2004 found that subjects consuming the equivalent of 3 beers EVERY day for 3 weeks only had a drop of 6.8% in testosterone levels at the end of the study. And that was for the men – there was no noticeable drop for the women in the study. Good news for those who like to workout as a pre-game to a night out too – post-workout consumption of alcohol seems to have even less (if any) effect on testosterone levels!
As far as the effect of alcohol on protein synthesis is concerned, there have been zero (human) studies on the subject – but a negative effect on protein synthesis has been shown in rats (hardly conclusive). Well, that’s a small lie – there have been studies – but they have all concerned themselves with chronic alcoholics and not a single normal, healthy, individual. The results of these studies do show that alcohol (to the levels of being an alcoholic) does cause a long-lasting reduction in protein synthesis, and in-fact muscle loss itself can be a side-effect of alcoholism. This is the reason why personally I think it’s likely that protein synthesis is affected negatively by alcohol, but you are entirely free to choose what you believe on this one!
As a closely-related sidenote: alcohol appears to have no effect on muscle strength, or recovery – unless the exercise is very extensive, and the drinking is excessive post-workout (more than 10 beers). Even professional athlete levels of exercise are unlikely to be extensive enough though – so unless you’re planning on running a marathon and then downing a keg…
“Doesn’t alcohol have plenty of benefits as well?“
I’m glad you bought that up, why yes it does. And not just in giving you the ability to finally tell that girl/boy across the room they’re ‘pretty alright’. But genuine health benefits as well. Alcohol is linked to protecting against everything from the common cold to cancer, and a lot in between! (like arthritis, Alzheimers, and depression). It’s even been suggested as a reason the french live so long!
While it’s not a free excuse to openly go and binge drink, as most of these benefits are associated with low-moderate, regular intake of alcohol – having the occasional glass of wine and drinking socially with friends gets the stamp of approval. Although it is my stamp of approval, and I’m not sure if that’s worth anything… yet.
If you are going to go out drinking, and drinking a lot, but you’re also on a diet here’s a few tips to keep the fat gain to the minimum:
#1 limit your calories from carbs/fats that day (protein is the only option left)
#2 if you have to have carbs, get them from vegetables if possible
#3 dry wines and spirits are the best choices (avoid sugary cocktails and beer)
#4 try to limit these sessions to once a week or less
#5 obviously try and stay in a calorie deficit if you are trying to lose weight
Since this article ran a little long..
Will alcohol make me fat? No, but the food you eat around it might as it does encourage your body to store calories as bodyfat.
Will alcohol affect my gym performance? Yes and no. You won’t lose any strength, but it could have negative effects on your body’s ability to build muscle through reduced levels of testosterone and potentially protein synthesis.
What should I do when drinking on a diet? There’s a handy list just above this
So.. binge drinking is ok? No, the benefits of alcohol mostly show in low-moderate, regular intakes. And the negatives related to alcohol are much stronger when you binge drink.