In a perfect world, nutrition would be easy. We would eat what we needed and stay away from what would hinder our progress.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. We are human beings. We are social and rebellious and in addition to looking perfect, we want to be normal people and do normal things. We prefer foods that may not be the best for us, but they make us feel good. Hell, we have a type of food named for this: comfort food! We wouldn’t have a whole category designated for the foods that make us feel good and comforted if it wasn’t important.
Then there’s alcohol, our fourth—and unofficial—macronutrient. This is 9 times out of 10 a non-negotiable for people. It’s often our liquid courage for social settings and one of those “musts” for any social event. It brings about a lot of emotions and stress for people. At a young age, you learn that if you drink alcohol, you’re “cool” and if you don’t, you might as well stay home. If you go to a party and don’t drink, you’re often berated!
Let’s get into the truth behind alcohol and WHY it has such a bad reputation in nutrition and fitness.
Alcohol is a toxin. There’s no way around it. Your body will stop whatever it’s doing to rid itself of any alcohol that ends up in its system.
It’s a depressant. Your body downregulates when you drink. Immune system, liver function, thyroid, reproductive system, you name it.
Alcohol metabolism is the highest priority. All other foods no matter how healthy will not be metabolized and instead stored as fat.
Alcohol is the “anti-fiber.” Since food isn’t metabolized as quickly, normal gut function is altered and slowed down. Sugar alcohol also feeds bad gut bacteria.
It downregulates hormone production and release. Alcohol temporarily lowers testosterone levels (which in turn raises estrogen levels), zinc levels, and alter normal thyroid function. For you fellas out there, low testosterone and high estrogen leads to a reduced sex drive, higher fat percentage, and increased fat buildup in undesired areas (hips and chest areas).
It negatively affects muscle protein synthesis. Bye gains!
It clouds your judgment and lowers your inhibitions. I’m not going all “mom” on you, don’t worry. You can have every intention of sticking to healthy foods while you drink, but when it’s time to make that actual decision, not one drunk person out there says “hmmm I’ll have the salad.” They say “hmmm give me the pizza.” Am I right?
Sleep? Nah. Alcohol is a depressant which makes you sleepy (which tricks people into thinking they sleep better) BUT alcohol depresses normal sleep function. Melatonin levels are lower so you’re likely to not stay asleep and you definitely won’t be able to go into a deep sleep or even into REM cycle (crucial for recovery).
You will experience a 2-3 day weight gain. Your weight will go back down BUT this is very bad for people with a poor relationship with the scale and not helpful if in a cut and can’t accurately monitor rate of weight-loss.
Now that I’ve thoroughly scared you, let’s talk about how to make alcohol fit within your sustainable and flexible nutrition plan. Yes there are some very negative side effects to drinking alcohol. Does that mean you shouldn’t?? No! You don’t have to choose between being healthy and being social or “normal”.
I mention the bullet points above to demonstrate WHY alcohol gets a bad rep. You should be aware that if you choose alcohol—and you choose a lot of it—this is what you’re dealing with. If your diet isn’t working, you’re sick all the time, and you’re still drinking 5+ drinks/week, then you need to have a real conversation with yourself.
Ask yourself one question.
What is your priority?
The answer to this question will determine how serious you should be about alcohol. It also depends on what scenario you are currently in.
Scenario #1. “I want to lose weight.”
Scenario #2. “I want to gain muscle.”
Scenario #3. “I want to be my healthiest self.”
Scenario #4. “I want to be healthy, while also keeping a balance of what I enjoy.”
The first three scenarios require a bit more restriction and priority away from alcohol. If you are actively in a cut or a mass, alcohol is 100% going to hinder your progress. If you want to be your healthiest self, alcohol WILL NOT get you there. If you simply want to be healthy and happy and finding that balance, then you have some more wiggle room! Decide what your priorities are. I know it’s not easy, but it is possible!!
Three years ago, I was at this fork in the road. I was trying to lose some weight. My priorities were getting healthy at whatever means possible. I tried keeping alcohol in the picture, but found I lost ALL progress when I did. I decided to just try 3 months alcohol-free… and let me tell you, I have never looked back. I enjoy maybe one drink every other week or so, but it is rare. Simply, I don’t enjoy the side effects and that became my priority.
That MAY NOT BE YOUR PRIORITY and that’s fine!! We’re all different here. Not one way is right or wrong.
Now that you have decided on your priorities, how to enjoy the occasional bev:
Get a workout in that morning. Get blood flowing.
After that workout, eat a healthy breakfast of protein and veggies. Post-workout is when you have maximal nutrient absorption so let’s get that healthy stuff in then!
Eat a similar nutrient-dense lunch. Double protein. Get a few (20-30g) carbs in there to keep you sane. This gives you tons of wiggle room for that beverage.
Set your limit *PRIOR* to drinking. Limit to 1-2 drinks, a max of 3.
Keep drinking to 1 day/week, max of 2. If you’re trying to lose weight, alcohol should be minimized as much as possible.
Sip slowly. Don’t guzzle.
Keep emotions out of it. “I want that drink because it tastes good” NOT “OH goodness I’ve had the longest week. Everything is s***, give me that drink now and have one on deck.” We’ve all been there. Not only do those emotions get heightened once you drink, but it puts you in the all or nothing “fuck-it” mindset.
Skip the sugary drinks. Keep it simple. High-quality drinks. Tequila, soda water, and a couple limes? You have yourself a bomb margarita and less of a chance of a hangover.
Reached your limit? Order club soda and lime. No one will know. I can’t tell you how many times I did this and it worked every time.
Volunteer as the DD. You ensure your friends safety AND it forces you to stay sober. You also can tell that to the bartender who will be more inclined to keep you accountable and on those club soda and lime “cocktails”.
Now the question of how to track those macros in alcohol? DON’T.
I don’t have one client who tracks the macros in their alcohol. Why? They’re only drinking once a week IF THAT. It simply isn’t worth tracking and defeats the purpose of implementing a sustainable and flexible nutrition plan.
If you’re in so strict of a plan that you HAVE to fit the macros in your alcohol in your plan, then you either are on the wrong plan or in a temporary scenario that would be better if you eliminated it all together. Examples include an athlete prepping for a competition (alcohol will hinder performance) and an individual prepping for a show (think bodybuilder or a model). They are in scenarios that require strict adherence to a macro plan. The key is that this plan is temporary, so if they want to be as successful as possible, they have to recognize that alcohol will only hurt their progress. They save those macros for real food that will only help them and put alcohol on the back-burner until they’ve completed their goal.
We don’t have to be afraid of alcohol or even avoid it all together. We just have to recognize where we’re at in our nutrition and what our priorities are. It takes some honesty with ourselves, yes, but once you do that, you will be set up for success.