One of the most common questions I receive when it comes to nutrition is if alcohol consumption is “allowed.” I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as “allowed” or “not allowed” when it comes to diet; however, I do believe that food and everything else we put into our bodies for that matter, provides information to our bodies that cause a cascade of biological and hormonal responses. When considering what you do (and do not) want to eat or drink, you must consider what information you want to give your body and the effects it will have.
I have talked about the classic macronutrients, or energy sources, for our body that exist in our food; namely proteins, fats and carbohydrates. But where does alcohol fit in? Let’s look at the characteristics of alcohol to get a better understanding.
Alcohol is an energy source for sure, providing a hefty 7 calories per gram, but it is also a psychoactive drug and a toxin. These 3 characteristics of alcohol and the effects of them on the body are dose dependent.
Interestingly, unlike other energy sources, alcohol cannot be stored in the body, so the body has to prioritize its metabolism. This, along with its toxic characteristics, cause the body to attempt to eliminate alcohol as fast as possible. This absolute metabolic priority takes place at the expense of other metabolic fuels, meaning your body will prioritize burning alcohol for fuel before burning anything else including available carbohydrate, fat or protein. In other words, your body will not burn anything else, including body fat, while alcohol is available. For those of us attempting to lose body fat, this is important information.
You could, of course, take alcohol’s caloric value and metabolic priority into account when planning your nutrition to help minimize the effects on your body composition goals, however there is more to know and consider.
I like to think about food and drink not so much as good or bad, but to think of it according to its nutritional value and the biochemical and hormonal responses that ensue as a result of consuming it. There are foods and drinks that serve your body and your goals well, and those that may not per se; but this can be a dynamic thing depending on the various goals or seasons that you might be in. Alcohol not only has a relatively high calorie per gram value, but it is classically thought of as “empty calories,” meaning that other than providing energy, there aren’t really many other nutrients gained from consuming it in and of itself.
Next, we need to consider the inebriating effects of alcohol. Some studies have shown that moderate drinking is associated with increased caloric intake. Some postulate that this could be because people are less inhibited and tend to abandon their nutrition plans when there is a degree of intoxication at play.
Alcohol is also known to negatively affect sleep, which in turn, is associated with poorer metabolic health. People may think it helps them sleep as they are able to “pass out” and sleep deeper initially after a couple drinks, however, a key point to consider is that not being awake is not the same as restorative sleep. Alcohol is known to decrease the amount of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This is the stage of sleep where people dream and is important for the restorative functions of sleep. This is particularly important in the second half of the night.
For those on a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet that are used to just thinking about staying under a given carbohydrate threshold, it can be tempting to over-consume low carb beers, wines or liquor, however, you have to remember the prioritization of burning alcohol for energy we discussed above. Think of it like pushing a pause button on fat loss. While these low-carb options will most likely not throw you out of ketosis, they will still inhibit fat oxidation while in your system. A drink or two on Friday night will not likely cause a big disruption to your fat loss goals overall, but a couple drinks a few times a week just may.
Given this information, I think it is up to individuals to decide if consuming alcohol serves them and their goals well or not. Do I personally think that one could indulge at times in a drink or two and still see fat loss? Yes, I do, but I think that one needs to be very conscious of the points we have discussed here and be willing to make changes if the desired results are not being seen.
With that said, none of us live in a bubble. There are social, cultural and emotive forces at play when it comes to food and drink. My advice is to know your goals, know yourself, and make conscious choices. There is no one right answer for everyone.
Do you enjoy an alcoholic beverage at times? Do you feel as though it inhibits your fat loss goals?