Alcohol And Fat Loss

Alcohol can derail your progress. Here's what you can do to enjoy your glass.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 04 Nov 2017

Nutrition Intermediate
8 Mins

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One of the most common (and often one of the first) questions we get from clients is:


‘How bad is alcohol for fat loss? How much am I allowed?


The short answer?


If you want the absolute maximum results possible in the shortest time-frame possible, complete abstinence is the best and most logical thing to do.


Aside from the purported benefits of red wine, which is a little hazy since you’d need to drink 40 litres (53 bottles) to reach 500mg of Resveratrol (the main beneficial compound within it, alcohol offers very few positives in a fat loss phase.


With that said, once you’ve completed your fat loss transformation want to find more ‘balance’, then having the odd drink in social settings is more than acceptable!

Why Avoid Alcohol During A Fat Loss Phase?


The first reason is obvious, but not commonly thought of: it clouds your judgement. When you’re a few drinks in, your body composition goals are likely forgotten about, and that greasy kebab shop you’d usually frown upon suddenly has the allure of a Michelin starred restaurant! The alcohol effect here is somewhat indirect, but it can completely throw you off your goals and undo a week’s worth of hard work in one night.


The second is calorie content. Especially when you opt for calorie dense drinks such as beer and sugary cocktails.


For example, a fruit-based cocktail can easily contain 300-400 calories per drink. A pint of beer typically contains 200-250 calories.


If you drink twice per week, and average three drinks a night with an estimated 300 calories per drink you can quickly see how this can add up.


300 (calories) x 3 (drinks) = 900


900 x 2 (nights per week) = 1800


Now consider that to lose one pound of body fat per week, we need to be in a net deficit of approximately 3500 calories across 7 days. That means every week you could wiping out half the calorie deficit you’re working so hard to achieve, in the space of a couple drinks.


If things take a turn for the worse, and you end up at the kebab shop, then your entire week could be wasted. Or worse yet, you can even regress!


The easiest way to significantly chop your calories from alcohol is to stick to clear spirits and diet mixers. It’s a no-brainer, with a single vodka and diet Coke giving only around 60-70 calories. These still add up, but it’s going to limit the damage on your calorie deficit.

The Hidden Issue with Alcohol


Another reason we should try avoid alcohol when aiming for maximum results during a fat loss phase is also the effect on a physiological level. In that consuming alcohol pretty much directly blunts fat loss, regardless of the calories consumed.


While calories are the primary reason for affecting fat loss, it’s more than that here. This is because the body will change how it uses different sources of energy depending on the size of the storage system. The smaller the storage capacity, the more easily that source will be used as fuel, or ‘burnt’.


As a quick reference, here’s the order in terms of size:


– Fat (has an unlimited storage capacity – stored as bodyfat/intra-muscular triglycerides)


– Carbohydrate (around 400g stored as muscle/liver glycogen)


– Protein (no real storage system for amino acids due to it’s dynamic/functional nature)


The real problem here is that there’s no storage system for alcohol, meaning your body will prioritise oxidation (usage) of alcohol over protein/fats/carbohydrates. Your body treats it like a poison, and will treat it as a priority to remove before burning through any other fuel source. What this means is that we’re effectively putting the brakes on fat loss, and the reported effect on fat oxidation is said to be anywhere between 80-90%.


It’s difficult to quantify the length and level of this suppression given individual differences in alcohol metabolism and amounts consumed. But if we took 24 hours as an example, you can quickly see how drinking 2-3 nights a week can add up.


Drink on Monday night and you’ve lowered the fat loss rate for Monday and Tuesday. Drink on Friday and Saturday and you’ve put on the breaks for fat loss from Friday to Sunday. That can potentially leave only two days (Wednesday and Thursday) for optimal fat loss.


To make things worse…


Let’s say you have a few drinks and you add that dirty kebab into the mix too. Now you’ll be combining large amounts of glucose (the bread/chips from the kebab) with alcohol, and therefore grinding fat oxidation to a complete halt.


When fat is no longer being oxidised as fuel, we increase the chances of storing the dietary fats that we eat during this period (the dodgy ‘meat’ in that kebab).

Training and Alcohol


The last reason is its effect on your training the next day. Again, this will vary depending on your rate of metabolism and amount consumed, but it’s fair to say that for most people, their intensity and performance typically takes a dive.


Your sleep will be reduced in both quantity and quality, your recovery will be impaired, and chances are your strength won’t be where it normally is. This is generalising, but for the average person who’s had a fair bit to drink won’t be at their best the next day!


Now, if your cardio or training performance isn’t at its best, you won’t be digging into your calorie deficit as you normally do, and you may be at more of a risk from poor muscle retention (if strength takes a hit).


Essentially, it’s a four-pronged attack from alcohol:


1. Additional calories from both the alcohol, and the questionable food choices after.


2. The absence of a storage system for alcohol means oxidation of other nutrients are put on hold.


3. When you combine glucose (carbs) with alcohol, chances are you have overshot your calorie target fat oxidation even further, it can put us at risk of storing any excess foods we consume in this period.


4. Your training performance may suffer the next day or so depending on your tolerance, recovery and individual metabolism.

How Can We Minimise Damage from Alcohol?


We’re not here to say you can’t ever have a drink. Far from it. We all enjoy a drink here and there, and it’s a big part of our culture.


If you want absolute maximum results in minimum time, then abstaining is your best option.


If abstinence isn’t possible, and a few drinks here and there in social settings can help you stay adherent in the long run, then there are ways to minimise the ‘damage’ from alcohol.


1. Try and limit alcohol to strictly once per week. Better yet, save it for just special occasions.


2. If it’s going to be a heavy session, stick to protein and green vegetables during the day. You want to keep fats and carbs low here to create a ‘buffer’ of calories. Similarly, you can do the same even if it’s only going to be a few drinks by adjusting your fats and/or carbs down a little in the day.


3. Opt for spirits and diet mixers to reduce overall calories. Bear in mind though, this won’t avoid the reduction in fat oxidation, so it’s not a free pass!


The take home message from this is to enjoy alcohol in moderation and on social occasions. It’s important to be aware that it offers very little physiological positives, and in excess will slow down fat loss.


In hard dieting phases, abstinence will always win. But for slower approaches, maintenance and gaining phases, you can absolutely include alcohol sensibly and still make progress with your fitness goals!


Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-sellilng book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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