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  • Isaac J. Wedig MS, CSCS

Is Alcohol Killing your Progress?


A review of alcohol and it's effects on fat loss and muscle building


Ever since human beings made the miraculous discovery of fermentation, the process by which yeast converts sugar molecules into ethanol and carbon dioxide, alcohol has played a highly influential role in shaping our culture.


Consumed in the form of wine, beer, and various distilled liquors, alcohol has been used for thousands of years to improve positive mood, to alleviate negative mood and anxiety, reduce stress, treat pain, and increase confidence.


In todays society, alcohol consumption is a social norm. It facilities many of our social interactions and is an important center-point in meeting new people, bonding with friends and family, and celebrating special events. 


In moderation, alcohol may provides various social and psychological benefits but what effect does it have on fat loss, muscle building, and physique oriented goals? Could alcohol be killing your progress? 


In this newsletter we'll review the effects that alcohol has on metabolism, fat loss, and muscle building, and provide you with a practical framework for alcohol consumption while working toward such goals. 




Article Summary (for those of you with lives)


  • Alcohol is not inherently fattening and does not stall weight loss when consumed in the context of a calorie deficit

  • Alcohol is the least satiating macronutrient, it adds relatively empty calories to the diet, and thus, its consumption makes adherence to a low-calorie weight-loss diet more difficult 

  • Excessive drinking can lower inhibitions, promote food binges, and disrupt sleep, all of which can negatively effect weight loss and body composition.

  • Heavy drinking can lower testosterone and post-exercise muscle protein synthesis in men

  • Excessive alcohol consumption impairs exercise performance in the following day 

  • Overall, alcohol consumption may have deleterious effects on muscle building, body composition, and athletic performance when consumed in excess on a regular basis




The Effect of Alcohol on Metabolism


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.


Although it's a much smaller component of our diet, alcohol is a fourth calorie containing molecule that often goes unmentioned, providing 7 calories per gram.


Compared to the other macronutrients, alcohol is handled very differently within the body. After its consumption and absorption into the blood, it is essentially treated as a poison, where the body quickly works to clear it from circulation, a job carried out by the liver. 


Once in the body, alcohol is given top priority as a fuel source, placing the metabolism of all other nutrients, including carbohydrates and fat, on the back burner.


Due to its metabolic prioritization, alcohol consumption typically reduces the rates of carbohydrate and fat oxidation and promotes the storage of each nutrient within the body as fat, setting it aside to be used for energy at a later time (1). 




This certainly doesn't sound like an ideal situation for losing fat and improving your physique, however, it may not be as detrimental as it sounds when framed within the context of energy balance. 




Alcohol and Weight Loss


Energy balance, the relationship between ‘calories in’ versus 'calories out’, is what ultimately dictates weight loss and weight gain. Weight gain only occurs as a result of being in a net energy surplus, in which more calories are being consumed within the diet than are expended by the body. 


Therefore, alcohol, in and of itself, is not inherently fattening. Only when consumed within the context of a calorie surplus does it promote fat gain. In which case, the overconsumption of any nutrient- carbohydrate, fat, or protein- can promote fat gain as well.


Alcohol is no exception to the energy balance equation. As long as you're achieving a calorie deficit, weight loss will occur, despite the immediate effects that alcohol may have on fat metabolism shortly after being consumed.


It's important to realize that changes in body fat are not dictated by the rates of fat oxidation and fat storage at any one given time of day, but rather, by the overall net balance between these two processes occurring over the course of a 24-hour period. Although you burn less fat temporarily after alcohol consumption, you'll probably burn more fat during the remainder of the day if you're in a calorie deficit. 



Where Alcohol becomes a Problem for Weight Loss


While it's possible to include alcohol in a successful weight loss diet, given that you're eating in a calorie deficit, its consumption is not very supportive of such.


Alcohol has many secondary effects on hunger and behavior that can create less than optimal conditions for adhering to a successful weight loss diet. Below are three downsides to alcohol consumption when dieting for fat loss. 



1. Alcohol is very calorie dense and provides relatively empty calories;


Not only is alcohol fairly calorie dense, providing almost twice any many calories per gram as carbohydrate and protein, but it's also the least satiating of the macronutrients (2). In other words, it doesn't provide a very satisfying feeling when consumed and isn't very effective in managing your hunger when trying to maintain a low calorie diet. In fact, alcohol may actually promote an increase in appetite (2).


The calories that come from alcohol are relatively void of nutritional value. That is, they contain almost no vitamins, minerals, or other advantageous nutrients outside that of providing energy. Alcohol adds "empty calories" to the diet which could be far better spent on more nutrient dense food items.


Lastly, alcohol it is rarely consumed in isolation. It's typically consumed as a mixed drink, wine, beer, or wine cooler, all of which contain additional calories  from carbohydrate. These extra calories, often sugars, are easily over-consumed and add up quickly within the diet to off-set caloric deficits and create surpluses. 



2. Alcohol consumption lowers inhibits and effects eating behaviors;


The real problem with alcohol consumption arises when it's consumed to the point of intoxication.


Excessive alcohol consumption, leading to intoxication, tends to lower inhibitions, wears down your will-power, and causes you to place a higher value on immediate pleasures and rewards than your long-term health and fitness goals. In other words, it can leave you more susceptible to making bad eating decisions and going on post-drinking food binges. 


Heavy drinking can encourage the intake of high-calorie and very hyperpalatable foods such as chips, pizza, and cookies, which are easy to over-consume. Post-drinking food binges are by far the worst threat that alcohol consumption poses to weight loss. 



3. Excessive drinking effects your sleep;


Not only are you more tempted to stay up late and miss sleep, but the sleep that you do get is of lesser quality. You may seemingly fall asleep faster, however, alcohol seems to effect the amount of restorative rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that is experienced, which is thought to be the most critical phase (3). 


Sleep deprivation and REM sleep restriction has been shown to have profound negative effects on body composition, hunger, eating behavior, workout recovery, and subsequent workout performance in the following days (4,5). 




Alcohol and Muscle Building


While alcohol consumption may not be inherently fattening when calories are controlled for, it could influence body composition and athletic performance by impairing your ability to build and/or maintain muscle mass. 



Effect on Testosterone


Modest alcohol consumption, in the range of 2-3 drinks, has been shown to acutely increase testosterone in men by about 17% (6). Higher intakes, however, closer to the range of 8-9 drinks, seem to reduce testosterone as much as 45%. The interesting thing is that these findings seem to be sex specific, with intoxicated women displaying increases in testosterone (7,8). 


Given the anabolic nature of testosterone and its role in skeletal muscle development and maintenance, a large decease could have potentially negative effects on body composition. Although, it's important to note these decreases in testosterone are only temporarily and seem to normalize after 24-36 hours following excessive drinking (8). 



Effect on Muscle Protein Synthesis


The majority of data studying the effects of alcohol on muscle tissue directly have shown that it impairs rates of muscle protein synthesis, a process critical to muscle building and retention. Much of this research has been done on rodents and in vitro muscle cell cultures but there are a few human studies that support these findings in a more practical model.


A 2014 study by Parr et al. demonstrated that excessive alcohol consumption (in the range of about 8-9 drinks) during the post-workout recovery period impaired muscle protein synthesis by 37%. The consumption of protein in addition to alcohol during the post-workout period helped to rescue some of the protein synthetic response but still resulted in a 24% lower response when compared to the ingestion of protein alone. The authors went on to conclude that alcohol ingestion suppresses the anabolic response in skeletal muscle and may therefore impair recovery and adaptation to training and/or subsequent performance (9). 


Another 2017 study examined cellular signaling within the muscle of both men and women following resistance exercise and found that alcohol ingestion during the post-workout period attenuated anabolic cellular signaling associated with muscle growth (10). Again, the effect seemed to be sex specific and only negatively impacted the males. They concluded that alcohol should not be ingested after resistance exercise as this ingestion could potentially hamper the desired muscular adaptations to training by reducing anabolic signaling, at least in men. 



Alcohol and Training


It's also important to consider the effect that a night of excessive drinking has on your training performance in the following days. Resistance training is the most powerful factor influencing muscle mass and body composition. Therefore, compromising your ability to perform high-quality overloading training would definitely have deleterious effects on these measures when experienced on a regular basis.



Alcohol and Muscle Building- Conclusions


Given the acute nature of this data, its hard to definitively say that chronic alcohol consumption leads to less muscle mass and worse body composition over time. There is a lack of research directly measuring the long-term effects of alcohol consumption on such outcomes, so we can only speculate at this point.


However, when considering the available data examining the effects that alcohol has on testosterone, muscle protein synthesis, and anabolic cellular signaling, it's sensible to imply that excessive intakes (around 8-9 drinks) will have have negative effects on muscle building, body composition, and athletic performance over time. These effects appear to be sex specific and may only apply to men. The possible detriment that excessive alcohol ingestion has on exercise performance however, applies to both sexes and would certainly impact fitness related goals. 


Consumed in moderation, with an intake of 2-4 drinks, alcohol probably won't compromise your ability to build muscle. Negative side effects on hormones and muscle protein synthesis seem to arise past the point of about 5-8 drinks, therefore its prudent to keep your consumption below five. Consuming more than this on a infrequent basis won't destroy your progress, but doing so regularly could start to result in noticeable decrements. Additionally, it's highly advisable not to drink excessively before training days. 




Practical Recommendations


Below is a list of practical recomendations for consuming alcohol while working toward a fitness or physique related goal. 



1) Consume in moderation.


As a general recommendation, 2-5 drinks per week is a healthy range, consuming no more than 1-3 of those drinks at any one time. Anything beyond this amount starts to accumulate calories in your diet, may push you beyond the threshold of being ‘buzzed’ to ‘hammered', and starts to effect training recovery. 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.

The calorie content for one standard drink of beer, wine, and liquor are provided below. A standard drink is a serving of beverage containing 14g of alcohol. 


Beer (12oz) - 150 calories

Wine (5oz)- 100 calories

Distilled liquor (1.5oz)- 100 calories



3) Track your calories and account for the calories contained 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 the calories contained in the beverage 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 its energy content.


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 during one night while drinking, borrow calories from the other days of the week to compensate. 



4) Eat light during the day and focus on food volume to manage hunger.


If you don’t track calories and you eat more intuitively then it’s a good idea to plan ahead before a night of drinking by eating lighter during the day and focusing on very low-calorie dense foods. This way you can indirectly set aside calories to allocate toward alcohol later. Reduce some of your portion sizes, center your meals around protein sources, reduce your fat intake, and include a good serving of veggies at each meal. Try to add a lot of volumous food to your diet in order to help manage your hunger.



5) Avoid excessive drinking during the 8-hour period following exercise.



6) Don’t drink before a training day.


If you're going to drink, don't do it the night before a scheduled training session. If you happen to overdo it, you could end up staying out late, missing sleep, and getting hung over. In which case, your training quality will be greatly compromised the following day. You’re better off taking a rest day and rescheduling your training session for another time when you are better rested and recovered.





References


1. Siler, S. Q., Neese, R. A., & Hellerstein, M. K. (1999). De novo lipogenesis, lipid kinetics, and whole-body lipid balances in humans after acute alcohol consumption. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 70(5), 928-936.


2. Yeomans, M. R. (2010). Alcohol, appetite and energy balance: is alcohol intake a risk factor for obesity?. Physiology & behavior, 100(1), 82-89.


3. Roehrs, T., & Roth, T. (2001). Sleep, sleepiness, and alcohol use. Alcohol Research & Health, 25(2), 101-101.


4. Nedeltcheva, A. V., Kilkus, J. M., Imperial, J., Schoeller, D. A., & Penev, P. D. (2010). Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity. Annals of internal medicine, 153(7), 435-441.


5. Martin, B. J. (1988). Sleep loss and subsequent exercise performance. Acta physiologica Scandinavica. Supplementum, 574, 28-32.


6. Sarkola, T., & Eriksson, C. P. (2003). Testosterone increases in men after a low dose of alcohol. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 27(4), 682-685.


7. Frias, J., Rodriguez, R., Torres, J. M., Ruiz, E., & Ortega, E. (2000). Effects of acute alcohol intoxication on pituitary-gonadal axis hormones, pituitary-adrenal axis hormones, β-endorphin and prolactin in human adolescents of both sexes. Life sciences, 67(9), 1081-1086.


8. Bianco, A., Thomas, E., Pomara, F., Tabacchi, G., Karsten, B., Paoli, A., & Palma, A. (2014). Alcohol consumption and hormonal alterations related to muscle hypertrophy: a review. Nutrition & metabolism, 11(1), 26.


9. Parr, E. B., Camera, D. M., Areta, J. L., Burke, L. M., Phillips, S. M., Hawley, J. A., & Coffey, V. G. (2014). Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLoS One, 9(2), e88384.


10. Duplanty, A. A., Budnar, R. G., Luk, H. Y., Levitt, D. E., Hill, D. W., McFarlin, B. K., ... & Vingren, J. L. (2017). Effect of Acute Alcohol Ingestion on Resistance Exercise–Induced mTORC1 Signaling in Human Muscle. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 31(1), 54-61.

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