A few days ago, I was sitting at Waffle House at 2 in the morning, trashed and acting a fool. My friends and I had just wrapped up our end-of-the-school-year bar crawl and had the drunches (the drunken munchies- an increase in appetite) like nothing else. As I ordered my go-to WaHo meal, I proclaimed that I wanted more food (understand that my normal WaHo meal is already quite large). A fellow macro-tracker chimed in with jest, “You’ve drank so many calories, and knowing you I bet you’ve eaten a lot today! How do you expect to fit this into your numbers?!” I wasn’t worried for a couple of reasons.
First, I followed my preferred eating strategy which comes in handy in situations like this. Second, I hold a pretty unique view of calories from alcohol.
In my drunken state it was near impossible to explain my view, but luckily I’m writing this blog post sober (well, started it sober). In this post I will tell you why I don’t track alcohol calories, why I don’t stress about a night of drinking ruining my fat loss/maintenance or health, why you shouldn’t either.,
I will also tell you two strategies I use to cut any worry of undoing my fat loss progress for the week. Let’s begin!
Alcohol: the second most fattening macro
Alcohol has the second-highest calorie density at 7 kcal/g. Fat, with 9 kcal/g, is the only higher macronutrient. So we should view it with the woe it deserves, right? If you have a shot of tequila that is 1 fl. oz., and 1 fl. oz. is about 30 grams, then that shot of tequila is 210 calories. I know your ass is having more than one, too. That’s a hefty price tag, is it not? I say no! In certain situations (that are made through after the protocol I’m about to present) you should not bother tracking alcohol calories.
Alcohol in the Body
Despite all the love we have for alcohol, we must remember that alcohol is toxic. Our body has a complex system in which alcohol is absorbed, broken down into an even more toxic molecule, acetaldehyde, gets rendered less harmful in the form of acetate, and finally excreted.
It is always excreted. Our body does not want to store any toxin, especially not one as volatile as alcohol. If alcohol is always excreted, then it cannot be stored as fat.
Key takeaway: alcohol cannot be stored as fat!
Because alcohol is toxic, it’s processed and removed before any other macronutrients are digested and assimilated. Therefore, that hefty price tag of 7 kcal/g makes its way to the front of the line as fuel our classy dance floor antics.
There is also the growing notion that Alcohol calories don’t even count!
This could be because of two things: alcohol metabolism costs the cell a considerable amount of ATP, and a molecule of alcohol gets excreted before we have enough time to use all the energy it had. The tangible evidence for this is that studies where subjects exchange fat and carbohydrate calories for alcohol calories, they lose weight dramatically; almost as if they cut those calories out altogether.
Further, there is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence suggesting that alcohol calories don’t count. Maybe even test whether alcohol calories count for yourself (with caution, and remember any fuckups aren’t my fault).
Set your calories at maintenance for the week, except make 20% of those calories from alcohol. Do you lose weight at the rate you would expect for a 20% calorie deficit? If you try this, report back to me in the comments below. I’m interested in your results!
That’s some science you CAN try at home, kids.
(Disclaimer 1/3: Drink responsibly)
The Caveat: Alcohol’s Effects on other Energy Sources
Because alcohol takes priority as an energy source, the use of other energy sources (food, body fat) are put on hold. Yes, some of those nutrients are stored as fat. Technically you will gain some fat, but you will not experience any noteworthy increases. Remember the overarching rule of fat loss and laws of thermodynamics. If you consume less calories than your body needs, then you will not gain fat!
What all of this entails…
Assume, for now, that alcohol calories count. Now that you know that we must get rid of alcohol ASAP, and that they can’t be stored as fat, then that means they’re a pretty fleeting energy source, right? They will only put a stop to using other fuel for a short time!
Further, as long as you are under your maintenance calories for the day, you will not gain fat at all. You may have stored some food as fat because your body used alcohol as fuel first, but this is negated because your body either will tap into fat oxidation or has made room for some negligible fat storage via a caloric deficit. Mass (aka tissue) cannot be made without energy; there is no way around the laws of thermodynamics.
That’s just assuming alcohol calories actually count!
If this is the case, then you literally have nothing to worry about if fat loss/maintenance is your goal! It’ll be as if alcohol is as zero-calorie as water and coffee!
However, until we get more conclusive research, I say assume alcohol calories count (with certain conditions). Fortunately, I have an easy strategy that I use any time I know I’ll be drinking to ensure no fat gain happens.
Don’t Count Calories from Alcohol
When I plan on drinking, I don’t count alcohol calories as long as I follow the following guidelines.
Intermittent fasting + some cardio
As you may know, I am a huge proponent of intermittent fasting. I truly believe the benefits far outweigh that of normal eating patterns. One such benefit is that it saves all of your calories until the end of the day, which is helpful for fat loss as well as staying lean. It also serves as a natural detox so that your cells can clean house.
Essentially, fasting before getting trashed will do two things: it will ‘make room’ for the oxidative stress your body will endure from the alcohol, and it will give you a huge calorie deficit.
Some light cardio will give you some extra room in your macros to eat a little more. You’re partying, so set the stage to let yourself have some more food.
High protein first meal, save most carbs and fat for drunchies
The second part of my strategy is breaking the fast with fiber, 50-75% of my daily allowance for protein, and a small amount of fats and carbs. I prefer to do this normally, but when I intend to party this becomes much more important. The main reason for this is that protein is the hardest macronutrient to convert into fat (we’re still assuming, for now, that alcohol calories actually count and that your body holds food as fat until alcohol is excreted).
Preloading most of your protein will also let you hit your carbs and fats in your drunchie meals. Your average Waffle House or McDonalds meal is most likely lacking in protein, but plentiful in the other macros.
Favorite drunchie meals premeditated and ready to be tracked
This will just save some headache from tracking and cut some guilt you might have if you feel like you overate. Having the meal ready to be tracked can:
a) serve as an eating limit so that your drunken inhibitions don’t lead you to overeat, and
b) let you stay in the moment so that you don’t have to add macros as you sit in a drive-thru slinging slurred words at the intercom from the back of your friend’s SUV.
If you vow to yourself to only eat what you had preplanned, you will have less of a chance of screwing up your deficit.
As I said earlier, if you are in a caloric deficit, you cannot gain weight. Period. So this one’s a no brainer. However, it is possible for alcohol oxidation to lead to fat being stored in fat cells, as dietary fat is the most easily converted macro from a substrate to storage. This is similar to how insulin’s presence puts a stop to fat oxidation.
Realize, though, that fat is stored and burned throughout the day, and sometimes with no net effect (these are called futile cycles). Understand that any fat storage will be negated by the calorie deficit, and intermittent fasting can be your cherry on top (due to the absence of insulin in the fasting window increasing fat oxidation).
Alcohol’s effects on fat storage are dose dependent. The amount of alcohol in the system is proportional to the time it takes to make it harmless. What that means is having a single drink, letting it clear your system, then having another drink will have less of an effect than having back-to-back drinks. It also entails that having a moderate amount (say, less than 5 drinks for most men and 4 drinks for most women) is beneficial to avoid an alcohol buildup.
Drink hard liquor and low-carb wine. If drinking any cocktails, beer, cider, or sweet wine, have them premeditated and ready for tracking
I recommend sticking to hard liquor (with water or carbonated water) or low-carb wine (most dry wines, specifically red wines). This is to avoid unknown calories from carbs or fat in your drink. While alcohol calories shouldn’t be counted, the sugar, barley, or cream in your drinks should.
That said, feel free to indulge in a delicious mojito or face an Irish car bomb if you have the non-alcohol calories accounted for. It helps a lot to have your favorite cocktails plugged in to your macro-tracking app to be used at a moments notice. When entering the info for your cocktail, remember to ignore calories form alcohol!
Have less than 3 drinks on lifting days, keep heavier drinking reserved for non-lifting days
The effects of moderate drinking on recovery, anabolic hormones, and muscle protein synthesis have been grossly exaggerated by fitness hardos. Moderate drinking following a sensible exercise program will not hinder results to any meaningful degree.
This is a topic for a different post, but the main reason I recommend less drinking on lifting days is that you will probably want to be in a caloric surplus following your lift. As we know, a calorie surplus with alcohol will probably lead to more fat storage than we want.
Note that it doesn’t mean you won’t build muscle, but if staying lean is your goal it would behoove you to drink even less. Perhaps set your limit at 3, and drink at an even slower rate. Do this only on lifting days where you’re taking in more calories; on non-lifting days go back to a limit of 5 drinks.
“This is cool for those chill nights out, but if I want to really party, I won’t be shitfaced enough!”
I get it. There are those nights where you want to throw caution into the wind. Well, there is this strategy that will help you in this situation as well.
If you plan on drinking heavily, then you should limit your intake of fat and carbs as much as possible. Maybe have 50-60 grams of carbs and 30-35 grams of fat. Get the rest of your calories from protein.
This is because protein is the hardest macro to be stored as fat, and fat is the easiest; carbs sit in the middle.
The restriction on fats and carbs will severely limits your drunchie options and will have a negative impact on your hormones, recovery, and other aspects of health. However, you can basically drink as much as you want without any fear of meaningful fat gain.
Don’t abuse this, as it is unhealthy. Keep this trick for rare occasions.
(p.s. disclaimer 2/3: don’t be stupid. Stay safe)
Lastly, if you want to get trash-trash, you could just say “fuck it”. Eat a normal ratio of macros and drink as much as you want.
Understand that there will be some steps back on the journey to your dream body, but also understand that fitness is only one aspect of life. How many weddings, graduations, retirements, promotions, etc. will you celebrate in your lifetime? The few steps back could be worth it if the trade-off is delicious food, comfortable drunkenness, and special memories with those close to you.
As long as you’re smart and do damage control to not overeat a few thousand calories, you’ll be back where you were in less than two weeks.
Well, that’s a wrap on alcohol and its effects on fat loss! Look forward to a more in-detail post on how it will effect your muscle and strength gains!
Disclaimer 3/3: Let me end by telling you to stay safe, know your limits, don’t be ratchet, and follow the law. Don’t be that guy or gal.
Finally, remember that this is a very new blog. I’m working hard to churn out more content for you. I have some great ideas of what to talk about next and I’m open to suggestions (and edits, if you’re credible and what you say makes sense). Note that all underlined words are either stand-ins for links to a post I have yet to write about the topic, or they are citations that I am too lazy to link to at this point. Thank you for your patience!
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