How to enjoy alcohol and still lose body fat
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.
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.
In Bodyscan’s Baseline DEXA consultation, we provide your maintenance and required deficit calories, and the time it will take to reach your target body fat. Across the team, we often suggest that it may be easier to consider a weekly calorie target instead of a daily one; for example, 13,300 calories a week rather than 1900 a day. This can make it easier to ‘balance the books’.
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 (as proved by their DEXA scan results over time) 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.
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.
The latest enhancement to Bodyscan’s calorie calculator, which uses your DEXA data for its input, is to show you how an increase in activity can – cumulatively – have a sizeable impact on your journey, either shortening the time required with the same deficit or keeping the timeline and allowing you to consume more calories each day/week. The example below shows fat loss of 6kg in 12 weeks on 2217 calories a day can also be achieved (with increased activity) in just eight weeks on the same calories or in 12 weeks on 2569 daily calories.
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.
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!
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
How DEXA scans can measure your fat loss
Whether you drink alcohol or not, regular DEXA scans every three or four months are the best way to keep you accountable. DEXA is highly consistent when it comes to measuring body fat, so we can faithfully record even very small changes, which can be missed by methods such as skinfold calipers, due to high volatility due to human error.
If you have 6-8kg of body fat to lose, then three DEXA scans, including the Baseline, should be sufficient. Above 8kg we would recommend three to four scans in a year and the journey may take longer than that. Take our look at the cost of having a DEXA scan in the UK on our pricing page. You can see single scans as well as prepaid DEXA packages.
Everything comes down to the size and consistency of your calorie deficit. We have had clients like Jim lose 20kg of fat in just five months (with almost no loss of muscle, see his DEXA results here) or, more steadily, Abigail achieved the same results (19kg of fat loss) over a year. The only difference is the calorie deficit, achieved by reduction in consumption and an increase in activity.
For some plain-English tips about losing body fat, request our popular fat-loss guide.
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