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Alcohol and Fitness – Can They Co-Exist?

Fitness and alcohol aren’t terms we normally see in the same sentence. Everywhere you look, there’s yet another video or article that demonizes alcohol.

“Alcohol is fattening.”

“Drinking wastes muscle mass and kills athletic performance.”

And while there is some truth to these statements, the topic of alcohol within the context of fitness is quite nuanced, and the answer isn’t as cut and dry as it’s often presented.

Today, we’ll take a look at some of alcohol’s effects on fitness measures and what that means for our everyday lives.

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What effect does alcohol have on your fitness efforts?

Alcohol Calories, It’s Effect On Hunger, and Fat Storage

Alcohol is often deemed the fourth macronutrient (along with protein, carbs, and fats) because it carries an energetic value. Each gram of it has seven calories, as opposed to the nine in a gram of fat and four calories in a gram of protein and carbs.

The idea that alcohol offers only empty calories stems from the fact that it provides energy, but it has very little (if any) nutrients, and it doesn’t satisfy our hunger. In fact, some research suggests that alcohol can stimulate appetite for some people. Couple that with inhibited self-control, and that could lead to some poor nutritional choices.. at 3 AM.

Plus, the however many calories you drink contribute to your daily total much like food does and can lead to fat gain if you go too much overboard.

Another thing worth considering here is acetate – a byproduct and result from alcohol’s breakdown within the body. As a whole, acetate doesn’t carry much of a risk for us, and the body is generally able to break it down easily. But, research suggests that elevated levels of acetate within the blood can inhibit fat-burning and cause the majority of fatty acids within the blood to be stored, rather than spent.

Of course, to gain weight, you still need to consume more calories than you burn each day. Merely drinking alcohol won’t make you gain fat on its own.

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Alcohol alone won’t make you gain fat on its own.

Alcohol’s Effects on Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin sensitivity is the measure of how sensitive your body’s cells are to the hormone. In this case, more equals better because that allows for your body to absorb nutrients much more effectively without needing large amounts of insulin to do so.

This is great both for good health and fitness.

Now, some research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption can improve insulin sensitivity in healthy people. Furthermore, it has also been shown to lower blood triglyceride concentrations.

Scientists are yet to understand the mechanisms behind these effects, but this does give us a couple of interesting insights:

  1. It appears that moderate alcohol consumption may lead to improved nutrient partitioning in the long run (i.e., more of the calories you consume would go for muscle repair and growth rather than to fat storage).
  2. Alcohol may help prevent the development of type 2 diabetes thanks to the improved insulin sensitivity and lower stress on the pancreas.

Of course, the keyword here is moderate. Too much can quickly tip the scale in the other direction.

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Cardio workout in the gym

Alcohol On Testosterone, Recovery From Exercise, and Muscle Growth

It’s common knowledge that testosterone plays important roles in our health and fitness outcomes. Having optimal levels of the hormone (for both men and women) improves muscle growth and fat loss, but it also positively impacts our sleep, energy levels, mood, wellbeing, production of red blood cells, and much more.

As for alcohol, you’ve probably come across the idea that alcohol is bad for testosterone. And, yes, while there is a bit of truth to this, research doesn’t show it to be as bad as we imagine.

In several studies from the last 15 years (on both men and women, active and sedentary), researchers have found that moderate alcohol consumption either doesn’t affect testosterone or does so very insignificantly – drops of no more than 5%, which is nothing.

For alcohol to truly impact testosterone, one would have to drink quite a bit – 70 to 80 grams of pure alcohol or as high as 1.5 grams of it per kilo of body weight. For reference, that’s about 550 ml of red wine (or 18.5 ounces), 200 ml of vodka (6.7 ounces), or nearly 2 liters of beer (67 ounces).

Such high amounts are not only shown to temporarily suppress serum testosterone, but also impact recovery post-training, muscle growth, and athletic performance on the following day.

It’s fair to say that going overboard with alcohol is bad for these measures of fitness. As always, moderation is key.

But, if it so happens that you drink a bit too much and don’t get enough sleep that night, it’s better to plan for a recovery day afterward and give your body time to get back on track. If you feel the need to hit the gym, don’t expect the best of workouts.

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Had one too many? Plan a recovery day.

A Quick Recap

Okay, so we’ve covered a bit of information today. Let’s recap it:

  1. Moderation is key. Contrary to popular belief, having a few drinks every week may deliver some health and fitness benefits. And this brings ups to #2 and #3:
  2. Leave some calories for alcoholic drinks. If you have the habit of tracking calories, leave 200-500 for alcohol if you plan on drinking later in the day. If you don’t track calories, be mindful, and eat a bit less throughout the day.
  3. It may be a good idea to reduce your fat intake if you plan on drinking later in the day. As we covered, acetate prevents fatty acids from being burned for energy and instead causes most of them to be stored rather than spent. Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if you eat at or below maintenance.
  4. Have a meal before going out for drinks. A combination of protein and fiber is a great way to fill yourself up and avoid any poor eating choices later that evening.
  5. If you do drink more than you should, plan for a day off training afterward or accept that your performance might have taken a hit.
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