• Choose wisely: A single vodka soda is roughly 57Kcal, while a single gin and tonic is 92Kcal.
• Drink slowly: put your glass down between sips.
• Have a glass of soda & lime in your hand in between alcoholic drinks. It will prevent the "Where's your drink?" comments by having everyone think you are having a vodka soda.
• Drink 1-2 pints of water before heading out.
• Avoid shots: these are a bolus of alcohol and only lead to one destination!
• Clear spirits are better than dark in terms of sugar content, for e.g. vodka, gin, tequila.
What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is an organic compound made up of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. In its purest form, it is ethanol. Alcohol could be considered the “fourth macro-nutrient” as it is unique in its properties to supply 7 Kcal of energy per 1 g of alcohol. This means that alcohol if you drink it, has to be considered when designing your nutrition program. It is also essential for you to understand how alcohol works and the effect it can have on you and your body.
How does it cause symptoms?
When consumed, alcohol enters the bloodstream and is normally metabolised by the liver. The liver does this at a rate of 50mL of spirits, a pint of lager or a glass of wine per 90 minutes. When drinking exceeds your livers ability to clear it, the alcohol can start to affect the brain. At this point, symptoms begin to occur - these usually include slurred speech, impaired coordination & poor judgment.
Alcohol induces poor judgment and in relation to food choices, and this is often where it all starts to go wrong. Not only does alcohol have significant numbers of calories (7 Kcal per gram) along with the added carbohydrates (sugars) in most alcoholic beverages to make, it also leads you craving sugary and fatty foods.
After a night out or even during a night of drinking, you will start to crave sweet, salty and fatty food choices. This is because alcohol stimulates insulin production. Your liver produces insulin to counter the raised blood sugar levels. The insulin then lowers your raised blood sugar levels and as a result, you need a sweet hit. The cycle continues as you drink more, eat sweet and fatty food choices. And this is not good because the body has a unique way of prioritising its use of the fuel you have consumed.
Alcohol as a source of Fuel
So no matter how many moves you throw on the dance floor, all that exercise is just burning off the drinks you consumed. Why is this you ask?
It’s actually pretty interesting. It’s a process called substrate utilisation. (1) When you consume alcohol your body priorities it as a fuel source. After the alcohol is used it then turns to protein and carbohydrates to provide energy. (1-5) Your body is so efficient that it doesn't even look to use fat as a fuel source. In fact, the body has been shown to suppress fat burning (fat oxidation) by as much as 87% in the presence of alcohol. (3)
Even more interesting is that when alcohol and carbohydrates are combined – the use of carbohydrates as a fuel source soars and use of fat as a fuel source becomes zero. (3) So if fat as a fuel source becomes negligible, where does it go you may ask? It goes into storage. This is what we call oxidative hierarchy. (1,5)
That’s right – not only does the body not use the fat, it makes it a priority to store the stuff in unlimited amounts. The body has no capacity to store alcohol nor excess protein, and has limited capacity to store carbohydrates in the liver, blood, and muscle yet has an unlimited ability to store fat! (1-5) Also to note – being male or female has no impact on these findings – just so you know. So think of it like this - you have an evening of wine, crackers, and cheese. The body uses the alcohol as an immediate fuel source, closely followed by the protein in the cheese and the carbohydrates in the crackers. As a result, the fat in the cheese is not utilised and prioritised to be stored in the body. A very simple and real situation for you to think about.
A Numbers Game
Drinking five pints of lager a week adds up to 44,200kcal over a year, equivalent to eating approximately 221 doughnuts. It truly is frightening when you look at it this way. And that is five pints in a week – I am guessing a lot of people will consume that on a Saturday night!
I am not saying you cannot drink – everyone needs to live a little. All I am saying is to be extra mindful of your intake and realise that not only does it affect the ability to burn fat, but also contributes to the total amount of energy consumed. When you talk about the inability to shift those love handles and that you have done everything possible, just remember this page and ask yourself – have you really?
The obvious choice is to not drink yet this is not always possible and not always desired. We get it - you want to have a drink – most of us do. If it fits your “macro’s” then indulge, but if it doesn’t and you are serious about achieving what you set out at the start then think twice before having that second or third pint/wine/spirit.
A final note is to drink responsibly – the last thing you need when trying to achieve your fitness goals is to have an impending court date for being over the limit.
- Cronise, RJ, Sinclair, DA & Bremer, AA. Oxidative Priority, meal Frequency, and the Energy Economy of Food and Activity: Implications for Longevity, Obesity, and Cardiometabolic Disease. Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders. 2016. Review Article.
- Jebb et al, Changes in macronutrient balance during over and underfeeding assessed by 12-d continuous whole-body calorimetry.
- Am J Clin Nutr 1996;64:259-266
- Prentice AM. Alcohol and obesity Int J Obes 1995;19:S44-S50
- Prentice AM, Macronutrients as sources of food energy. Public Health Nutri 2005;8:932-939
- Raben et al, Meals with similar energy densities but rich in protein, fat, carbohydrate, or alcohol have different effects on energy expenditure and substrate metabolism but not on appetite and energy intake. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;77:91–100.