We all enjoy alcohol, some more than others. But the question is, can it fit in my fitness lifestyle?
Drinking has been a national past time since man first discovered the wonders of fermentation. Alcohol is the social lubricant, which allows seemingly endless knowledge and an invisible set of goggles that makes everything appear spectacular. Despite its ability to create wonderful stories that are discussed the following morning at a local diner, the role of alcohol in health has had mixed reviews over the years. Only now are the benefits of alcohol truly being highlighted.
What are your goals when you step into the gym? Are you looking to lose 10 to 15 pounds for the summer? Do you want to show off a six-pack at a high school reunion? Whatever your reasons, striving to achieve a better body is always an appreciated and noble feat. Where does alcohol fit in your fitness future? Is alcohol safe to consume if you are working towards a better body? Can it help with your fitness goals?
Let’s review the nutritional breakdown of alcohol along with how your body metabolises it. We will also cover reported benefits of alcohol consumption and measure them against how they may be affecting your lean muscle mass gains to make a concensus on alcohol and bodybuilding.
Nutritional Breakdown of Alcohol
If you want to simplify the basic components of alcohol, it boils down to starch and sugar. That’s it. Even with a small number of ingredients, alcohol can pack quite the caloric punch. For every gram of alcohol, you get 7 calories. This makes it calorically dense when compared to protein and carbohydrates, which provide four calories per gram. On the bright side, it is not as dense as fat, which has nine calories per gram.
So what does that look like when you are getting ready for a night at the bar? Here are the most common examples of serving sizes with their caloric counterparts. Keep in mind that caloric ranges will vary based on the type of alcohol.
For instance, if you were to drink an American Pale Lager versus a Russian Imperial Stout, the lager would have fewer calories. Stouts are substantially higher in alcoholic content and are often made with extra ingredients to capture a specific flavor. Both of these factors are major contributors to added calories. Wine will also vary greatly in calories based on whether you choose a white or red.
“Domestic” Beer (commercialised, larger batch)
- 340 grams (12 ounces)
- 125 to 150 calories
“Craft” Beer (local, smaller batch)
- 340 grams (12 ounces)
- 125 to 400 calories
- 340 grams (12 ounces)
- 80 to 105 calories
- 115 grams (4 ounces)
- 75 to 130 calories
Vodka, Gin, Rum, Whiskey or Scotch
- 28 grams (1 ounce)
- 64 calories (80 Proof)
- 80 calories (100 Proof)
- 28 grams (1 ounce)
- 100 to 130 calories
As you can see, a little alcohol goes a long way in terms of calories. The worst part about it is that these calories are considered empty. This means they provide “almost” no usable nutrition for your body thus mixing alcohol and bodybuilding is highly advised against if not at the very least when cutting.
How Does the Body Process Alcohol?
While you are racking up calories, your body is busy trying to filter the alcohol and get rid of it. The moment that booze hits your system, your body forgets about the breakdown of macronutrients and focuses on alcohol. Why? As mentioned above, the body can’t use alcohol because it has “almost” no nutritional value.
I say “almost” because alcohol can be used for energy at least initially. Because the body sees it as a toxin, the body wants to get rid of it immediately, and one way of doing that is using it as energy. But since the liver can only process so much alcohol at once, most likely that after the first beer the body begins to start dumping the rest and begins to ship it out.
Alcohol metabolism is handled primarily by the liver. The liver is the body’s cleaning guru. It cleans your blood before sending it throughout the body, removes harmful waste build-up, and fights to keep toxins out of your system. Put simply, it’s the detoxification station. The liver will remove ethanol, the byproduct of alcohol, from your body at a rate that is dependent upon a number of factors including:
- Last meal time/amount
- Amount of alcohol
- Current medications
Even though the calories you ingest from alcohol are worthless, that doesn’t mean drinking cannot be beneficial. Here are the top three proven health benefits you could get from indulging once in awhile.
Red wine has been shown to contain high levels of Resveratrol. This is a crucial anti-aging antioxidant, which has thrown wine into the health and diet mainstream. As Dr Stephen Sinatra explains,
Beer and wine contain ethanol, which has been shown to protect against dementia. Drink responsibly and moderately to boost your brain potential.
Beer and wine contain powerful chemicals known as phenols. These super antioxidants protect you against heart disease. Red wine’s Resveratrol also plays a role in protecting against hypertension. As discussed by Dr Sinatra, among the most important findings,
Alcohol and Muscle-Building
Every person fears the “morning after” when you know your hangover is sitting on the edge of the bed just waiting for you to wake up. Hangovers are caused primarily due to dehydration. Your body is trying to get rid of all the toxins you drank last night and without proper fluids that is going to be pretty tough. Now imagine all of those hours spent in the gym and your body’s need for proper nutrients and fluid replacement. Instead of protein, vitamins, and minerals, you further dehydrate yourself. Dehydration can lead to you missing out on hours of effective growth and recovery.
Studies have shown that growth hormone, which plays a vital role in muscle growth, is primarily released during the overnight hours.
Rest is one of the most crucial aids to your recovery and gains. Unfortunately, when you make a habit of drinking at night, you are putting your strength and size at risk. Alcohol disrupts our normal sleeping patterns of R.E.M. If you aren’t sleeping properly then you are losing out on necessary growth hormone. Less growth hormone means less muscle.
Like growth hormone, testosterone is needed for recovery, strength and size. The majority of studies suggest that those who drink heavily have lower levels of testosterone. Moderate drinkers, on the other hand, still experience the same gains but this is based on quality of nutrition and genetics.
One study showed that:
Another study showed quite the opposite:
As you can see, in most of the studies mentioned, the participants were given above average quantities of alcohol. As the old saying goes: “Too much of anything isn’t good.”
Now for the real test: Does alcohol consumption affect protein synthesis? Protein synthesis is absolutely critical to muscle building. From an overall health standpoint, you need protein synthesis to help with creating proteins to be used throughout the body for processes such as cell repair. From a muscle-building standpoint, protein synthesis is what makes muscle happen.
As you can see in this study from the Journal of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, alcohol consumption did impact protein synthesis; however, protein degradation was not affected. This means that while alcohol consumption may suppress protein synthesis to a degree, it will not influence the amount of protein breakdown that occurs, if any, from other sources. It all comes down to timing. If you drink post-workout, your protein synthesis ability may be knocked down by 30% to 60%. Be smart and avoid the pint glass after the weight room as protein synthesis levels peak post-workout.
How to Drink
When it comes to enjoying your favorite beer, like most things, use common sense. There’s no need to drink till you drop, especially if your goals involve lean muscle mass. Put simply: drink alcohol moderately. Do not drink more than two beers or glasses of wine. When you do drink, make sure you accompany it with an electrolyte-based water.
When to Drink
While the jury is out on testosterone levels being affected, it is has been proven that alcohol disrupts your sleeping patterns. Bad sleep means laughable amounts of HGH being released in your body. You need HGH to help you keep and pack on more muscle. Try to drink in the afternoon as opposed to the evening or night. If you must drink in the evening, see suggestion number one.
What to Drink
If you are a wine drinker then stick to red. Red wine has been shown to contain the highest amounts of the amazing antioxidant, Resveratrol. If you consider yourself a beer person, then go and support your local microbrewery. Small batch beers contain more nutrients, including antioxidants, which can improve your heart health.
All Things Considered
Alcohol has withstood the test of time and despite the growing number of health benefits, it still gets a bad reputation. Common sense goes a long way when it comes to alcohol. Lower testosterone is the least of your worries when you drink too much. That said, where alcohol stands with bodybuilding or any fitness related activity, put simply can be balanced. It’s highly not advised though as it will impact your growth, but if you aren’t pursuing a professionally career in the particular sport you’re participating in, then by all means have a drink and have some fun. Just try to avoid doing it post workout. In short, keep it simple, keep it moderate, and most of all – listen to your body.