Alcohol, Weight Loss and the Athlete
Successful weight loss is all about oxidizing (or burning), more calories than you eat. When they go on a diet, many people choose low-calorie alcoholic drinks, mainly because they contain fewer alcohol calories than their regular counterparts.
However, drinking too much has a far more damaging effect than you can predict simply by looking at the number of alcohol calories in a drink. Not only does it reduce the number of fat calories you burn, alcohol can increase your appetite and lower your testosterone levels for up to 24 hours after you finish drinking.
According to conventional wisdom, the infamous “beer belly” is caused by excess alcohol calories being stored as fat. Yet, less than five percent of the alcohol calories you drink are turned into fat. Rather, the main effect of alcohol is to reduce the amount of fat your body burns for energy.
Some evidence for this comes from research carried in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Eight men were given two drinks of vodka and sugar-free lemonade separated by 30 minutes. Each drink contained just under 90 calories. Fat metabolism was measured before and after consumption of the drink. For several hours after drinking the vodka, whole body lipid oxidation (a measure of how much fat your body is burning) dropped by a massive 73%.
Rather than getting stored as fat, the main fate of alcohol is conversion into a substance called acetate. In fact, blood levels of acetate after drinking the vodka were 2.5 times higher than normal. And it appears this sharp rise in acetate puts the brakes on fat loss.
A car engine typically uses only one source of fuel. Your body, on the other hand, draws from a number of different energy sources, such as carbohydrate, fat, and protein. To a certain extent, the source of fuel your body uses is dictated by its availability.
In other words, your body tends to use whatever you feed it. Consequently, when acetate levels rise, your body simply burns more acetate, and less fat. In essence, acetate pushes fat to the back of the queue.
So, to summarize and review, here’s what happens to fat metabolism after the odd drink or two.
- A small portion of the alcohol is converted into fat.
- Your liver then converts most of the alcohol into acetate.
- The acetate is then released into your bloodstream, and replaces fat as a source of fuel.
The way your body responds to alcohol is very similar to the way it deals with excess carbohydrate. Although carbohydrate can be converted directly into fat, one of the main effects of overfeeding with carbohydrate is that it simply replaces fat as a source of energy. That’s why any type of diet, whether it’s high-fat, high-protein, or high-carbohydrate, can lead to a gain in weight.
The combination of alcohol and a high-calorie meal is especially fattening, mainly because alcohol acts as a potent appetizer. A Canadian study shows that an aperitif (an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to increase the appetite) increased calorie intake to a greater extent than a carbohydrate-based drink.
Researchers from Denmark’s Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University report similar results. When a group of men was given a meal and allowed to eat as much as they wanted, they ate more when the meal was served with beer or wine rather than a soft drink.
Not only does too much alcohol put the brakes on fat loss, it’s also one of the most effective ways to slash your testosterone levels. Just a single bout of heavy drinking raises levels of the muscle-wasting hormone cortisol and increases the breakdown of testosterone for up to 24 hours. The damaging effects of alcohol on testosterone are made even worse when you exercise before drinking.
The effect of alcohol on testosterone could be one reason that people who drink a lot carry less muscle. In fact, a 1993 study shows that alcoholic men have bigger waists and smaller muscles than teetotalers.
This doesn’t mean you need to avoid alcohol completely.
A recent study, published in the November 2004 issue of the International Journal of Obesity, compared the effect of two different diets over a three-month period. Both diets contained 1500 calories daily, one with 150 calories from white wine and one with 150 calories from grape juice.
Weight loss in the grape juice group and white wine group was 8.3 pounds and 10.4 pounds, respectively.
The Bottom Line
Although an alcohol-rich meal does increase your metabolic rate, it also suppresses the number of fat calories your body burns for energy — far more so than meals rich in protein, carbohydrate, or fat.
While the odd drink now and again isn’t going to hurt, the bottom line is that alcohol and a leaner, stronger body just doesn’t mix.
Athletes & Alcohol
Alcohol is discouraged in an athletes diet. When competing at an elite level, you cannot afford to impair your performance and give your opponent the advantage by consuming alcohol.
Because you want the best possible performance for yourself you should limit your alcohol intake.
Alcohol impairs sporting performance by causing:
- Decreased reaction time.
- Problems with movement, balance, coordination, accuracy, concentration and effective decision making.
- Blurry eyesight.
- Changes in attitude.
- Dehydration (alcohol is a diuretic).
- Nausea and headaches.
- Early fatigue.
- Impaired temperature control.
- Interference with glycogen synthesis post-exercise.
- Delayed healing of soft tissue injuries.
- Weight gain.
Guidelines for sensible alcohol intake
- When you have finished training rehydrate with sports drinks and other non-alcoholic drinks before drinking alcohol.
- If you are injured while exercising, avoid alcohol for at least 24 hours. Alcohol causes more blood to flow to the injured area, increasing swelling and bleeding, which may slow recovery or make the injury worse.
- When you are competing you want to be in peak form, so avoid alcohol for at least two days before the event.
- When you do drink, keep it to no more than two standard drinks each day for women or three standard drinks each day for men.
- On any one drinking occasion, drink no more than six standard drinks for men or four standard drinks for women. A standard drink is one glass of beer or one glass of wine or one pub measure of sprits.
- If drinking alcohol, do so in moderation. Alcohol can negatively affect every part of your body.Alcohol can contribute to being overweight as it is a concentrated source of energy providing few other nutrients.
- Eat some food when you drink.
- Dilute alcoholic drinks with plenty of water or mixers and lots of ice.
- Do not binge drink. For example, on any one drinking occasion drink no more that six standard drinks for men or four standard drinks for women. A standard drink is one 300ml glass of beer, one nip of spirits or one glass of wine.
- Do not drive.
- When you are hosting a party provide non-alcoholic drinks like fruit juice, soft drinks and water, as well as plenty of food.