It’s July. It’s London. It’s nearly 30 degrees out there.
Beer and wine are flowing (not that that ever stops in Britain, the nation of alcoholics).
People are everywhere, looking to party, have some drinks, and have some fun. And why shouldn’t they?
Hell, I’m a trainer and health pioneer – yet I am heading to Spain with my best friends in just a few days’ time, and do you really think I’m not going to touch a drop whilst I’m out there?!
There are specific times in your life where focus and discipline should override, but there are other times when you should quite rightly relax a little, and enjoy the one life you’ve been given.
That’s right – today concerns alcohol consumption … well, alcohol and weight loss.
The question we’re addressing is: Can you drink alcohol and still lose fat, gain lean muscle, and maintain a good looking physique?
I’m going to try to be as brief, but as informative as possible – covering as much as I can whilst keeping it concise.
I also have no interests in any subjective B.S. that isn’t supported by peer reviewed research.
Nor am I going to come out with something purposely controversial in order to draw attention to myself, in the hopes of building a cult-ish following, as some internet idiots try to do with various topics.
To be completely clear about this, I’m not going to release a “Drink Your Way To a Flat Stomach” idiot diet regime any time soon!
I think it’s also worth clearing up the confusion regarding my full name.
Yes, my middle name is ‘Daniel’… Yup, Jack Daniel, is correct.
So you may think I have a natural bias in favor of whiskey that I inherited at birth along with my name, and my father’s good looks!
But that’s not true. I am strongly of the opinion that human beings, generally speaking, do better in the absence of drink.
Now although people know alcohol is ‘bad for you’, most really don’t fully grasp the concept of why:
-a.k.a. what effect is alcohol actually having on the body, which messes with your insides and stops fat burning?
I remember back in my teenage years, I was more or less aware alcohol wasn’t physique friendly… But I wasn’t too bothered. If I threw back a few shots, that was just 300/400 calories right. Heck, I could burn that off in a 45 minute jog the next day…
If only silly-teenage-Jack had known better, maybe he would have been able to bench press more than 55kg and get below 15% body fat.
Calories certainly aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to fitness and health.
But whilst we’re on the subject, let’s calorie-count for a minute (seeing as people love statistics they can quantify):
6 pints of beer
– over 900 calories
– 78 grams carbohydrates
– 105 grams of alcohol (420 alcohol-calories)
4 vodka redbulls
– 708 calories
– 110 grams carbohydrates (440 calories, all from sugar!)
– 38grams of alcohol (152 alcohol-calories)
3 x 125 ml glasses red wine
– 255 calories
– 9 grams carbohydrates
– 36 grams of alcohol (144 alcohol-calories)
If only it were JUST extra calories that we had to worry about. It’s not that simple.
There are far more pressing reasons to avoid alcohol consumption.
The hormone leptin is an interesting one. Its basic role is to act as an energy thermostat and regulator. Your fat cells increase leptin production, telling your brain how much energy is available, and whether or not you should be hungry.
Overweight people tend to have higher leptin levels. This reduces appetite, and allows the body to burn more body fat. It’s your body’s way of signaling that you have extra weight to use, and there’s no problem with shifting it.
But as your body fat levels drop and/or you decrease your food intake, leptin also declines – which drives up hunger AND makes your body less of a fat-burner.
So now, hopefully you can see that if our leptin levels drop too much, it really screws us up! Fighting your hormones is hard (impossible, really). Therefore, for the sake of this discussion, the intention whilst dieting or staying in shape is to keep your leptin levels high enough to allow your body to keep burning fat.
What’s this got to do with alcohol? The simple answer: alcohol consumption inhibits leptin secretion (Rojdmark, 2001).
This will in turn make it far more difficult to stay lean. So the more you drink, the lower your leptin levels will be, making your body more resistant to body fat reductions.
Note: Whilst getting in shape/dieting, you can maintain your leptin levels through infrequent overfeeding periods where you drastically increase your consumption of carbohydrates for a few hours, or as some call it – ‘cheating’ on your diet*.
*The problem people encounter is that they like to couple these ‘overfeeding’ periods with social situations (parties / eating in restaurants) which often involve alcohol consumption. If you drink alcohol during your overfeed, you won’t reap any of the leptin-boosting benefits. You’ll just be getting fatter again and negating the efforts of your hard training and healthy nutrition.
Likelihood of binge eating
When you drink moderate-high amounts, your inhibitions are reduced.
I could quite easily digress and start talking about how this results in fights, unwanted pregnancies, or
even worse waking up next to someone you wouldn’t touch with a barge pole… #morallygreyarea
But no. At this minute, I’m more concerned about the decisions you’ll make when you leave the party, and set your eyes on the kebab shop across the road.
Coupled with a number of hours in the absence of proper food and the fact that you’ve been dancing, or at least active, you’re going to be hungry. And even if there’s no fast food place in sight, you know as much as I do that when you get home, you’re likely to find some low quality nutrition to eat in high quantities. Recipe for fat loss disaster!
This is before we even consider that alcohol decreases blood sugar. Research has shown that alcohol consumption can actually help with insulin sensitivity, and improve type 2 diabetes (Pietraszek, 2010).
But with alcohol’s effect on blood sugar regulation lies in the fact that gluconeogenesis in the liver will be temporarily halted, lowering blood sugar, which may further contribute to the hungry-drunkster type binge eat situation I described above, or even be a more serious issue altogether for type 1 diabetics.
THE HORMONAL EFFECT: Testosterone! Estrogen! Cortisol!
The research is skewed when it comes to how much alcohol is damaging, some of it indicating one unit of alcohol being too much, and others indicating that even large amounts only very modestly harm you.
But there seems to be little doubt that going beyond the couple of drinks with dinner, and err-ing towards ‘getting trashed’ will lower testosterone significantly, and blunt the secretion of growth hormone, quenching any anabolic or fat burning response (Valimaki M, 1990).
Additionally, adverse effects on semen quality have been found in the aftermath of getting drunk, even up to 5 days afterwards – with a higher estradiol/testosterone ratio also having been shown (Hansen, 2012)! Estradiol is a more damaging metabolite of estrogen, closely associated with cell proliferation. Having a higher ratio comparatively to testosterone is not a good thing for men, nor women – unless man-boobs or fat thighs (respectively for genders) are desirable to you – not to mention cancer risk.
Putting this in the larger context of hormonal balance, a testosterone drop is concurrent with cortisol levels rising (not least because of alcohol-induced sleep disruption). To simplify it to a primary school level: this is a bad thing because cortisol is the catabolic stress-hormone, associated with muscle loss and fat storage around the abdomen.
And this is just in consideration of men/women with optimal, or at least ‘normal’ hormonal levels and balance.
If you’re someone who struggles with sex hormone balance, such as a woman with estrogen dominance or a man with low testosterone, absolutely, drinking should be absolutely out of the question for you until you fix your problem.
Alcohol in excess is pretty catastrophic for optimal sex hormones, which go hand in hand with health and fat loss.
That’s already been established.
But to add insult to injury, alcohol consumption can increase activity of the enzyme aromatase, which converts testosterone into estrogen (Chung, 1990) (Purohit, 2000).
The Gastrointestinal tract
Truth: Your health starts from the gut.
Any disruption, caused by alcohol or whatever else, can lead to a cascade effect which can manifest itself into a whole host of conditions (far too lengthy to discuss in a single post, or even in a single book!)
Alcohol can help give the pathogenic yeast, candida albicans, the prime environment in which it can thrive. The ironic thing here is that the toxic byproduct of candida that makes people feel so awful, acetaldehyde, is the very same chemical that you get in cheap wine (which of course accounts for the awful hangovers you get after drinking that dreadful swill).
That’s merely one example. A couple more? Okay:
- Alcohol can negatively effect beta-glucuronidase activity, compromising the elimination of toxins and estrogens from the body, which is the start of a whole host of potential issues (Waszkewicz, 2012).
- It can also lead to SIBO – small intestinal bacterial overgrowth – which is equally disruptive to the entire body (American College of Gastroenterology, 2011) .*
*Remember, your gut isn’t isolated from the rest of your body. You’ve got more than tummy aches to worry about if you have an unhealthy gut. Potentially chronic fatigue or autoimmune disease.
As is the case with hormonal imbalance / low testosterone, if you have underlying gastrointestinal issues (which many do, even without realising), then yes, alcohol is out of the question for you. It will only feed the problem, whether it be candida, h.pylori, etc.
If you have a permeable intestinal barrier, for instance, drinking excessively is adding flame to the fire.
What can we conclude from this?
Well best case scenario (for body fat levels, lean muscle, and overall health) is probably this: Never drink! Ever ever ever!
Look. I’m not a jackass. I know that’s not really an option for most people [even those concerned with weight loss / body composition]… I mean, if you feel that you can go your whole life without drinking alcohol, then FANTASTIC!
Congratulations – you’ve just made staying in shape a lot easier for yourself. But most people will still drink alcohol, regardless of what I or anyone else says.
Now if you’re an underwear model, physique competitor, athlete above semi-professional level, or anyone whose livelihood relies on being in top shape – well you shouldn’t really even be debating the “should I/shouldn’t I”, when it comes to alcohol. The definitive answer to be one of the most successful in your competitive field is to stay on top of your game, and to keep climbing your professional ladder. Alcohol is only there to sabotage you. Put the damn drink down!
On the other hand, the majority of you, including myself to an extent, would prefer a compromise.
The goal = stay in good shape* without missing out on the fun that life offers
*you may need to concede that the definition of ‘good shape’ does change if you add alcohol into the mix. If you want to keep the odd evening of partying in your life, a more realistic shape for you may be in the realms of 9-11% body-fat, as opposed to 5-7%.If you want/need to be in such insanely good shape 24/7, 365 days a year, then don’t bother reading on. Alcohol and your life are most likely incompatible.
If this notion of a compromise tickles your interest, in PART 2, we’ll discuss exactly how to include alcohol in your life, minimizing damage to your body, and working it in and around your nutrition and training.
However, I must warn you that although it’s possible to improve body composition, whilst keeping alcohol in your life, it certainly does you no favours.
Few people can really get in good shape without dropping it for at least the majority of the time.
American College of Gastroenterology (2011, November 28). Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 8, 2013
Chung KW. Effects of chronic ethanol intake on aromatization of androgens and concentration of estrogen and androgen receptors in rat liver. Toxicology. 1990 Jun;62(3):285-95.
Hansen ML, Thulstrup AM, Bonde JP, Olsen J, Håkonsen LB, Ramlau-Hansen CH. Does last week’s alcohol intake affect semen quality or reproductive hormones? A cross-sectional study among healthy young Danish men. Reprod Toxicol. 2012 Nov;34(3):457-62
Pietraszek A, Gregersen S, Hermansen K. Alcohol and type 2 diabetes. A review. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2010. Jun 3
Purohit V. Can alcohol promote aromatization of androgens to estrogens? A review. Alcohol. 2000 Nov;22(3):123-7.
Röjdmark S, Calissendorff J, Brismar K. Alcohol ingestion decreases both diurnal and nocturnal secretion of leptin in healthy individuals. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2001 Nov;55(5):639-47.
Välimäki M, Tuominen JA, Huhtaniemi I, Ylikahri R. The pulsatile secretion of gonadotropins and growth hormone, and the biological activity of luteinizing hormone in men acutely intoxicated with ethanol. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 1990 Dec;14(6):928-31.
Waszkiewicz N. et al. Serum and urinary β-glucuronidase in acute alcohol intoxication: a pilot study. Prog Health Sci. 2012, 2(2)