“Can I get you a drink?”
Where do you picture yourself getting asked this question?
At a bar? Wedding? Business dinner? Backyard barbeque? Restaurant? Casual hang out with friends? Family gathering?
It could be any of those and more…the list goes on and on.
Many of the events you attend and activities you do have the prospect of alcohol being available, encouraged, or even expected—it’s ingrained in our sociocultural history. Current chemical analysis estimates show that humans have been using beer and wine for over 9000 years.
That’s nine millennia of alcohol being used to alter mental states, as a symbol in religious and coming of age ceremonies, and of course as a means to lubricate social situations.
Bottom line: alcohol isn’t going anywhere.
For weight loss, this can pose many problems when it comes to figuring out what role alcohol should (or shouldn’t) play in your life.
I remember it well…
I was 22, less than a year out of college, and had just begun my career as a personal trainer in a local $10/month gym.
I wanted to look the part of a personal trainer as soon as possible, so I hit the weights hard and changed the rest of my life to support my health goals. With visions of fitness cover models dancing in my head, I also began counting macros for the first time. The numbers part seemed easy enough for my puzzle-loving, mathematically-inclined brain: set your targets, plug in the holes with foods that fit, and away you go!
But, like most 22-year-olds, I still enjoyed spending the majority of my weekend nights enjoying a couple of drinks (and sometimes seven or eight). Most every Friday or Saturday night was spent at a friend’s apartment, out at a local bar with co-workers, or downtown Chicago if we were feeling fancy and payday had just hit.
Surprisingly, this didn’t pose any problems for hitting my macros.
Or so I thought.
I was still within range of my targets even when I accounted for the Coke or Sprite that I used to make the sugar-bombs I drank at the time (give me a break, I was young and had a woefully underdeveloped palate).
There was a problem, though.
I never once accounted for the actual alcohol I was drinking. It wasn’t a carb, fat, or protein. Therefore, it wasn’t a ‘macro’ and must be free! Oh, young Jack…
It took me months to figure out that I was unknowingly sabotaging my own efforts and leaving out a crucial aspect of tracking. By the time I identified the problem, my frustrations with macro counting were through the roof and I had written it off entirely as an effective method of achieving the body I wanted. Not to mention I was completely unaware of the ancillary effects alcohol had on my body and the myriad of different ways it negatively impacted my health goals.
Things changed quickly once I realized I was slowing down my own progress and increasing frustration level by not accounting for alcohol. I didn’t cut it out entirely, but I did manage to drastically diminish its effects on my health goals once I understood it better.
I want that for you, too.
Here’s everything you need to know about alcohol and its effects on weight loss.
Nutritional Basics of Alcohol
Like most things we eat or drink, alcohol contains calories. You know, those little units of energy that get a bad rep because most of us eat too many of them.
And just like carbohydrates, fats, and protein, alcohol packs a calorie punch. Think of it as ‘the 4th macro’.
In relation to the other macros, it carries a caloric density almost twice that of carbs or protein and just below fats:
- Carbs = 4 calories/gram
- Protein = 4 calories/gram
- Alcohol = 7 calories/gram
- Fats = 9 calories/gram
Since overall caloric intake is the key determinant in whether you lose, maintain, or gain weight, not accounting for the calories in alcohol would be reckless. This is why we ‘steal’ your carbs and fats with the SU entries for beer, wine, and hard liquor—more on that below.
For example, if a 4.5% ABV beer is 155 calories and contains 13g of carbs (52 calories) and 1g of protein (4 calories), then the 99 remaining calories are coming from alcohol.
However, unlike the calories in your macros, the calories in alcohol carry no nutritional value. This means they provide no vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, or essential fatty acids.
In short, there is no nutritional need for alcohol in the body. It’s the very definition of an ‘empty calorie’.
Now, you’re probably a little weirded out about the idea of alcohol being a 4th macronutrient. Especially because we don’t have you track alcohol as a macronutrient the way that we do protein, carbs, and fats.
So why is that?
At Stronger U we know that simplicity matters. This is why we talk about the 3-3-3 method, planning your meals, and more. The same goes for helping you log alcohol. Logging alcohol and trying to figure out how it impacts your actual macro goals and calories can feel like you’re back in an advanced math class where everyone else is speaking a different language than you.
Nobody wants that, and we don’t want that for you.
Which is why in MyFitnessPal we have Stronger U light beer, Stronger U craft beer, Stronger U wine, and Stronger U cocktail entries. Every one of these entries there’s a calorie equivalent that is roughly equal to the average drink, respectively. For ease of logging and allowing you to plan drinks into your day/night, we have macro values assigned for each drink. That’s the language you’re already speaking, so it’s important to us that we allow you to keep speaking that same language with everything you log.
So when you input Stronger U craft beer, you’ll see that it logs 35g of carbs and 10g of fat.
Craft beer definitely doesn’t have 10g of fat, and it might not always have that many carbs. But the calories are roughly equivalent, and you’re still logging macros, just like you are for every other meal or food you eat.
How Alcohol Affects Weight Loss
In addition to adding extra calories, alcohol also affects your health and weight loss progress in many other ways.
Alcohol is a toxin. That’s why you get ‘intoxicated’ when you drink.
The body recognizes alcohol as a toxin that it has no way of storing and goes to work on eliminating it before doing anything else. Your metabolism actually increases for a short span to do this as quickly as possible. However, your ability to take in nutrients or breakdown carbohydrates and fat is compromised during the time when your liver is ridding the body of alcohol.
This, coupled with the extra calories from the alcohol, leads to an increased likelihood that you’ll store your macronutrients as fat.
Sleep and Increased Hunger
Studies have shown that as little as one alcoholic beverage in the hours leading up to bedtime can negatively impact your body’s ability to get to sleep, stay asleep, overall quality of sleep, and daytime alertness the next day. All of this works against your efforts to change your body as consistent quality sleep is critically important to weight loss.
Your body’s production of the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which control your hunger and satiety levels, are directly correlated with the amount of sleep you get each night. Fitful sleep or fewer hours of sleep overall lead to increased hunger the next day and the inability of your body to tell you that you’re full.
This is why you may be more likely to overeat the day or two following a poor night’s sleep.
Your appetite is spiked from the increased metabolic effect of alcohol, your decision-making ability is compromised, and now you’re leaving the bars at 1am. This doesn’t bode well for your late night food selections.
Impaired judgment is a well-known side effect of drinking and choosing to eat the right types and amounts of food is difficult enough in a sober state. It’s even more difficult when inebriated. This is why ‘drunk food’ never ends up being a greens salad and chicken breast.
Lowered inhibitions lead to poor decisions that slow down or reverse progress towards your goals.
If you had too much to drink the night before, it’s likely that your actions the next day will be impacted. The day after a night out finds most people sluggish and extremely dehydrated. Fighting the Sunday crowds at the grocery store probably isn’t too high on your list of things you want to do.
Being overly tired from a poor night of sleep can leave you wanting to skip your workout, meal prep, or any of the other activities you’d normally be doing to set yourself up for success. Not too mention, dehydration is commonly mistaken for hunger. ‘Hangover food’ cravings aren’t usually the most goal-oriented options either.
This snowball effect from a night of detoxifying, poor sleep, and a next day hangover creates momentum headed in the wrong direction.
Strategies for Handling Alcohol in Social Situations
While elimination might be the best possible health decision you can make when it comes to alcohol, it’s not realistic or desirable for most people. After all, you are working to build a healthy, sustainable, and enjoyable life—not some unattainable utopian lifestyle. And much like food, there are many techniques for managing alcohol responsibly.
Perhaps the easiest option for managing your drinking would be to swap out your beverage of choice for something a bit easier on the calorie count.
There are calories from carbohydrates in both beer and wine, but the majority of the calories come from the alcohol content. Therefore, you’ll want to opt for the options lower in ABV. For beer, this means ‘light’ beers and for wine, generally, whites are lower in alcohol content than reds.
If you prefer liquor, drinking it straight, on the rocks, or using a zero calorie mixer are your best bets. Sugary sodas, juices, and energy drinks are where the majority of calories come from in mixed drinks.
Regardless of what you drink of choice is you’ll want to make sure that you’re drinking water before, during, and after to diminish the effects and help your body flush it out. Even though you’re technically drinking liquids when consuming alcohol, it has a dehydrating effect because of how your body processes it.
A good rule of thumb is to have a full glass of water in between each alcoholic beverage. This will keep you hydrated, allow you to enjoy yourself, and keep those nasty hangovers at bay.
Here’s one you’re already a pro at.
Just like you plan your day of eating in advance, it pays to have a plan for drinking as well. Make sure you use the Stronger U entries in MFP to plan your drinks into your day. They should fit into your macros similar to anything else you’d eat or drink.
Start by inputting the number of drinks you think you’d like to have first and then fill in the rest of your day’s eating. If it looks good and you’re not compromising your overall food intake too much you’ll be in good shape. Make sure to include plenty of water, veggies, lean protein, and other filling foods as you’ll be eating less physical food that day because of the calories allotted to alcohol.
Even the best-laid plans fail though, especially when you’re new to counting macros and have deeply ingrained habits that you’re trying to change. Putting yourself in situations where you usually drink too much or trying to limit yourself before you’ve practiced can backfire on you.
At these times, it can be best to eliminate alcohol as an option until you have a little more experience. This usually works as a great tactic in the beginning so you can create momentum and then add drinking back in slowly once you’re comfortable with the rest of your new lifestyle.
And finally, a toast
Ultimately, whether you decide to drink (and to what extent) is completely your choice. We at Stronger U only want to make sure that you are well-equipped with all the tools to create the lifestyle that best fits your goals and leaves you fulfilled.
So here’s to you!
May your successes be many and your failures few; whether that’s stone cold sober or with a drink or two!