The Alcohol Guide

Bartender pouring beer into tall glass

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 The Alcohol Guide - Seven things to understand

  1. Consuming more calories than we need makes us fat. Under normal circumstances, it’s the fat that we eat that is stored.
  2. The fat in the foods we eat will only be stored when we consume over our energy needs for the day.
  3. 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.
  4. Alcohol does not have any fat, but it has an energy value. Many popular alcoholic drinks usually contain carbs (either from fruit as with wine, hops/wheat/barley as with beer, or sugar from carbonated drink mixers).
  5. Alcohol calories take priority as fuel in the body over other fuel sources (like your love handles). 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.
  6. 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 bodyfat, depending on how much over your maintenance calories you drank.
  7. 1 g of alcohol contains 7 kcal. 1 g of fat contains 9 kcal.
Understood? See if you can pass this three question 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?

A: 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?

A: 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?

A: 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 this into practice.


How To Drink And Not Screw Up Your Diet

The Alcohol Guide - Drink and diet

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.

Once A Week Hard Drinking/Binge Drinking

Note: I’m not suggesting anyone ‘drink’ their calories on a regular basis. I’m just saying, you don’t have to let worries about your diet spoil your social life, if alcohol is a part of it, if it’s just occasional.

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:

  1. Keep your fat intake very low,
  2. Eat your protein target for the day to preserve muscle mass (lean sources such a chicken, egg whites, casein protein), restrict carbs to veggies.
  3. Try to drink shots, dry red wines (they are lower carb), or spirits with zero-calorie mixers (I like Coke Zero and whisky).

If you follow those few rules and keep these things infrequent, you won’t ruin your progress.

**********************

I hope you found this helpful. Questions welcomed in the comments. – Andy


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About the Author

Andy Morgan

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of 'The Muscle and Strength Pyramid' textbooks and founder of RippedBody.com. This site is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation. (You can read more detailed bio here.)

223 Comments

  1. Sebastian says:

    Thank you, that was very informative and well written article!
    I think I will visit your blog/page more often!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Most welcome, Sebastian.

  2. Josh says:

    Hi,

    I have a question about the advice to keep fat intake very low on days when drinking a lot. I’ve seen this in other places as well (e.g. Menno Henselman and Martin Berkhan) but I’ve never seen an explanation of why this is so. Given that your total energy balance determines your weight gain/loss, how is this affected by the fat/carb ratio in the presence of large amounts of alcohol?

    For example if I consume 2500 total calories on a heavy drinking day of which 100g is pure alcohol (700 kcals) and 180g is protein (720 kcals), that leaves me 1,080 to consume as carbs and/or fat. If my TDEE is normally 2,000 kcals, surely there is an excess 500 kcals that must be stored somewhere regardless of how much fat I take in?

    However, the claim is that we can avoid fat loss by making the 1,080 kcals almost all from carbs…so what happens to the excess 500 kcals in this case? Are you saying it gets excreted…or does your energy expenditure ramp up instead (maybe thermal effect or something) to burn it off even though you’re not doing any extra exercise?

    (For non-surplus scenarios (either maintenance or deficit), it’s also not clear why the fat/carb ratio would matter).

    Thanks in advance.

    1. Rose says:

      My understanding is that excess carbs are burned off as heat through dietary thermogenesis rather than fat because storing them as fat costs the body more than it is worth. In some cases, such as slamming mad high fructose corn syrup, the body does convert the carbs to fat because it’s the only way it can handle it (de novo lipogenesis, as mentioned below). Fat is easily stored as fat. Carbs have the reputation then, for being fattening for two reasons: 1. When combined with fat, they contribute to more efficient fat storage. and 2. ketogenic-based diets burn fat by eliminating carbs and forcing the body to use fat only rather than glucose and fat for fuel. Outside of intoxication, the body is always burning a concentration of stored fat and glucose. So, if you are in a very low-fat, high-carb diet, you would burn your fat and vice-versa. This is just my understanding based on watching a million youtube videos, so take that with a grain of salt! Based on all that I’ve seen/read, I actually think a high carb/low fat diet is healthier and easier for me to maintain, and I’ve had better results with it. My downfall is alcohol, which is why I am on reading this article, lol! I think this article is quite good, by the way.

    2. Andy Morgan says:

      Sure, it has to do with the metabolic pathways the body handles carbs and fats. Carbohydrate is only converted to fat with a chronic surplus, which you don’t have when dieting. So in the case of one-off drinking days, you get away with it. Fat, on the other hand, does not have to go through any complicated pathway to be stored as fat. Is this interests you, google ‘de novo lipogenesis’.

      1. Josh says:

        Thanks for the reply. (Realised after I sent the question that you had already covered this scenario in question 3 in the quiz section so apologies for repeating it).

        But, I still don’t get what happens to the excess carbs, if they cannot be converted to fat when the surplus is only temporary. Do they get stored (by the liver?) or excreted out in your urine or something? Because if it’s stored somewhere, it will presumably be released and mean you burn less fat over the next few days (unless calories are adjusted down)…
        Thanks again.

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Primarily as muscle glycogen.

          It’s a quick shortcut to be used on occasion. If you try to use it often your body will outsmart you by turning the carbs into fats via the process of de novo lipogenesis.

          1. Josh says:

            Thanks, that makes sense. I guess the corollary is that in the following day or days, you will have to reduce your net calorie intake by the same amount as the surplus on the drinking day. Otherwise, the energy stored as glycogen on the drinking day will be burned off preferentially, resulting in more of your fat intake on those following days being deposited as body fat. (If you try to prevent this by keeping fat super low without a drop in total calories, I’m thinking eventually the de Novo lipogenesis will ramp up to convert the stored carbs to fat).

            So in other words, it seems the body fat that you gain or lose over a multi-day period that includes the binge drinking day will depend entirely on your net energy expenditure over all of those days, and the particular fat intake on the binge drinking day is thus irrelevant.

            1. Andy Morgan says:

              I see the cause of the confusion now and I should have been clearer:

              Basically, we are on the same page.

              The assumption made behind my logic was that the person is dieting (in a caloric deficit). Under those circumstances, they will be at least partially glycogen depleted, and those glycogen stores can mop up excess carb intake on one day where a lot of alcohol is consumed along with carbs (enough to push someone over caloric maintenance), and only the fat eaten will be stored (hence the logic to keep it low).

              Yes, the energy in the glycogen stores will be burned off at some point, but not preferentially. (Glycogen in muscles can only be used locally by that muscle, unlike fat in the bloodstream which is used all over). So, the diet will not be delayed by doing this.

              Over the longer-term, I suspect that it will all work out on net. This is a strategy more for those that are already lean (have definition and want to maintain it) while drinking occasionally.

  3. Dr Blair Adams says:

    Hi Andy;
    Love the Brit pub slant – “pissed enough to think she’s pretty but not enough to fall over”
    But then; I’ve only been to Brit pubs for lunch.
    Could you do something on how much alcohol inhibits muscle building?
    It isn’t just calories.
    How much do we reduce our muscle building by drinking?
    Reduce by 50%? 25%? 15%?
    If it’s 50% I’m done….15%.. well; let ‘er rip yeah?
    Dr. B

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      I don’t have a figure, but it’s not 50%.

  4. Sarah says:

    Hi Andy
    I don’t have a question, I just really wanted to thank you for this article! I’m doing an “Eight Week Challenge” at my gym with a trainer with no nutrition qualifications whatsoever making weird recommendations and just talking nonsense, like the “your liver won’t burn any fat and won’t be able to do anything if you have any toxins” while drinking a monster energy drink and vaping…..
    Thank you for being a voice of science and reason!!

  5. Monica says:

    I’ve been able to loose 100 lbs by counting calories and doing my best ro keep the correct balance. My girlfriend just hired a personal trainer that told her drinking alcohol can decrease your metabolism for 2 weeks. With Everything I know and have read over the years I just cannot understand that alcohol would do this for up to 2 weeks! Am I missing something… I work really hard all week to keep my calories in check for a good deficit and tend to relax a little on the weekends-within reason, what are your thoughts, am I missing something or is this trainer totally wrong ? Thank you for help

  6. Grace says:

    Hi, I have been told that you cannot burn fat for up to 3 days after drinking alcohol. Is this correct?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Complete nonsense. The alcohol calories are preferentially burned, that’s all. See the “7 Things to understand” section.

  7. Francis says:

    I saw one man taking alcohol every day so I ask him why,he told me that someone advise him to be taking it everyday that it will help him to lost fat content of his body. Is the man right?

  8. Robban says:

    Hi.
    Thank you for the article, very informative.
    I have a wedding coming up, i am currently dieting with an allowed calorie intake of 1500kcal. Do i understand correctly that if i will drink i.e (6 wiskeys) 600 kcal, i should limit the food i take that day to 900kcal? Then in the end of the day my body will see the same amount of calories (although not the same nutrition) but at least will mitigate the drinking of that day?

  9. Joe says:

    Very informative, I’d love to drink diet coke in my drink but unfortunately everytime I have tried, the next morning I get a sugar hypo and it’s not a good feeling, feel out of it.
    Only with original coke this does not happen, been tested for diabetes and I was fine.
    It’s crap because it’s hampering my cut and hampering my social life.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      I think you may be confusing correlation and causation.

  10. Bob says:

    I have tried every diet and I seem to be failing. I don’t gain and I don’t lose. I am 47 about to be 48, 238 lbs at 5′ 10″. I have been dieting for at least a year with no success. It also makes it hard when my wife and kids just eat anything although I do stick to my plan fairly good. I eat 2000 calories a day give or take 100 calories. At this point I am eating very low carbs and I stop eating by 8pm and wont eat until noon (IF). I drink on weekends Vodka and soda. Is cutting carbs bad or what. There is so much controversial info about carbs and fasting. Who is right and what should I follow considering everyone says they are professionals and their way is the right way.
    Thank you

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Bob, thank you for the comment. Read this. Trust me. You’ll be lost forever until you do. It will put everything into perspective. Even just the first chapter will clear things up, a 5 minute read.

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