Does Alcohol Ruin Body Composition?

When people start working out regularly and revamping their nutrition, one of the first things to go is alcohol. Many associate alcohol as the sole reason they’re overweight, whether it be beer, wine, or mixed drinks.

However, when you’re out with friends or together with family for special occasions, there’s bound to be alcohol somewhere and you won’t go near it for fear it’ll instantly turn to sludge on your physique.

We’re here to dispel that notion with a rundown of alcohol’s effects on the body and how you can still have a drink (or two!) regularly and still keep a lean, toned figure.

Alcohol Metabolism

When you consume alcohol, your body prioritizes digesting the ethanol (alcohol) first above any other macronutrient. It basically puts a halt on carb, protein, and fat metabolism and metabolizes ethanol in this way:

Ethanol → Acetaldehyde → Acetate → Acetyl-CoA

Acetate and acetyl-CoA can be used for energy but it’s a costly process for the body. For the longest time, people have said alcohol contains 7 calories per gram; however, due to alcohol’s incredibly high thermic effect, the real calorie “payload” per gram is 5.1 calories.[1]

Also, contrary to what you’ve been led to believe, alcohol isn’t easily converted to fat -- it’s simply too “costly” from an energy standpoint in the body. However, the extra Acetate and Acetyl-CoA taken up by your cells instructs your body that no fat or sugar needs to be burned, so in that sense, alcohol is a suppressor of fat burning rather than a fat gainer.

Does that mean you have free reign to drink all the alcohol you want? Well, no unfortunately.

 

Calories and Hormones

Burning fat and building muscle comes down to simple thermodynamics (calories in / calories out) and hormones. Alcohol consumption affects both of these in a pretty significant way. Drinking alcohol means you’re consuming calories and those calories have a direct impact on hormones that impact muscle building, fat burning, and even athletic performance.

But, when consumed at the right time, alcohol can still be enjoyed regularly and not hinder your physique goals. The trick is to do it when it will have a minimal impact on your performance and physique.

 

Alcohol & Muscle-Building

When you choose to drink, alcohol has these effects in regards to building muscle:

- Elevate myostatin
- Decreases glycogen resynthesis
- Reduces post-exercise inflammation (yep, this is bad!)
- Inhibits exercise-induced mTOR
- May impair insulin and IGF-1 signaling
     

    You don’t have to have a PhD in biochemistry to know all of this is bad for building muscle. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for gains if you drink. The caveat here is how much you drink. Specifically, consuming alcohol in quantities of 1g/kg bodyweight spells trouble for building muscle.[2]

    Realistically, this translates to roughly 80g of alcohol for a 180-lb person. Assuming the average alcoholic beverage (5 oz wine or 12oz beer) has approximately 14g of alcohol in it, that would mean you’d need to pound six drinks in a relatively brief period of time to seriously hinder muscle growth.

    Best advice when wanting to build muscle and still drink alcohol, stick to around 0.5g/kg bodyweight, or about 3 drinks for the average 180lb male!

     

    Alcohol and Hunger

    Most people associate alcohol with binges of notoriously unhealthy food (chips, cheese fries, pizza, etc.). But does alcohol actually make you hungrier? Well, it depends on which type of alcohol you are drinking.

    Beer is bitter by nature and consuming bitter compounds stimulates release of GLP-1, a hunger suppressing compound. Beer also lower cortisols in the short run when consumed in moderately low amounts. Higher amounts have the opposite effect. As you know, cortisol is heavily involved in hunger and turns off the motivation center of the brain, thereby increasing reward centers.

    Red wine on the other hand contains histamine which increases cortisol. So it stands to reason that you would have greater appetite when consuming red wine. Interestingly enough, research has shown these exact results!

    A study in Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior found that beer lowers cortisol and suppresses appetite over the short term, while red wine rapidly increased cortisol and appetite too![3] Alcohol raises dopamine and lowers serotonin, which increases desire and reward as well as adrenaline. All of these factors can adversely impact sleep, which is often associated with increased hunger levels.

    Bottom line, consumed in excess quantities, alcohol increases appetite and cortisol which can lead to overeating and resulting in fat gain!

     

    Takeaway

    So, how is one supposed to consume alcohol and still keep in shape? Limit intake of carbs on days you choose to drink as well as fats. Focus on consuming protein (due to its satiating effect and high thermic effect) and opt for low carb beverages such as dry white wines or spirits such as rum, vodka, whiskey, tequila and gin. If you need a mixer, go with a diet soda to not add on excess sugar and calories.

    Most of all, practice moderation, a drink or two here and there will not ruin your physique. Blowing your diet and drinking to excess is where people get into trouble with their fitness goals. Stick to the guidelines above, and you can drink freely (within reason), enjoy life, and still make gains!

     

    References

     


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