The Role of Alcohol in a Balanced Lifestyle

So... you've probably heard the statement of alcohol being "empty calories". The reason for that is because there isn't any nutritional value in alcohol. Can you drink alcohol and be healthy? I'm going to answer some frequently asked questions through my own research and knowledge of the topic. There are times that alcohol can be detrimental to health, like during pregnancy, and there are times when in moderation, drinking can be okay for someone depending on what the person's short and long term goals are. What is good for one person may or may not be good for the next. Just like nutrition, it's not a one-size-fits-all concept! 


How is alcohol metabolized in the body?


Your body processes and eliminates ethanol (alcohol) in a multistep process. Enzymes break apart the ethanol into other compounds that the body can process easier. However, these compounds can be harmful to the body. Most of the ethanol is broken down in the liver by an enzyme into acetaldehyde which is a carcinogen. The acetaldehyde breaks down into a less toxic compound called acetate, which is then broken down to carbon dioxide and water in tissues other than the liver. The reason people say that it's important to eat before drinking is because when there's food in your stomach, it'll slow down the alcohol absorption. However, slowing down the alcohol absorption means slowing down everything else.. which leads to the next question!


Can alcohol inhibit fat loss?


Alcohol isn't a macronutrient like fat, carbs, and protein, but it does yield calories per gram. 1g of alcohol has 7kcals. 1g of fat has more calories than a gram of alcohol, but when you ingest alcohol, it becomes your body's preferred fuel source over whatever you've eaten because your body wants to get rid of the toxic stuff before it gets rid of things that aren't technically harmful to your body. To answer the question above, it can inhibit fat loss (if you're drinking excessively over your caloric maintenance) because it slows the metabolism of the calories you've eaten from food to digest the alcohol first. Alcohol can also involve the creation of an excess of NADH, a compound produced from alcohol. "NADH can be used to make new fatty acids and glycerol, a simple sugar, or it can enter the electron transport chain, where it is used as energy, displacing fat metabolism and directly blocking the normal fat-burning process in your body. This blockage can result in a fatty liver, fat buildup in the blood and an increased risk for a heart attack" (Yacoub).

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This photo is showing the calorie equivalents of alcohol to food items. The reason "empty" calories is used to describe alcohol is because of this reason. You could get the same amount of calories from those food items. I know there are carbs in certain types of drinks with syrups and sugar, but for the most part, the calories are going to be coming from the alcohol which is not a macronutrient. Instead of getting macronutrients from real foods, you drinking something with little to no nutritional value whatsoever.

Can alcohol affect my performance in the gym?

Alcohol is pretty much detrimental to performance whether it be in a sport or just training in your gym. The reasons it cannot enhance your performance are because a) alcohol is a diuretic, b) it interferes with how your body produces energy, and c) it can affect balance and coordination. Because alcohol is a diuretic, it makes your kidneys produce more urine. Exercising soon after drinking alcohol makes this dehydration worse. Dehydration can decrease performance at even just a 2% loss in bodyweight from water, therefore over-consuming alcohol can be worse especially when your body is trying to sweat to cool itself off during intense exercise. When your body is metabolizing alcohol, your liver can't produce as much glucose, which is your body's most readily available source of fuel during exercise. By not being able to produce as much glucose, your performance will suffer. "If your body is forced to run from your supplies of fat rather than blood sugar, you will be slower and have less energy and won’t be able to exercise as intensely"(Whyte). Balance, coordination, and energy levels can all be thrown off by dehydration as well, and those things are important in performance based sports. 

Is red wine as good for you as the doctor's say?

This question will be answered short and sweet. The reason people say red wine is good for you is because it's made from fermenting dark grapes which are high in antioxidants. If you want to read more on this topic, click here!

Can alcohol be apart of a balanced lifestyle?

Alcohol can be apart of a balanced lifestyle JUST like a piece of cake from time-to-time can be apart of a balanced lifestyle. The real question is, what is balance for you? Knowing your own limits and boundaries is important. Some people can have a glass of wine or beer at dinner every other night and not feel the urge to have more. Some people might struggle with that and get the urge to binge drink. The important thing is knowing yourself and just having a healthy relationship with alcohol (and food, too!). I also think it's important to not save up a bunch of carbs and fats multiple times per week just to "spend" it on alcohol. That becomes a problem because you're not getting the nutrients you could be getting from food. For my clients that are practicing flexible dieting, I tell them not to track the drink if it's only 1 drink per week. However when it's 3+ drinks per week, those calories add up and definitely need to be accounted for even if you can't necessarily equate them to carbohydrates and fat. The easiest way to track an alcoholic beverage into your macros every once in a while is to take the total calories of the drink and divide by 4 if you want to use your carbs, or divide by 9 if you want to use fats. You could even use a little of both. 

Example: 120kcal beverage - 13.3g of fat, or 30g of carbohydrates. To split it, you could do 7g of fat and 14g of carbohydrates. 

All in all, it's ultimately up to YOU if you're going to drink. If you're going to drink rather frequently and you are also serious about your performance goals in the gym, just know that those will be hindered because of excess drinking. Also know that it can potentially hinder weight and/or fat loss. If you're okay with that, then who am I to tell you what to do? Moderate consumption for someone might be 1 drink per week whereas for another person it could be 3, so know yourself, your limits, your boundaries, and drink responsibly!


References:

"Alcohol Metabolism: An Update." National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 24 May 2017.

"Can Alcohol Affect Sports Performance and Fitness Levels." Can Alcohol Affect Sports Performance and Fitness Levels | Drinkaware. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2017.

Yacoub, Jamie. "Alcohol & Fat Burning." LIVESTRONG.COM. Leaf Group, 29 June 2015. Web. 24 May 2017.

Ashleigh Hubbard