Given we are approaching the festive season, it seems appropriate to look at alcohol and the impact it can have on your weight, training and health.

Alcohol is one of the most widely consumed drugs in the world. Drinking alcohol in this country is generally viewed as a sociable and happy experience if you don’t overindulge, although as with all controlled drugs we should all be aware of the dangers of alcohol and the social problems that it can cause.

Of course, the orthodox view (even more so in the fitness industry) is that alcohol is unhealthy and should be avoided as much as possible. Is it so black and white? Fear not, those who enjoy a drink on occasion (including myself) can still do that and achieve their health and fitness goals.

First off, in nutrition terms let’s look at what alcohol does within the body when consumed.

The psychoactive element of alcoholic drinks is ethanol. The vast majority of people will be aware of, and experienced the affect a lot of alcohol can have on behaviour.

Alcohol is rarely thought of as a macronutrient, but in fact it is. Although it packs a punch with 7 calories per gram; the reality is that the energy required to break it down to a compound (Acetyl-CoA) the body can deal with means that it is closer to 5 calories per gram.

When you drink alcohol, no matter what you eat with it, the body will breakdown the alcohol before carbs, protein or fat. The body can use Acetyl-CoA for energy, but its a costly process.

Another costly process is turning alcohol into fat, which just like carbs it doesn’t readily do unless you over consume. This is exactly the same as with every other macronutrient, it is over consuming calories in whatever form that leads to fat gain; alcohol does not cause more fat gain than the others. So if your alcohol intake is included within your daily calorie requirement, no weight gain will occur.

While it isn’t necessarily a fat storer, it does suppress the burning of fat by the body for energy, as it does with the other two macros, so it is certainly not an ideal fat loss aid. Since alcohol lowers inhibitions, one of the side effects of that can be overeating.

When choosing your poison, beer and white wine have less of a negative effect on appetite than red wine or spirits with sugary mixers. So, if you are going have more than a couple and want to avoid that trip to the kebab shop, beer and white wine are a slightly better option.

It is often widely believed alcohol consumption will mess up testosterone levels in men and oestrogen levels in women. This alleged decrease in testosterone is often cited as a reason for not drinking by those trying to build muscle.

 Concomitant with that, alcohol is also commonly believed to contribute to the phenomenon of ‘man boobs’, due to long term decreases in testosterone and an increase in oestrogen. While that is true of chronic heavy drinkers, moderate occasional consumption does little to affect normal hormone levels.

What about alcohol’s effect on recovery? There is obviously not a lot of research on this topic, but moderate drinking post-workout hasn’t been shown to impact strength gains or muscle damage.

Alcohol can have a negative impact on muscle protein synthesis. However, one study found that around six drinks produced this effect, but three didn’t. In fact, another study found that drinking two small beers post-workout was as good at rehydrating and replacing lost electrolytes as mineral water.

In terms of exercise, if you must drink more, it appears it is better to do it after weight training than doing traditional cardio.

A binge drinking session will also lower your melatonin levels and adversely affect your sleep pattern and your quality of sleep. This can lead to increased hunger and cravings. Regular binging can also deplete you of zinc, magnesium and B vitamins. You should make sure you are getting enough of these in your diet anyway, but more so if you drink quite often.

While excessive alcohol consumption can cause many health problems, moderate consumption has been linked to living longer, improved insulin sensitivity and a reduction in rates of some forms of cancer, but the evidence is far from conclusive.

So, we have established that moderate alcohol consumption isn’t necessarily harmful to fat loss or muscle gain goals, and won’t dramatically affect your sex hormone levels, powers of recovery or health.

Of course, good health is about more than just physical health, abstention may make life less enjoyable and have a detrimental effect on your social life, so feel free to enjoy an occasional drink. Enjoy life.

Having said that there are some precautions you can take to lessen the impact of drinking alcohol.

  • If you know you are going to be drinking of an evening, then make sure to eat lightly with meals based around protein and vegetables (and not carbs and fat) before you drink.
  • Light beers, white wine or spirits with low or no calorie mixers, are better for avoiding overeating than red wine or spirits with sugary mixers.
  • Drinking less than three drinks seems to have little effect on your hormones, appetite, weight, recovery or health.
  • If training before drinking quite a lot, it is better to weight train than do traditional cardio.
  • The odd binge will not create any long-term damage, but binge more often and you will affect your performance, recovery and health.