The health and fitness industry has long had a negative stance on alcohol consumption due to its lack of nutrition (empty calories) and ethanol content, the toxic metabolic by-product that can cause damage to your liver and inhibit essential nutrient absorption like amino acids and B vitamins, while also impeding upon muscle protein synthesis. And at 7 calories per gram plus the addition of the sugary mixers that are typically combined with liquor, a few alcoholic drinks can quickly wreak havoc on your diet. But because alcohol is a normal part of social events, it’s important to understand its effects on your body so that you can make smarter decisions that will help preserve your health and attain your fitness goals.
Effects of Excessive Alcohol Consumption on Your Body
Muscles—Reduces blood flow to the muscles, which causes weakness and deterioration, and inhibits muscle protein synthesis (muscle repair)
Hormones—Reduces testosterone in your blood and increases conversion of testosterone to estrogen, causing increased fat deposits and fluid retention
Liver—Creates imbalances that can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), fatty liver and hyperlipidemia (buildup of fats in the bloodstream)
Brain—Cuts off the supply of oxygen to the brain, resulting in a “blackout” caused by a lack of oxygen supply to the brain that can kill tens of thousands of brain cells
Metabolism- Liver must focus its efforts on the oxidation of ethanol to acetaldehyde then to acetic acid, which is then turned to CO2 and water via a process called the citric acid cycle. Your body has to work a bit harder during this process, which is why the metabolism of alcohol may encourage your body to burn more calories rather than slow your metabolism. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in January 2003 compared energy expenditure induced by four different meals rich in either carbohydrates, fat, protein or alcohol. Researchers found that the alcohol-rich meal increased diet-induced thermogenesis.
Tips on Drinking Alcohol and Avoiding Fitness Issues
1. Treat Alcohol as Fat
Because of the similar caloric values of alcohol and fat (7 kcal/g and 9kcal/g respectively), limiting your fat intake throughout the day will place you in an overall caloric deficit that can match the calories consumed by alcohol so that you attain something close to an average net energy balance.
Due to the complex process of metabolizing alcohol, it gets immediate priority in substrate utilization hierarchy. Alcohol puts the brakes on fat oxidation, but also suppresses carb and protein oxidation. This means that because alcohol is converted to acetate by the liver and the oxidation of acetate takes precedence over other nutrients, alcohol/acetate alone cannot cause fat gain by itself. It’s when excessive calories are consumed in combination with fatty acids (from junk food, etc.) that lipogenesis (fat storage) will occur.
When alcohol is consumed in moderation (no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men), it will not poison your body or halt all of your fitness and health goals. Some studies have shown alcohol to have some positive effects:
- Increased HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) within one to two weeks
- Increased glycemic control
- Reduced stress levels
- Reduced insulin resistance
3. Pick Your Drinks Wisely
Alcohol is its own separate macronutrient that has 7 calories per gram, which can quickly turn into hundreds of calories over a night of drinking. Try and choose low-calorie, and high alcohol by volume (ABV) alcohols such as vodka and gin. Here is some information and some tips for your alcohol selection.
- 100 proof liquor contains 50% alcohol
- 80 proof liquor contains 40% alcohol
- 40 proof liquor contains 20% alcohol
- Traditional wine has approximately 8-14% alcohol
- Regular beer has 4-6% alcohol
The goal is to consume as few calories as possible while still providing you with the benefits of alcohol consumption.
The Best Alcoholic Beverages
- Red Wine: About 130 calories and 5-6 grams of carbs with several health benefits
- Skinny Margarita (tequila, club soda, and lime juice): 150 calories and about 5 grams of carbs
- Whiskey/Brandy/Scotch/Cognac: Full of healthy antioxidants and only 64 calories per 2 ounce serving
- Vodka soda or Vodka on the rocks with lime: 66 calories + lime juice (>10 calories)
- Bacardi and Diet Soda: 66 calories
Decent Alcoholic Beverages
- White wine: About 130 calories. Not a terrible option, but not nearly as many of the healthy benefits you get with red.
- Light beer: About 100 calories but varies by type and brand of beer
The Worst Alcoholic Beverages
- Craft Beer: 150 calories-600 calories. Made of grain and easy to consume many calories in a short amount of time
- Mixed Drinks/ Frozen Drinks/ Tropical Drinks: These are filled with sugar. A frozen Pina Colada can have anywhere between 200-700 calories. Just adding cranberry or orange juice to your vodka can add 120 calories and 30 grams of sugar.
- Red Bull: An additional 168 calories and 37 grams of sugar. The caffeine will increase heart rate and will also increase the rate of intoxication. Additionally, both alcohol and caffeine are diuretics which will dehydrate you very quickly.
- Sangria: It may be red wine, but it also has approximately 200 additional calories and 30 grams of sugar.