• Isaac J. Wedig MS, CSCS

Consuming Alcohol without Compromising your Progress

Enjoying alcoholic beverages is a part of life. It’s important for social interaction, celebrating special events, relaxing, and unwinding with family and friends.

Alcohol can most certainly be included into a healthy diet without compromising your fitness goals. In this article, we’ll discuss how.

The macronutrients, also known as macros, are the calorie containing molecules that make up food. They consist of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Protein and carbohydrate provide 4 calories per gram, while fat yields 9 calories per gram.

However, there is a fourth calorie containing molecule that often goes unmentioned, one that most of us regularly include in our diet; alcohol.

Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram and is therefore about twice as calorically dense as protein and carbohydrate, containing almost as much energy as fat. While protein, carbohydrate, and fat serve essential roles within the body, alcohol does not and therefore does not need to be included within the diet for health purposes. However, it does have a few social and psychological benefits when consumed in moderation.

In the body, alcohol is treated like a toxin. In other words, once consumed, your body’s main goal is to get rid of it as soon as possible, a job undertaken primarily by the liver, which works to metabolize and clear it from circulation.

Alcohol DOES NOT directly store as fat, which is a common misconception; however, because it contains calories and is a toxin, it’s given top priority as a fuel source, forcing the body to put carb and fat metabolism temporarily on the back burner. When alcohol is in your system, it effectively reduces the amount of carbohydrate and fat that you are burning for fuel.

In other words, when you consume alcohol, you’re more likely to store food that you eat as fat. While this isn’t an ideal situation for health and physique goals, it probably isn’t quite as detrimental to your goals as it sounds. Let me explain.

We know that energy balance, the relationship between ‘calories in’ versus ‘calories out’, is what dictates weight loss and weight gain. Fat loss is driven by a calorie deficit, which is the state of energy balance when caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake. Alcohol consumption is no exception to this rule. Energy balance still applies in situations of weight loss and weight gain.

As long as your energy balance is in check, you can still achieve fat loss even while consuming alcohol. However, like most things, it’s probably best to consume it in moderation. There’s a big difference between having a few drinks and getting smashed. Besides the fact that alcohol in and of itself is high in calories, drinking past a certain point can promote a number of other deleterious effects that can compromise your progress.

The biggest issue with getting highly intoxicated is that you start to lose self-control and tend to place a higher value on immediate pleasures and rewards than you do on your long-term health and fitness goals.

In other words, you develop a serious case of what I call “the ‘F’ its”. Yes, the ‘F’ stands for an obscene and distasteful swear word, but it’s the best way to describe what happens during a long night of drinking. We’ve all been there.

You end up staying awake too late, throwing your sleep schedule off, making bad decisions, and eating an unregulated amount of high-calorie foods, such as pizza, chips, and cookies. What’s a night of drinking if it doesn’t end with a Dominos or Jimmie Johns delivery, right?

As you can see, it’s not just the calories directly contained within alcohol that can compromise your progress. When consumed in excess, alcohol leads to poor sleep, poor recovery from training, and it influences you to eat more. Not to mention, a hang-over can completely debilitate you the following day, leading to poor training or even no training at all, low physical activity, and poor eating.

Here are some practical tips and take-aways for including alcohol in your diet:

1) Consume in moderation. As a general recommendation, I think 2-5 drinks per week is a healthy range, consuming no more than 1-3 of those drinks at only one time. Anything beyond this amount starts to accumulate calories in your diet and may push you beyond the threshold of being ‘buzzed’ to ‘hammered’. Once you start to feel lightly buzzed, it’s probably safest to call it a night and remain in control of your decision making.

2) Choose drinks that are lower in calories. Liquor and diet mixers tend to be the lowest calorie options. Avoid drinks that are packed with extra calories coming from juices, sodas, and sugary mixes. Use either soda water or diet sodas to mix with. If you drink beer, go with lighter options such as Michelob Ultra or Corona Light and avoid heavy beers such as Guinness.

3) Track your calories and account for the calories in alcohol. If you track calories (which I recommend, especially if you wish to include alcohol in your diet) then be sure to count the calories coming from the alcohol. Most computer tracking applications do not directly track the macronutrient alcohol itself. When you enter an alcoholic drink into the app, it will count it as either carbohydrate or fat. It’s probably best to count alcohol as fat but either way works, as long as you’re accounting for the calories and are landing on a daily calorie amount that is in line with your physique goal. Try to plan your drinks ahead of time before going out. Set a limit on how many you will have, set aside an appropriate number of extra calories for them, and don’t let yourself exceed that number. If you go over on calories one night while drinking, borrow calories from the other days of the week to compensate.

4) Eat light during the day. If you don’t track calories then it’s a good idea to plan ahead before a night of drinking and eat lighter during the day. This way you can indirectly set aside calories for later. Reduce some of your portion sizes, center your meals around protein sources, reduce fat intake, and include a good serving of veggies at each meal.

5) Don’t drink before a training day. Don’t drink the night before a scheduled training session. If you happen to overdo it, drink too much, stay up late, miss sleep, or end up getting hung over, and you try to train, your quality of exercise will be greatly compromised. You’re better off taking a rest day and rescheduling your training session for another time when you are better rested and recovered.


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