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Alcohol and fat loss

I’ve discussed alcohol metabolism and its effects on fat loss and fat gain in this blog post. It’s been shown that light to moderate alcohol intake (1-2 drinks per day maximum) can be a part of any effective fat-loss programme once net calorie intake is considered.

Going beyond a moderate intake, however, especially within a short time span is a different story in terms of health, and if you’re not careful one night of excessive intake and the almost inevitable fast food that goes with it can easily wipe out a week’s carefully managed deficit.

If losing body fat is your goal and binge-style drinking is part of your lifestyle, try to be drink savvy (ie, be aware of the calorie content of your favourite drinks) and to employ certain habits to ensure that you enjoy alcohol without sabotaging your fat loss progress.

Alcohol and fat loss
“200 calories and a packet of crisps, please!”

Tips for fat loss while consuming alcohol

To make alcohol and fat loss work for you, trial one or more of the following methods to make informed decisions, enjoy social occasions, and still achieve your desired results.

1) ‘Save’ (or ‘bank’) Calories

Think of your weekly calorie intake as your bank balance. If you want a few drinks on a particular night, you can ‘save’ up for it in the days previous. Personally, I prefer to save up in advance rather than go into overdraft(!) but you can also ‘save’ calories in the days after to repay your calorie debt.

Whether you lose or gain body fat depends on how many calories you eat over multiple days, weeks, and months. Our bodies don’t reset at the end of each day. It’s therefore possible to overeat on certain days without gaining body fat if you have strategically under-eaten on other days.

My clients have found tremendous success using one or more of the methods below to reduce calories consumed in the days leading up to an event and so maintain their net calorie balance.

  • Lower your dietary fat intake (and thus calories) on the days before you plan to drink.
  • Lower your carbohydrate intake (and thus calories) in the same way.
  • Implement an intermittent fasting protocol (i.e. skip one meal or snack) to allow for a calorie ‘buffer’ when you do decide to drink. This approach works particularly well for those who eat out regularly.
  • Opt for high protein foods (e.g. lean meat, fish, Greek yoghurt, protein powder, or high protein snacks) and low-energy-dense foods (vegetables and fruit), which will keep you satiated (full) for a low number of calories.
  • Consume a low-calorie non-alcoholic drink between each alcoholic drink. This is a great way to pace your alcohol consumption without missing a round, plus it keeps your total calorie intake in check. Water, a diet soft drink, or my go-to is soda water with a dash of squash is my go-to.

These tips will work whether you track calories or not. Tracking isn’t for everyone and not something I recommend people do long-term, particularly if it encourages obsessive tendencies. You don’t have to count calories, but your calories still count!

So make some common-sense reductions to your food intake over a few days by reducing your portion sizes and/or eliminating mindless snacking. This is easy calorie reduction without counting.

2) Increase Activity

My general guideline for fat loss is to let nutrition be the priority where your energy/calorie deficit does the ‘fat burning’ and exercise and physical activity support it.

That said, staying active with inclusion of formal exercise (particularly weight training) is strongly encouraged and plays a crucial role in keeping body fat off longer-term.

As with reducing consumption, you can ‘save’ or ‘bank’ calories (though not as many) by keeping active as it will increase your energy expenditure and contribute to your calorie ‘buffer’. So, where possible, skip the Uber and walk.

Be Drink Aware

A damage limitation method when drinking is to choose low-calorie alcoholic drinks (low-calorie usually means low-alcohol). As such, it’s a good idea to know your booze of choice. Calories will vary between beers and wines depending on the brand.

Some popular choices are in the graphic below.

Calories in alcohol
Know your poison’s calories!

Here they are on a sliding scale. All spirits are single measure (25ml) and wine 175ml.

• Vodka & Soda/Lime | 51kcal
• Gin and Slimline Tonic | 52kcal
• Whiskey/Rum & Diet Soda | 59kcal
• 1 Glass of Prosecco | 84kcal
• 1 Bottle of Beer | 102-185kcal
• 1 Glass of Wine | 120 – 160kcal
• 1 Pint of Cider | 216 – 239kcal
• 1 Pint of Beer/Lager | 176 – 230kcal
• 1 Cocktail | 160 – 400kcal – highly variable!

The Bottom Line

Whether you gain or lose body fat is determined by net energy balance over time (energy in via food versus energy expended via activity). That applies whether alcohol and food are consumed together or separately.

The calorie content of alcoholic drinks combined with overeating due to lower alcohol-induced willpower can make fat loss more challenging and elusive.

However, if you only drink alcohol now and again and drink moderately you don’t have to worry too much about this at all. Be present and enjoy the occasion! Cheers!

Kevin Garde
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant

alcohol and fat

No matter the season, social events with family and friends are part of our everyday life. Our social and mental health should always be a priority and plays a major role in our overall happiness and well-being.

For many, alcohol plays an integral role in social gatherings and celebrations. Its effects on society are wide-ranging, with one to two drinks per day associated with positive health benefits and excessive alcohol consumption linked to alcoholism and cirrhosis.

You certainly don’t need to consume alcohol to enjoy social events and I’m not here to tell you how much or how frequently you should or shouldn’t drink.

I’m going to discuss alcohol’s impact on body composition, specifically fat loss. As with many nutritional topics, there’s an abundance of myths and misconceptions. The best place to start is with the scientific evidence. Before doing so, let’s look at how alcohol is metabolised by your body.

Some alcohol basics

Alcohol is toxic and has no nutritional value. It contains 7 calories (kcal) per gram, meaning it is almost as energy dense as fat.

• 1g Carbohydrate = 4 calories
• 1g Protein = 4 calories
• 1g Alcohol = 7 calories
• 1g Fat = 9 calories

When you drink alcohol, it is absorbed from your stomach and intestines. Before entering your circulation, it is metabolised in your liver. Your liver breaks down some of the alcohol into acetaldehyde and then into acetate.

Alcohol is treated as the preferential fuel source ahead of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Which makes sense considering the metabolic by-products of alcohol – acetate and particularly acetaldehyde – are toxic.

Once acetate enters your blood, fat burning is suppressed throughout your body. As a result, most of the fatty acids in your blood are being stored.

Alcohol and fat gain

Due to alcohol’s inhibitory effects on fat-burning, this has caused many to believe that alcohol ingestion alone will interfere with fat loss. It doesn’t. Alcohol only causes fat gain when consumed in excess of calorie needs.

A similar logical fallacy is seen with the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis and obesity. This has been debunked and discussed in greater detail in this previous blog post.

It’s important to note that fat storage is an ongoing process and fatty acids are constantly entering and exiting fat cells throughout the day. Net fat gain or loss is most closely related to energy balance over time.

Alcohol will only affect fat balance (gain and losses in body fat) over 24 hours if you consume more calories than you are expending, resulting in a net energy/calorie surplus.

In a study where 14 men were given 270ml (1.5 standard glasses) of red wine with dinner for six weeks, followed by the same period of abstinence, there was no effect of alcohol on body weight, body fat, or calorie intake.

In a similar study, 20 overweight women were given 190ml (1 standard glass) of red wine with dinner for five days of the week over ten weeks, followed by the same period of abstinent. Again, there was no effect of alcohol on body weight or body fat.

Drink can lead to food

Alcohol and fat loss

Contrary to popular belief, there’s scientific evidence to indicate that alcohol consumption can be a part of an effective fat loss program, once you are mindful of your total calorie intake.

In a weight-loss study on obese men and women, researchers separated subjects into two groups with a total calorie intake of 1,500kcal. One group drank 10% (200ml) of their calorie intake from grape juice, while the other group drank 10% (200ml) of their calories from white wine.

Bigger weight-loss with wine vs grape juice

The study lasted three months and all subjects achieved significant weight loss. When the groups were compared, there was a trend for more weight loss in the wine group. Despite alcohol’s effects on fat-burning acutely, weight loss still occurred!

Pitfalls and considerations

The issue with alcohol consumption and fat-loss often boils down to the effect alcohol has on our self-control. This can become even harder after a couple of drinks, as appetite tends to increase leading to a higher food intake.

In a study on alcohol consumption and food intake at a buffet-style lunch, 26 men attended the study facility on three occasions. Thirty minutes before lunch, subjects either rested, were given 330 ml of a non-alcoholic lager or 330 ml of the same lager spiked with 3 units of alcohol. Calorie intake was significantly higher (~15% excluding calories from alcohol and 30% including alcoholic calories) following consumption of an alcoholic lager compared to the other two occasions.

Alcohol increases your appetite

It’s generally the combination of alcohol and the overeating around it that can undermine fat loss progress.

Another area that alcohol can negatively impact is our sleep. Sleep is one of the most neglected weapons in our biological armoury.

Research suggests that, although alcohol can induce sleepiness, once blood alcohol levels decrease, you can find yourself more wakeful than usual, which can lead to poorer sleep quality. Restricted and poor sleep results in an increase in food intake and a reduction in energy expenditure.

Conclusion

Alcohol only causes weight gain when consumed in excess of calorie needs over time. Light to moderate alcohol intake (1-2 drinks per day maximum) can be included in an effective fat loss program; however, be aware of the potential impacts on appetite.

For those who prefer to go beyond moderate intakes, check out some practical tips on how to include alcohol within your diet without sabotaging your fat loss efforts (link to blog post).

Kevin Garde
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant