How Much Is Your Alcohol Consumption Affecting Your Diet and Exercise Goals?
As with any diet choice, there are plenty of rumors and pseudo-science floating around about the relationship between alcohol and exercise. Some say drinking kills muscle gains and irrevocably ruins your diet. Other sources claim there’s nothing wrong with even high alcohol consumption.
This will help set the record straight and clear up any misconceptions about alcohol and fitness. Let’s take a look at the hard evidence and research about alcohol, how your body processes it, and if it affects your diet and exercise goals.
The Body’s Response
Alcohol, or ethanol, is technically a psychoactive drug, and the body treats it like a poison, detoxifying it in the liver. Individuals vary, but a typical liver can safely process one ounce of ethanol per hour – one beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of liquor.
The entire metabolic process is complicated, but it can be broken down into 4 basic steps (with an extra fifth for heavy drinking):1
1. Consumption – The alcohol goes from your mouth to your stomach.
2. Absorption – In the stomach and small intestine, the alcohol passes into the bloodstream.
3. Intoxication – In the bloodstream, alcohol (ethanol) interacts with your cardiovascular system and brain, causing you to feel “buzzed.” This feeling increases the more you drink, enhancing mood and decreasing inhibitions.
4. Breakdown – Eventually, the liver breaks down the alcohol in the bloodstream, turning it into energy and other compounds. You no longer feel intoxicated.
5. Hangover – In cases of extreme intoxication, you may feel weak, nauseated, and tired for hours after the alcohol is broken down.
With this basic framework, we can start to explore exactly how alcohol impacts your diet and exercise.
Alcohol and Macronutrients
So, does alcohol affect your body’s ability to process protein, carbohydrates, and fats? The short answer is yes.
When your body senses a harmful substance, like alcohol, it goes into overdrive to process it and get it out of your system. This is step 4 (breakdown) from our list earlier.
While focusing on alcohol breakdown, the body puts all other processes on the back burner, including macronutrient metabolism. This means you’re breaking down alcohol instead of that protein shake you drank earlier.
In the long-term, this can lead to serious health issues, but the immediate effects on exercise are: longer recovery periods, increased soreness as the body takes longer to rebuild muscle, and possible difficulty focusing during workouts.2
This doesn’t mean an occasional beer is going to destroy your protein absorption. With a single drink, the body continues as normal after about an hour of processing, no harm done. The effect is also lessened when drinking with a meal, as the stomach takes longer to digest everything and pass it to the bloodstream.
However, if you’re having several drinks regularly throughout the week, that adds up quickly. Instead of recovering from exercise and building muscle, your body is spending multiple hours handling the alcohol you’re consuming.3
Energy and Calories in Alcohol
Most people don’t realize that alcohol contains calories, just like macronutrients. One gram of alcohol is 7 calories. Compared to the 4-calories-per-gram in carbs and protein, 7 is quite a lot.
One ounce is 28 grams, so a typical beer or glass of wine contains nearly 200 calories in alcohol alone. If you’re on a cut or watching your diet, 200 calories can be enough to put you over the edge.4
Mixed drinks and shots aren’t any better as far as calories go. A shot contains up to 100 calories, and mixed drinks compound the problem with soda, which contains huge amounts of sugar and calories.
If you’re having trouble losing weight, alcohol might be the culprit. As you can see, just a few drinks can quickly add up to more than 400 calories, the equivalent of a small meal.
If you’re planning on drinking, make sure you allocate enough calories in your diet to make up for the alcohol or soda.
Alcohol and Hormone Levels
We all know hormones are important for muscle growth and exercise, especially testosterone and growth hormone. Without these compounds, increasing strength, endurance, and size is nearly impossible.
The body naturally creates testosterone, but large amounts of alcohol actually decrease production. Once again, an occasional drink won’t wreck your test levels, but sustained, regular drinking has been shown to dramatically decrease testosterone in otherwise healthy athletes.5
In addition to messing with testosterone, alcohol has been found to disrupt REM sleep and human growth hormone secretion. This leads to restless nights and low growth hormone levels.6
The best way to combat effects on hormone levels is to limit alcohol intake to a moderate amount and not drink right before bed.7
Dehydration and Diuretic
Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it makes you urinate more frequently. If you’re not careful, this can lead to dehydration, which reduces your ability to repair muscle and recover.8
Thankfully, there’s a simple fix: make sure to drink water along with alcohol. If you’re having multiple drinks, a good habit is to alternate each drink with a glass of water. This both evens out your alcohol intake and keeps you hydrated.
Bringing It All Together
It turns out the rumors were true: Alcohol can have serious impacts on your training, exercise, and diet. Thankfully, there are a few simple ways to eliminate these effects and enjoy drinking without worrying about losing your progress:
- Limit alcohol consumption to one drink per hour
- Alternate drinks with glasses of water
- Drink while eating to slow absorption
- Don’t drink right before bed
- Avoid multiple drinks throughout the week
- Moderate caloric intake to account for alcohol
You don’t have to give up alcohol completely to successfully lose weight, build muscle, or compete. A little common sense and some understanding on how your body reacts to alcohol consumption will allow you to drink responsibly and still work towards your fitness and health goals, rather than ruin them.
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU
- Alcohol & Your Body. Brown University.
- Poulsen MB, et al. Motor performance during and following acute alcohol intoxication in healthy non-alcoholic subjects. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2007 Nov;101(4):513-23. Epub 2007 Aug 24.
- Koziris LP, et al. Effect of acute postexercise ethanol intoxication on the neuroendocrine response to resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2000 Jan;88(1):165-72.
- Suter PM. Is alcohol consumption a risk factor for weight gain and obesity?. Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences. 2005;42(3):197-227.
- Emanuele MA, Emanuele NV. Alcohol’s effects on male reproduction. Alcohol Health and Research World. 1998;22(3):195-201.
- Coiro V, Vescovi PP. Alcoholism abolishes the effects of melatonin on growth hormone secretion in humans. Neuropeptides. 1998 Jun;32(3):211-4.
- Emanuele N, Emanuele MA. The endocrine system: alcohol alters critical hormonal balance. Alcohol Health and Research World. 1997;21(1):53-64.
- Jeukendrup A, PhD. Dehydration and its effects on performance. From Sports Nutrition, Second Edition.