I’m often asked by clients, “How can I drink and not screw up my diet?”
Good question. I never say no to alcohol with my clients’ diets as it’s not realistic. Often, the all or nothing mindset sets people up for failure, because once they have one beer, they decide, “Oh well, I’ve already screwed up so I may as well have 10.” Which combined with the ‘drunken munchies’, means game over.
Beer, shots, margaritas; they can all be ok. Following a few rules could save you. But, first…
Here are seven things you need to understand about alcohol and fat loss
- Consuming more calories than we need makes us fat. Under normal circumstances, it’s the fat that we eat that is stored.
- The fat in the foods we eat will only be stored when we consume over our energy needs for the day.
- It’s tough for the body to convert excess protein intake to fat, and only with regular overfeeding does the body convert excess carbohydrate intake into fat. However, they both contribute to the energy balance for the day, so indirectly they cause fat gain my causing us to store the fat we consume.
- Alcohol does not have any fat, but it has an energy value. Many popular alcoholic drinks usually contain carbs. (Wine has then from fruit, beer from hops, wheat, and barley, and carbonated drink mixers have sugar.)
- Alcohol calories take priority as fuel in the body over other fuel sources. This is because the by-product of alcohol metabolism, acetate, is toxic. So when you drink, fat burning stops until you burn those calories off.
- Drinking can easily push us over our calorie budget for the day. This causes some, or all of the dietary fat we ate on this day to be stored as body fat, depending on how much over your maintenance calories you drank.
- 1 g of alcohol contains 7 kcal. 1 g of fat contains 9 kcal.
Understood? See if you can pass this three-question ALCOHOL quiz
Q1: Your food intake for the day is 1000 kcal under your calorie needs for the day, 50 g of your calorie intake was from fat. You have three drinks, totalling 500 kcal. Do you gain or lose fat on this day?
A2: You are still in a 500 calorie deficit, so you lose fat. Around 55g of it (500/9).
Q2: Your food intake for the day is exactly at maintenance calorie needs. You have eaten 100 g of fat on this day. You then consume drinks totalling 500 kcal. Do you gain or lose fat on this day?
A2: You are over calorie needs by 500 kcal. You store around 55 g of the 100 g of fat you have consumed on this day (500/9), the rest is burned.
Q3: Your food intake for the day puts you in a 500 kcal deficit. However, you then go out binge drinking with the boys and consume 2000 kcal worth of drinks. Do you gain or lose fat on this day?
A3: Your net calorie intake puts you in a 1500 kcal surplus. All fat consumed on this day up to a value of 1500 kcal (~166 g), will be stored. If you kept fat intake low on this day, only that amount of fat will be stored.
All good? Don’t worry if not just yet, let’s have a look at how we put these alcohol and fat loss principles into practice.
How To Drink Alcohol And Not Screw Up Your Diet
How To Still Lose Fat While Drinking In Moderation
Moderation, though hard to define, we’ll call when you drink 1-3 drinks.
The key in these situations is to reduce your food intake by an amount matching the calorie content of the alcohol you are drinking. You can look that up here. The best way to do this is to reduce your fat and carb intake, as you need the protein for satiety and the muscle sparing properties.
Example: You drink three beers
Remember, 1 g of carbs and protein contain ~4 kcal, 1 g of fat contains 9 kcal.
If the calorie total for those three beers (that’ll be carbs and alcohol) comes to 600 kcal, consider taking out 75 g of carbs (300 kcal) and ~33g of fat (~297 kcal).
What are the downsides of doing this often?
- Alcohol gives us energy, but with none of the benefits associated with the other macros.
- When you are dieting, recovery can become an issue. When using alcohol calories (instead of say, carbs) to make up your calorie budget you’re stealing from the band-aid drawer so to speak. This is why when you’re dieting you should aim to drink as infrequently as possible.
- When you are bulking, you’ll gain more fat that you otherwise would have.
What Happens To Fat burning When You Binge Drink And What To Do On These Days
I’m not talking about alcoholism here, I’m just acknowledging that most people won’t be quitting drinking, and many of us will have ‘one too many’ from time to time. This section covers what to do in those situations.
Counting calories isn’t very fun when you’re in the middle of a party. If you’re drinking a lot, you’ll quickly find yourself over your calorie allowance for the day easily.
Fortunately, we can take advantage of the fact that the body has trouble storing anything but dietary fat in the short term when we go over our calorie balance for the day.
So, on days that you know you are going to drink a lot:
- Keep your fat intake very low on this day. Lean meats, no fatty dressings, avoid most dairy and oily foods.
- Try to hit your protein target for the day to preserve muscle mass (lean sources such a chicken, egg whites, casein protein), restrict your carb intake to veggies.
- Try to drink shots, dry red wines (they are lower carb), or spirits with zero-calorie mixers.
If you follow those few rules and keep these things infrequent, you won’t ruin your progress.
Does Alcohol Cause Fat Gain?
Though I hinted at this in the top section, it’s worth dedicating a specific section to this.
Whether your alcohol consumption causes fat gain depends on the circumstances.
- To lose fat, you need to have a caloric deficit.
- To gain fat, you need to have a caloric surplus, though it’s possible to maintain weight, yet gain fat if you are losing muscle at the same rate. (This would only happen if the training stimulus is too low to maintain your current training adaptations, or you chronically fail to recover from the training load.)
- Alcohol does not block fat loss, but it has calories that are burned preferentially.
- Alcohol affects muscle growth (and sleep quality, which affects recovery) — the dose makes the poison.
Consider Joe, he’s a simple fellow with just two hobbies: powerlifting in the morning and drinking 2 pints of 6.5% IPA every night. He is currently sustaining his weight.
The two nightly beers are the equivalent of 500 kcal.
If Joe wanted to diet, cutting out his daily beer consumption would net him a 500 kcal daily deficit. This would deliver approximately 1 lb (~0.45 kg) of fat loss per week.
If Joe drank one more pint each night, he would now have a surplus of 250 kcal each day.
Any dietary fat consumed on this day up to 250 kcal worth, would be stored.
Though indirect, there is a metabolic pathway* whereby the alcohol can be stored as fat when in a caloric surplus. This means that even if Joe managed to keep his dietary fat intake miraculously low, fat storage would still happen, and he’d gain approximately 0.5 lbs (~0.23 kg) per week.
*When alcohol undergoes typical metabolism via alcohol dehydrogenase and then aldehyde dehydrogenase, that produces acetone, which is then paired with CoA to form acetyl-CoA. In the context of a high-insulin state, i.e., non-fasting in a calorie surplus, instead of entering the Krebs cycle, acetyl-CoA will undergo carboxylation to form fatty acid chains.
An accidental bulk? Well, yes and no.
The ratio of muscle gain to fat gain would almost certainly be poorer than if these calories came from protein, carbohydrate, and fats that can be utilized to fuel growth and recovery.
Alcohol is pro-inflammatory. If you’re looking to ensure storage of energy sources as muscle, it would be important to ensure other usages of energy (such as processing inflammatory molecules) is reduced as much as possible.
Alcohol impairs absorption of some vitamins like thiamine (B1), has a heavier liver load and has a diuretic effect (which wastes important electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium).
Lastly, I’m not sure about the exact mechanism, but alcohol certainly seems to cause fat storage intra-abdominally (i.e., the pot/beer belly thing).
So to answer the question: yes, alcohol can cause fat gain.
Does this stop me enjoying a few beers with friends on the weekend?
Hell no. I’m not an athlete nor physique competitor, and life is too short to be worrying about this stuff at all times. But when the occasions are no longer occasions, and alcohol consumption has become a habit, it’s worth considering cutting down if you’re not progressing toward your goals.
Further Alcohol and Fat Loss Q&A
Alcohol affects fat loss to the extent that you drink it. This is because alcoholic drinks contain calories, and we need a calorie deficit for fat loss. To lose 1 pound of fat per week, you need to have a 500 calorie deficit each day. But 2–3 alcoholic drinks every evening can erase that. This guide will teach you how to drink and not screw up your diet, but there are limits.
We need a calorie deficit for fat loss, so low-calorie alcoholic drinks are best for fat loss. If you still wish to feel the effects of alcohol, the best calorie bang for your buck are straight spirits, or spirits with zero-calorie mixers.
Alcohol will cause belly fat storage if the calories from alcohol push you over your calorie needs for the day. People who drink too much, too often, store more fat around the internal organs, which explains the hard beer belly thing. Unfortunately, it’s this type of fat that is linked to disease risk.
You will lose weight if you quit drinking if the drop in calorie consumption puts you in a deficit. So, if your weight is stable and you quit your evening habit of drinking 3 beers, you’ll start losing around 1 pound per week (unless you consume more food to compensate). This is explained in this guide.
I hope you found this helpful. Questions welcomed in the comments.