I think this is very good topic to cover today, since we're right in the beginning of spring and all, because most people involved in the fitness and health game tend to miss out on a lot of fun due to avoiding alcohol. I know a lot of peeps who'd rather stay home and manage their diet than go out and have a few drinks. Sad, really, because it's all for the wrong reasons. I don't blame them though. Read the mags or listen to the "experts" and you'll soon be believing that a few drinks will make your muscles fall off, make you impotent, and leave you with a big gut. It's mostly bullshit, of course. No big surprise when we're dealing with the alarmist fitness mainstream that can't seem to put things in the right perspective if their life depended on it.
This is a definitive primer on the effects of alcohol on all things someone interested in optimizing body composition might be interested in. At the end of this article I'm also going to show you how a hopeless drunk like myself can stay lean while drinking on a regular basis.
Let's quickly review how nutrients are stored and burned after a mixed meal.
1. Carbs and protein suppress fat oxidation via an elevation in insulin. However, these macronutrients do not contribute to fat synthesis in any meaningful way by themselves.
2. Since fat oxidation is suppressed, dietary fat is stored in fat cells.
3. As the hours go by and insulin drops, fat is released from fat cells. Fat storage is an ongoing process and fatty acids are constantly entering and exiting fat cells throughout the day. Net gain or loss is more or less dictated by calorie input and output.
If we throw alcohol into the mix, it gets immediate priority in the in the substrate hierarchy: alcohol puts the breaks on fat oxidation, but also suppresses carb and protein oxidation.
This makes sense considering that the metabolic by-product of alcohol, acetate, is toxic. Metabolizing it takes precedence over everything else. This quote sums up the metabolic fate of alcohol nicely.
Moderate alcohol consumption is assocoiated with an abundance of health benefits. The long-term effect on insulin sensitivity and body weight (via insulin or decreased appetite) may be of particular interest to us.
* The thermic effect of alcohol is high and the real caloric value is not 7.1 kcal: it's ~5.6 kcal. However, it's still easy to overconsume calories by drinking. Calorie for calorie, the short-term effect of alcohol on satiety is low. Adding to this, intoxication may also encourage overeating by disinhibition of dietary restraint.
* The negative effects of alcohol on testosterone and recovery has been grossly exaggerated by the fitness mainstream. Excluding very high acute alcohol consumption, or prolonged and daily consumption, the effect is non-significant and unlikely to affect muscle gains or training adaptations negatively.
* The effect of alcohol on muscle protein synthesis is unknown in normal human subjects. It is not unlikely to assume that a negative effect exists, but it is very unlikely that it is of such a profound magnitude that some people would have you believe.
* Alcohol is converted to acetate by the liver. The oxidation of acetate takes precedence over other nutrients and is oxidized to carbon dioxide and water. However, despite being a potent inhibitor of lipolysis, alcohol/acetate alone cannot cause fat gain by itself. It's all the junk people eat in conjunction with alcohol intake that causes fat gain.
How to lose fat or prevent fat gain when drinking
Now that you understand the effect of alcohol on substrate metabolism, it's time for me to reveal how you can make alcohol work for fat loss. Alternatively, how you can drink on a regular basis without any fat gain. Without having to count calories and while drinking as much as you want.
Apply this method exactly as I have laid it out. If you've paid attention, you'll understand the rationale behind it. I've tested this on myself and on numerous clients. Rest assured that I'm not testing out some large-scale bizarre experiment here.
The rules are as follows:
* For this day, restrict your intake of dietary fat to 0.3 g/kg body weight (or as close to this figure as possible).
* Limit carbs to 1.5 g/kg body weight. Get all carbs from veggies and the tag-along carbs in some protein sources. You'll also want to limit carbohydrate-rich alcohol sources such as drinks made with fruit juices and beer. A 33 cl/12 fl oz of beer contains about 12 g carbs, while a regular Cosmopolitan is about 13 g.
* Good choices of alcohol include dry wines which are very low carb, clocking in at about 0.5-1 g per glass (4 fl oz/115ml). Sweet wines are much higher at 4-6 g per glass. Cognac, gin, rum, scotch, tequila, vodka and whiskey are all basically zero carbs. Dry wines and spirits is what you should be drinking, ideally. Take them straight or mixed with diet soda. (No need to be super-neurotic about this stuff. Drinks should be enjoyed after all. Just be aware that there are better and worse choices out there).
* Eat as much protein as you want. Yes, that's right. Ad libitum. Due to the limit on dietary fat, you need to get your protein from lean sources. Protein sources such as low fat cottage cheese, protein powder, chicken, turkey, tuna, pork and egg whites are good sources of protein this day.
* For effective fat loss, this should be limited to one evening per week. Apply the protocol and you will lose fat on a weekly basis as long as your diet is on point for the rest of the week.
Basically, the nutritional strategy I have outlined here is all about focusing on substrates that are least likely to cause net synthesis of fat during hypercaloric conditions. Alcohol and protein, your main macronutrients this day, are extremely poor precursors for de novo lipogenesis. Alcohol suppresses fat oxidation, but by depriving yourself of dietary fat during alcohol consumption, you won't be storing anything. Nor will protein cause any measurable de novo lipogenesis. High protein intake will also compensate for the weak effect of alcohol on satiety and make you less likely to blow your diet when you're drinking.
By the way, a nice bonus after a night of drinking is that it effectively rids you of water retention. You may experience the "whoosh"-effect, which I've talked about in my two-part series about water retention. That in itself can be motivating for folks who've been experiencing a plateau in their weight loss.
Apply this with good judgement and don't go out and do something stupid now. Remember, this a short-term strategy for those that want to be able to drink freely* without significantly impacting fat loss progress or causing unwanted fat gain. It's not something I encourage people to do on a daily basis, but it's one of the strategies that I apply for maintaining low body fat for myself and my clients.
* Now of course...you can always drink in moderation and make sure to not go over your calorie budget for the day. But what fun is there in that? I'd rather cheat the system with the kind metabolic mischief I've layed out above.