Fat Loss and Alcohol: Friend or Foe?

Who doesn’t enjoy a few cold ones after a long work week?

We all do. But what we don’t enjoy is the feeling of guilt we have post-consumption or the anxiety we get thinking that we just ruined all of our hard work and progress in the gym.

This proves to be extremely discouraging, especially for those who need to lose a lot of body fat. Allowing self-doubt to creep in about your continuity with your fitness and nutrition plan is never good. Even worse is catching a case of what I like to call, “the f***its.” That’s when you start to fall off the rails just a little bit, but believe the damage is already too great to overcome. So instead, you say the magic words and continue the onslaught of binge drinking and turn an already probably bad situation even worse.

You catch my drift.

For years, nutritionists, dietitians and fitness professionals alike have advocated loudly for a very limited/absent approach when it comes to the subject of alcohol. This is reinforced in textbooks and preached in every health magazine on the shelves today.

But is it really that simple? Let’s see what the research has to say.

Martin Berkhan of leangains.com goes in depth on the science behind alcohol and it’s effects on fat loss and muscle growth. Feel free to geek out and read up on all the science behind it here. For the sake of this article though, I’m going to focus on just the fat loss portion of things and pick out some of the most interesting tidbits from his article along the way.

There’s always two sides to every story. Let’s first review some of the health benefits of alcohol, as told by Martin:

Moderate alcohol consumption improves insulin sensitivity, lowers triglyceride concentrations and improves glycemic control, not only in healthy folks, but also in type 2 diabetes.

If the effect of alcohol consumption on insulin sensitivity doesn’t impress you, then consider the fact that studies have consistently shown that moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers. This can be mainly attributed to a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. However, alcohol also contributes to a healthier and disease-free life by protecting against Alzheimer’s disease, metabolic syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, the common cold, different types of cancers, depression and many other Western diseases… It can almost be said beyond doubt that moderate alcohol consumption is healthier than complete abstinence.


Great! So what exactly is the problem?

It’s important to recognize that alcohol doesn’t trigger feelings of satiety when you consume it, unlike food. Studies continually show the association between drinking and increased feelings of hunger, both during and after consumption of alcohol, even after just one drink.


Consider this study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, who found these interesting findings:

Results: After adjustment for energy derived from alcohol, increasing alcohol consumption was associated with a higher total energy intake, a higher percentage of energy intake as protein and lipids, and higher intakes of cholesterol, fatty acids, retinol, iron, and vitamin E. Conversely, energy provided by carbohydrates decreased with increasing alcohol consumption, as did β-carotene intake. Increasing alcohol consumption was associated with higher consumption of animal products, cheese, potatoes, oil, bread, and breakfast cereals and with lower consumption of vegetables and dairy products.

Conclusion: In this population of middle-aged, highly educated French women, marked differences in dietary patterns and nutrient intakes were found according to alcohol consumption. Part of the detrimental effect of alcohol on health may be due to the less healthy dietary habits of drinkers. This points to a confounding role of eating habits and nutrient intakes in the relation between alcohol and health.


So we now know that alcohol increases your appetite, which proves to be the real problem.

Take into consideration your surroundings and environment in which you consume alcohol. When you drink, it’s often done socially – whether it be at your favorite bar, a house party, work event, etc, even with just a buddy or two at your house watching the big game or a girls night in watching The Bachelor with a bottle of wine. It becomes very difficult to say no to accepting another drink you might not normally allow yourself. Or perhaps eat those loaded potato skins or chips and queso with your friends when everyone else is doing it.

Energy expended must always outweigh energy intake if your goal is to lose weight. You must be careful, as the boatload of calories that are associated with alcohol and the extra snacking can easily derail even the best of intentions or most intense exercise plans.

Last note for those of you who are concerned about the calories within your favorite drinks, thinking that will make a difference. Consider this blurb from Spectrum’s very own blog post about alcohol:

Those who are worried about the calories from alcohol will often opt for lower calorie drinks – just look at the popularity of “skinny Margaritas”,Mich-ultra, Miller 64, etc. But this only creates a delusion that you are dodging the negative effects of alcohol consumption on weight control. Although lower in calories, the alcohol content is about the same. And the effects of alcohol on weight gain, as this study shows, goes beyond the calories of the drink you are consuming. It is the pharmacological effect of alcohol on appetite that causes you to eat more which will have more of an impact on weight gain, which the skinny margarita won’t be able to solve.



You can clearly see that these are real changes going on in your brain and body. Remember that alcohol is a drug and you’re fighting more than iust willpower when you consume it!

To sum up today’s blog, I will quote the great Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D, CSCS, as I tend to do frequently, simply because he puts it very well in this blog post:

So here’s my take: a drink or two a day is generally fine (and perhaps beneficial from a health perspective) for the majority of people provided overall caloric balance is not increased. But the last part of the sentence is key here. Consider the caloric content in some popular alcoholic beverages: a margarita has 600 calories, a martini 250, and a beer 150. The calories can really add up quickly. What’s more, consumption of alcohol has been shown to increase appetite (4), and tends to supplement rather than displace calories (5). Ultimately, if you take in more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. And binge drinking clearly has a detrimental effect on body composition–if you pound down a slew of drinks, you will seriously impair fat loss.


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