When you embark on a healthy lifestyle, it’s easy to have an all-or-nothing mentality, where you think you have to give up your social life to stay on track with your health and fitness. In particular you might be wondering, can I drink alcohol and still lose fat?
The answer – YES! You can definitely still have fun nights out, drink in moderation, and achieve your fat loss goals, if that’s what you’re aiming for.
Now, of course replacing quality calories with alcohol isn’t ideal. But what we’re talking about here is not feeling like having a beer is going to DESTROY your progress.
We’re looking for sustainability, and that means building flexibility into your nutrition where you can eat (or drink) less nutrient dense foods here and there while still smashing your nutrition goals.
That said, there are some major cons to drinking alcohol in excess, so it’s important to be mindful of your intake and be aware of the effects drinking has on the body.
The first thing you should know about alcohol is that it is relatively calorie-dense. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram – slightly more than protein and carbs, each with 4 calories/gram, and slightly less than fat, which has 9 calories/gram.
When alcohol is consumed, it is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, with a large amount going directly from the stomach into the blood, particularly when drinking on an empty stomach. This fast absorption is why the effects of alcohol are generally felt quite quickly (1).
Once it’s in the blood, alcohol circulates to the body and is broken down in the liver. The liver can only break down alcohol at a specific rate. If there’s more alcohol than the liver can handle, the rest of it remains in the bloodstream until it can be processed, which is how it ends up affecting the brain.
Now, as mentioned previously, alcohol isn’t a problem when it’s consumed in moderation. But moderation can mean different things to different people.
According to the National Institute of Health, drinking in moderation means 1 standard drink for women per day and 2 for guys (2).
Many people will read this and say “So… this means I can have 14 drinks on Saturday if I don’t drink all week right?”
NO… that’s not what that means.
The definition of heavy drinking differs among different sources, but one definition is consuming 5 or more drinks on one occasion, at least once a month, over the course of a year (1).
There is definitely a difference between having a beer or a glass of wine with your friends on a Saturday night and binge drinking regularly. Being a heavy drinker is not something that’s in line with a healthy lifestyle.
Now, I’ve been talking about different numbers of drinks, so I should clarify what that means so you can monitor your intake accordingly.
One standard drink (about 14 g of alcohol) is either 12 oz of regular beer (around 5% alcohol), 5 oz of wine (typically 12% alcohol), or 1.5 oz of most spirits (40% alcohol). (3)
You should also keep in mind that cocktails and mixed drinks may contain more than one standard drink, plus extra calories from whatever is mixed in, so that can really add up.
Before I give you the good news (ie. how you can minimize the negative effects of alcohol), we need to cover all the ways that alcohol may be detrimental to your fat loss.
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5 Ways Alcohol Can Slow Fat Loss
1. Excess Calories
Perhaps the most basic way that alcohol can slow fat loss is because it provides a source of calories. It’s a basic principle of nutrition that if you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.
Alcohol, like carbohydrates, is burned preferentially in the body before fat, so it slows down the body’s fat oxidation. It does not get converted to fat any more quickly than other sources of calories; however, any source of excess calories will cause fat gain (4, 5).
When you drink alcohol, you are consuming what we call “empty calories”, meaning calories that do not provide any nutrient value. In order to stay at your current weight (balancing energy in and out) or lose fat (burning more calories than you consume), the calories from alcohol have to take the place of nutrient-dense calories that would be nourishing your body and providing a feeling of fullness (1).
When you’re drinking, it can be easier to drink a lot of calories in liquid form. You don’t have to chew to slow the process down, and there’s not as much volume to help you feel full.
Studies have found that liquid calories also don’t provide the same signals of fullness to the brain that would normally cause someone to compensate by eating fewer calories, so it may result in a calorie surplus (more calories consumed than burned) (6).
2. Alcohol impairs your judgement
When was the last time you went out drinking and decided to come home and finish the night with a satisfying snack of carrot sticks and hummus?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. Absolutely never.
The first part of the brain affected by alcohol is the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of decision-making and rational thought. When your judgement is impaired, having a couple extra drinks and then an entire pizza to yourself suddenly seems like the BEST idea (1).
Individuals who are highly impulsive may struggle even more to moderate their behaviour under the influence of alcohol, which can lead to episodes of overeating (7).
Consequently, alcohol may not be the direct cause of putting the body into a calorie surplus, but the decisions made while drinking can be a major contributor to weight gain.
Also, large quantities of alcohol can make you more reckless and possibly lead to injury. Wouldn’t you hate to take a couple months off the gym because you broke a bone doing something dumb on a night out? (8).
3. Alcohol increases appetite
In addition to poorer decisions around food intake, several studies have found that alcohol may make you hungrier! (9). While the mechanism isn’t completely clear, one factor may be that alcohol suppresses the hormone leptin, which signals the brain that you are full (10).
Research found that the increase in calorie intake after drinking was not because of reduced inhibition. This means that overeating did not occur because people who were restricting their eating suddenly lost willpower because of alcohol (11).
Additionally, have you ever felt ravenous but then drank a few gulps of water and had your “hunger” go away? This is because dehydration can cause similar feelings to hunger, so you may get the two confused.
Alcohol acts as a diuretic, meaning it increases the amount of water removed from the body as urine, so you may become dehydrated if you’re not drinking enough water to replace the water lost (1).
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4. Alcohol impacts muscle building
So I hate to break this to you…but alcohol might be actively working against you if you’re working hard in the gym and trying to put on some muscle. Research indicates that alcohol can reduce muscle protein synthesis (12, 13).
One study found that drinking alcohol following a combination of resistance training and cardio reduced the rate of muscle protein synthesis (muscle building/repair), even when protein was consumed (12).
A systematic review (the highest quality of scientific evidence) concluded that alcohol consumption post exercise increases cortisol, “the stress hormone”, decreases levels of testosterone, and reduces the rate of muscle protein synthesis, all of which may contribute to a lack of muscle building over time (13).
5. Hangovers and negative effects on sleep
Once you reach a certain age, one night of having a few too many drinks doesn’t just mean one night off from healthy habits.
Often, the effects of a hangover can mean you’re down for the count the next day too. This means you’re not getting back into your exercise routine and you’re probably eating a ton of carbs to make yourself feel better. Hungover brunch anyone??
Additionally, with moderate to heavy alcohol consumption, alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns. Having more than two drinks before bed reduces the amount of REM sleep, which is the part of the sleep cycle where dreaming occurs and may be associated with learning and memory.
We also can’t forget about hormones. Sleep is the time when the amount of hormone secretion from the pituitary gland is at its peak. Unfortunately, with alcohol in the mix there is reduced production of many hormones, including human growth hormone, which is critical to repairing and building muscle, and burning fat (14).
4 Tips for Minimizing the Impact of Alcohol
After reading about all the negative effects of alcohol, maybe you’re a little concerned about whether it’s really possible to drink alcohol and still lose fat.
But don’t worry! Follow the tips below to ensure you have a fun night that doesn’t set you back in your health and fitness goals.
1. Set a drink limit
Before a night out, decide how many drinks you’ll have and stick to that commitment. I know it can be hard in the moment, but it will be much easier to limit your intake if you firmly decide before how much you’re going to have.
If you go into the evening thinking “I’ll have a few drinks and see how I feel,” it’s much more likely you’ll go overboard.
Additionally, if you’re someone who tracks macros, tracking your alcohol in advance (more on how to do that below) is another tool that can help you stick to your drink limit.
2. Eat sufficient carbohydrates and lean protein throughout the day
Even though you may want to try to fit alcohol into your macros for the day, do not starve yourself to compensate for alcohol calories! Flexibility is essential to counting macros. Maybe you don’t hit your macros one day because you had a fun night out, but a single day will not derail your progress.
Drinking on an empty stomach means that alcohol is absorbed more quickly into the blood. This causes greater intoxication that can contribute to poor judgement (overeating, overdrinking, and other unsafe behaviours in general) (1).
Protein-rich foods are key to slowing the emptying of the stomach and delaying the movement of alcohol into the small intestine where it is absorbed most quickly (1, 15).
Protein will also help you stay fuller for longer, reducing the likelihood of late-night, alcohol-induced binge eating.
Staying hydrated while drinking is probably a tip you’ve heard many times before. Alternating alcoholic beverages and glasses of water can dilute the alcohol in the stomach and slow its movement into the bloodstream (1).
Water also helps prevent the dehydration caused by alcohol, which typically is the reason you feel headachy and gross after drinking too much.
To help recover from the dehydrating effects of alcohol, we recommend that our clients consume an electrolyte packet if they’ve had a night of drinking. Electrolytes have complex roles related to fluid balance as well as muscle and nerve function in the body, and are lost during illness or when you consume diuretic substances (1).
4. Drinks to choose and avoid
Not all drinks are created equal when it comes to having a good time while still taking care of your health. Of course this doesn’t mean that any drinks are completely off limits, because anything can fit into a healthy eating plan in moderation, but there are some drinks that are slightly healthier options than others.
The drinks to choose more often are those that don’t have a lot of added sugar, to avoid excess empty calories. Some options include (1):
- Vodka soda with lemon or lime
- Hard seltzers
- Light beer
- Wine (red wine contains polyphenols that can help reduce inflammation and improve heart health in moderation) (16).
- No-sugar added mojito
All of the drinks below are significant sources of excess calories because of what the alcohol is mixed with.
- Cream-based drinks (m=Mudslide, White Russian)
- Long Island Iced Tea (this one is a big calorie-bomb, with about 276 calories for every 8.3 ounces) (17).
- Sugary cocktails (Margaritas and Piña Coladas)
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How to Track Calories from Alcohol
The last topic you should understand if you want to drink alcohol and still lose fat is how to track calories from alcohol, if you’re someone who uses macro-counting as part of your dietary strategy.
The way we track calories from alcohol is by estimating the equivalent amount of calories from carbohydrates or fats.
To do this, you divide the calories in your drink by the calories per gram of the macronutrient you want to use as an equivalent.
Let’s use a 12 oz beer as an example, which has about 120 calories.
Now, you’ve probably noticed that alcohol doesn’t have a convenient nutrition label on the back. Sometimes, drinks that are branded as “healthier” choices will include a calorie count on the packaging, but these are the exception.
In general, you can find the calories in a drink with a quick Google search. The USDA has a website called FoodData Central where you can find the nutrition information for many foods and drinks, including common alcoholic drinks. But for less common options, there are many smaller websites that list calorie counts in alcohol. Just make sure you’re looking at the calories for the amount you actually drank (often the default is set to 100g when a 12 oz. drink is over 300g).
To find how many grams of carbs would be equivalent to that 12 oz. beer, you divide 120 kcals by 4 (1 gram of carb = 4 kcals). This gives you 30 grams of carbs.
So drinking one beer is equivalent in terms of calories to consuming 30 grams of carbs from some kind of carb source (eg. ~1 cup of rice).
The same thing applies with fat BUT instead of dividing by 4, you divide by 9 (1 gram fat = 9 calories) and find a fat source you can track that has a similar number of grams of fat.
To clarify, this is the method we use to get an idea of how alcohol fits in your day, and it is NOT to say that beer has 30 grams of carbs.
Take a look at the infographic below for a summary of this method:
Without sounding too much like a high school teacher sending their students off for the weekend, the best advice I can give you with alcohol is: “Make good choices!”. Or, more than just good choices, make informed choices.
Alcohol doesn’t have to be an enemy to fat loss, but it’s important to be aware of its effects as a calorie-dense substance that can affect hormones, sleep, and other essential body functions, and cause poor judgement.
Sometimes the best choice for you is going to be to have a drink and a laugh with your friends, and that is OKAY. Your social health is just as important as your nutritional health.
But you should also keep in mind that you have the power when it comes to alcohol. You are able to set limits for yourself and you can choose when you’ve had enough or when you don’t want to drink at all.
You don’t have to be influenced by the decisions of those around you. This is your life and you have the ability to make decisions that both bring you joy and bring you closer to your goals.
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