Alcohol- the topic that so many of us have vested interests in!
Alcohol consumption is a part of our social and cultural fabric, with the average adult consuming an estimated 4.3 liters of pure ethanol per year .
And yet when people begin prioritizing their health, fitness, and performance, it’s usually one of the first things they attempt to get rid of or at least limit.
But do we really need to pick between gains and alcohol?
Can't we have both?
In this article, we will explore the effect of alcohol on our goals, how to fit alcohol into our macros, and best practices.
What is Alcohol?
Let’s start here- what is alcohol.
Alcohol is principally ethyl alcohol or ethanol.
Ethanol is found in alcoholic beverages, like wine, beer, liquor.
It is the most widespread drug that is used recreationally worldwide.
Alcohol and Weight Loss
“Do I really need to give up drinking if I want to lose weight?”
The answer is a resounding no.
When it comes to weight loss, calories are number one on the pyramid .
What this means is if all you care about is losing weight, dropping the number on the scale, then as long as you are operating in a calorie deficit, you most definitely still can lose weight with alcohol in your diet.
Think about all the athletes that have copious amounts of alcohol after a big game, if athletes can drink and still lose or maintain weight, so can our general population clients.
The only glaring difference between them is their levels of energy expenditure, but if we control for energy balance, it's definitely possible.
Great news, I know.
Image: Muscle & Strength Nutrition Pyramid by Helms, Eric Russell, Morgan, Andy, Valdez, Andrea Marie
Now that we got that settled, let’s dig a little deeper.
While you can lose weight including alcohol in your diet, it might not be optimal in terms of body composition, meaning more of your weight loss could come from lean body mass compared to fat mass .
This is where Macros come in and where your focus will need to shift one step further beyond just hitting your calorie goal, to include specific Protein, Carb, and Fat numbers as well.
While I will not tell you you need to drop alcohol completely to lose fat, after a certain point, playing “Macro Tetris” when you’re dieting and drinking alcohol becomes more trying, from multiple fronts.
Firstly, it might just be plain hard to maintain a calorie deficit due to the fact that Alcohol is as almost as energy-dense as Fat at 7kcal/gram.
Secondly, the liquid calories in alcohol just aren’t that satiating.
Basically, it's not filling, you will end up reaching for food to fill you up.
Thirdly, alcohol lowers your inhibition, meaning you’re likely to make poorer food and life choices, like going to McDonald’s at 4 am and having a meal worth well over 1000 calories.
This adds up quickly and before you know it the deficit you worked so hard for all week is gone.
In general, small or moderate amounts of alcohol are not going to negatively impact your body composition goals.
And yes, alcohol may not have protein, carb or, fat macros but it sure does have calories!
It's where the term "empty calories" came from.
Refer to Appendix- Tracking Alcohol, on how to properly account for alcohol in your Macros.
Alcohol, Training, and Recovery
Now let's look at the impact of alcohol on training and recovery.
To sum it up, “the dose makes the poison”.
The effects of alcohol consumption on recovery from resistance exercise depend on the dose, with there being minimal impact  on lower doses (≤ 0.5g/kg), and with studies suggesting that higher doses may impede recovery (≥ 1g/kg, that’s about ~8 standard drinks for an 80kg person).
Alcohol consumption also makes more skillful or physically demanding tasks (think Olympic weightlifting) more challenging due to its potential effects on reaction time.
In general, a more complete look at other research studies beyond just those that study the impact on resistance training show that alcohol consumption leads to increased levels of cortisol, along with reductions in testosterone and rates of muscle protein synthesis .
While this may not interfere with recovery from a single workout, if your goal is optimizing your health, body composition, and long-term training adaptation, consistent alcohol consumption becomes troublesome and counterproductive.
To add on from anecdotal experience, if you’re really hungover going into a workout, you’re likely going to have a rather crappy, unenjoyable time in the gym.
Another effect of alcohol that is seldom talked about is its impact on your sleep quality .
Alcohol reduces sleep latency (meaning you fall asleep quicker, hello drowsy drunk) and can cause an increase in slow-wave sleep (which usually happens in the first half of the night), but negatively disrupts rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
So while alcohol may help you fall asleep, it also leads to reduced total sleep time and overall low-quality less restful sleep.
In summary- Alcohol, Adherence, Diet sustainability
As we know, we need to take our lifestyle into account when devising diet protocols, in this case, alcohol consumption.
Adherence is and will always remain of number one importance.
If you are going to completely overhaul your diet for a predetermined time frame for the sake of a diet, I can assure you your results are not going to last, and it's only matter of time before you undo all your hard work.
We need to prioritise sustainability.
So a better way to approach this is this- drink the least you can possibly get by on while still maintaining what you consider is a reasonable lifestyle.
If you can get by with no drinks in a week, great.
If you need a few drinks every weekend on social nights, sure.
If you need a nightcap every other night to get by, okay.
As long as you’re accounting for it, sticking within your calorie goal, and making sure that you’re still getting the protein, carbs, fats, micronutrients, and fiber that you need.
Appendix- Tracking Alcohol intake
1g of Protein= 4 calories
1g of Carbs= 4 calories
1g of Fat= 9 calories
1g of Pure Alcohol= 7 calories
To track alcohol, we need to first determine how many total calories are in the drink.
Once that is done, you can allocate the calories to either carbs/fats/a combination of both.
*You cannot add the calories from alcohol to your protein count*.
Protein is untouchable that way.
🔹Track as Fat- divide calories by 9. (E.g. If your drink has 144 calories, 144/9=16g Fat)
🔹Track as Carbs, divide calories by 4 (E.g. If your drink has 144 calories, 144/4=36g Carbs)
🔹Or split the calories in half & then divide each half by 9 & by 4 (E.g. If your drink has 144 calories, 144/2=72 cal. 72/4=18g Carbs and 72/9=8g Fat)
You will then subtract this from your daily total macros.
My preference for clients is that they remove the Alcohol calories from Carbs, rather than Fat.
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 The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Nutrition : Helms, Eric Russell, Morgan, Andy, Valdez, Andrea Marie.
 THE STRONGER BY SCIENCE PODCAST. Q&A: Lifting Shoes, Alcohol, and Over/Underrated Exercises
 Layne Norton & Peter Baker - Fat Loss Forever
 Lakićević N. The Effects of Alcohol Consumption on Recovery Following Resistance Exercise: A Systematic Review. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2019 Sep;4(3):41.
 Colrain IM, Nicholas CL, Baker FC. Alcohol and the sleeping brain. Handb Clin Neurol. 2014;125:415–31.