I get a few emails each month asking if it’s possible to drink alcohol and still be healthy. Yup, you totally can – sorta, kinda, maybe, ish…
Today’s article is all about how to drink alcohol and not become a hot physical mess.
THE TWO TYPES OF ALCOHOL: NERDY SCIENCE STUFF FIRST
I’ll make this quick I promise.
Examine.com defines alcohol like this.
“Alcohol, otherwise known as Drinking alcohol or ethanol, is the main ingredient in a wide range of social drinks and the reason for the differentiation between ‘Alcoholic’ and ‘Non-alcoholic’ drinks.
It is a neuroactive chemical that is able to change one’s perception and has a unique metabolic pattern relative to other sources of calories (the macronutrients; carbohydrates, proteins, and dietary fats). It contributes 7 calories per gram energy-wise, but this does not always correlate well with bodyweight as the other macronutrients do.” – Examine.com
ETHANOL. THE ALCOHOL YOU DRINK
It’s found in beer, liquor, wine, and spirits. It’s created through the fermentation of yeast, sugar, and starches. Mostly from plants such as barley, corn, and wheat. Ethanol alcohol is actually not toxic but its by-products acetaldehyde and acetate are. So when you get sick from drinking too much it’s actually those two things causing it.
There are about 15 grams of ethanol alcohol in the average drink. A 12oz. beer, 5oz. glass of wine, and a 1.5oz shot of 80 proof liquor.
ISOPROPYL. THE KIND YOU DON’T DRINK
This is the alcohol your Mom would rub on your knee after you fell off your bike.
We’re going to be talking more about Ethanol alcohol today so when I use the term alcohol or booze that’s the type I am referring to. If we were talking about the other one this would be a very weird and confusing article and probably not that relevant.
ALCOHOL, ENERGY, AND CALORIES
Alcohol is a very dense source of energy. One gram of alcohol is equal to 7 calories. That comes in just under fat (9 calories per gram) and just above carbohydrate and protein (both 4 calories per gram).
It may seem obvious to most of you but it’s easy to forget to account for the liquid calories that we drink in a day. The average pint of lagger checks in at about 180 calories, a glass of 13% ABV white wine averages about 159 calories, and an 80 proof shot is 64 calories. This doesn’t account for any chasers or mixers.
WHAT DOES ALCOHOL DO IN YOUR BODY?
Once the alcohol has entered your system it is easily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract (GI). About 20 to 25% of it will enter your bloodstream.
The liver then begins to metabolize a little bit of it at a time. However, the liver can only handle so much alcohol at a time, usually around one ounce every 90 minutes. Any excess alcohol consumed during that time is filtered throughout the body.
The faster you drink or the more that you drink, the quicker alcohol will build up in your bloodstream. This is when you get “drunk.”
The speed at which it is absorbed will depend on how much you’ve eaten, your size, your body fat percentage, and your gender.
If you’ve eaten before you have a drink it will take longer for the alcohol to be metabolized. The same if you are a bigger guy or girl.
Some other factors include:
- Fitness level
- How fast the alcohol was consumed
- Family history
I’m going to spare you the pain of trying to explain all of the chemical reactions that occur when you drink. Essentially alcohol reduces the effects of a neurotransmitter called glutamate. Neurotransmitters are chemical mailmen that deliver messages throughout the body that control your thought process, behaviors, and emotions.
Glutamate works to keep your brain sharp, alert, assists with memory, and energy (just to name a few). When you drink, glutamate can not do its job. Think of it like a mailman in a snowstorm.
You slow down. Your thoughts, speech, memory, energy, behaviors, and emotions are all affected (more on this later). What’s worse is that decision making is affected
Drunk text anyone? Ever order 100 tacos before? Yeah, that’s what happens.
However, drinking alcohol also releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects your brain’s reward system. When you drink, levels of dopamine are increased and you feel pleasure. So when you drink you feel good, your brain is telling you you feel good and you should probably drink some more.
Damn you brain!
This is the same thing that is going on when you eat certain foods, have sex, or participate in an activity you really enjoy.
Now the bad news is this dopamine effect gets diminished the more and more you drink. You build tolerance and soon you’ll need to drink more and more in order to feel the same amount of pleasure.
This can lead to alcohol dependence which is classified by an impulse to drink despite harm, loss of control (physically, emotionally, and mentally), suffer from withdrawal symptoms, and excessive tolerance.
Alcohol dependence and addiction are beyond the scope of this article and beyond my base of knowledge. If you are someone that needs help please seek professional health.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS OF ALCOHOL
Now, don’t you go booing me ok? I’ll tell you why alcohol might actually be good for you in a bit but first the bad news.
I’m sure most of you already know that alcohol isn’t the best for your brain, liver, or body composition. But there are a few other reasons why alcohol shouldn’t be your first choice of beverage.
General physical effects of alcohol include:
- Elevated heart rate
- Impaired muscle control, coordination, and slurred speech.
Some general mental effects of alcohol include:
- Impaired judgment
- Inability to focus
- Exaggerated emotions
- Loss of inhibitions.
More specifically alcohol effects the following:
1 – IT’S NOT HEALTHY AND CAN LEAD TO NUTRIENT DEFICIENCES
I know that seems pretty obvious but the alcoholic beverages that you consume are virtually empty of any real nutritional value in terms of vitamins and minerals. A beer will provide you with some vitamin B, magnesium, and potassium but the amount is minimal.
Alcohol interferes with vitamin and mineral absorption and can even lead to nutrient deficiencies. It can also cause less pancreatic enzymes, which will affect how much nutrients are absorbed.
Alcohol impairs your body’s ability to take in amino acids which are essential for just about every metabolic process that goes on in your body. This includes transporting and storing various nutrients including protein, fat, carbohydrate, and vitamins and minerals. Amino’s are also important for full muscle recovery after strenuous workouts, preserving lean muscle tissue while on low-calorie diets, and aiding in fat loss and muscle building.
Because your liver is busy trying to metabolize alcohol it doesn’t have time for other important vitamins and minerals. Among the other vitamins and minerals, alcohol affects the absorption of the vitamin B family, vitamin A, vitamin K, Iron, and vitamin E.
2 – IT’S NOT GREAT FOR BODY COMPOSITION
If you’re looking to get lean and mean or to even add some serious muscle to your frame drinking may not be the best idea. This isn’t to say you can’t do it, it just more likely will make the process very difficult for you.
When you consume alcohol you’re drinking calories. Those of you that have participated in personal coaching know that not drinking your calories is a key habit we practice for speeding up fat loss.
For reference, here are the most popular alcoholic beverages and the number of calories in each:
- Beer, 12oz.: 153 calories
- Wine, 5oz.: 121 calories
- Liquor, 1.5oz.: 96 calories
- Rum & Coke, 2oz. rum, 12oz Coke.: 268 calories, 39 grams of sugar.
- Margarita, 5oz.: 252 calories
- Long Island Iced Tea, 1 collins glass (8.3oz.): 276 calories, 38 grams of sugar
- Vodka & Redbull, 9oz.: 177 calories, 26 grams of sugar
As you can see it’s pretty easy for the calories to add up with just a few drinks. Not to mention the post-drink debauchery that might happen when it comes to food choices.
Because alcohol is easily used as fuel by the body, other sources that should be used like fats, carbohydrates, and protein are left to hang out. And if they’re not used they’re converted to body fat.
Alcohol will only lead to fat gain if consumed in excess. Basically, if you drink enough to add more calories to your current diet and don’t use them up you’ll add body fat (pretty obvious I know).
3 – DRUNK NACHO’S
Although it is very easy to consume a lot of extra calories when drinking. Most people don’t consume excess calories from alcohol but instead from poor food choices that they make while drinking.
As mentioned before, alcohol affects decision-making, and when you’ve been out all night drinking with friends you’re more likely to make poor food choices because of the impaired decision-making and social pressure that you’ll face.
Drunk nacho’s anyone?
4 – ALCOHOL DEHYDRATES YOU
When you drink alcohol an antidiuretic hormone is suppressed. These hormones help to keep you from peeing out all of the water in your body. When you drink the levels of this hormone are decreased and thus, number one is happening. This is also why sometimes after a night of boozing you’re a few pounds lighter or look a little bit leaner.
Dehydration can lead to mood swings, headaches, dry skin, dizziness, fatigue, and even more serious issues.
5 – MORE THAN 50 GRAMS PER DAY AND YOU RISK LONG-TERM HEALTH
- Cirrhosis of the liver (fatty liver)
- Unintentional injuries and increased risk of accidents
- Mood swings and even violence
- Loss of lean muscle
- Memory loss
- Difficulty coping with events in your life
- Increased fat synthesis (or fat storage)
- Oxidative stress
- Central nervous system damage
- Other physical, mental, and emotional problems
CAN I DRINK ALCOHOL AND STILL LOSE WEIGHT?
Yes, as long as the calories from your drinks are factored in. Fat loss and weight loss still come down to creating a consistent calorie deficit over an extended period of time. Having a drink here and there will not impede this unless you’re drinking enough that it puts you in a calorie surplus.
For a more in-depth explanation of calorie deficit, weight/fat loss, and nutrition use our FREE getting started with a nutrition guide.
WHAT IS MODERATE ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION?
I’m sure you’ve heard that moderate alcohol consumption has some health benefits. Let’s define what “moderate” actually means. You might remember from this post that it seems many of us have a different definition of what moderation actually means.
Moderately drinking maybe three drinks a day to some while others might see it as a glass of wine at night after dinner, while still others might see it as just two to three drinks a month.
The center for disease control and prevention (CDC) and the dietary guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. This amount is not the average over a few days.
In my opinion, this is too much.
So then what is the gold standard for 1 to 2 drinks per day?
Again, using the CDC as a reference the standard alcoholic drink is 14 grams or .6 ounces of pure alcohol. This is equal to:
- One 12 ounce beer with 5% alcohol
- One 8 ounce malt liquor with 7% alcohol
- One 5 ounce wine with 12% alcohol
- One 1.5 ounce shot of 80 proof liquor (rum, gin, vodka, tequila, scotch, etc…)
THE GOOD NEWS OF “MODERATE” ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION
According to a study I found attached to an article in the Harvard School of public health. Moderate alcohol consumption may lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This includes developing a heart attack, stroke, and sudden cardiac death.
Because of antioxidants such as resveratrol, which can help prevent damage to blood vessels, lower “bad” cholesterol, and prevent blood clots, when consumed in moderation, red wine is often considered to be a healthy alcoholic option.
Another great reference for this is “The French Paradox.” The French paradox is a term that was used in the ’80s (remember the 80’s? Alf, Slap Bracelets, Thunder Cats, and Skip-It) to describe the low incidence of coronary heart disease despite a diet that is high in saturated fat.
Whether you think it’s actually a paradox or not, one reason for this is attributed to regular red wine consumption which has been shown to provide the following benefits.
In his book “Blue Zones,” Dan Buettner tells us that one of the traits shared by the world’s longest-lived people is that moderate wine drinkers outlive non-drinkers, especially if they have a drink with a loved one.
It’s liquid courage. We’ve all had a drink or two and felt a little more confident talking to that girl, guy, or when making a big decision. Heck, I’ve used it to help me write an article I was struggling with and I know this guy has too.
The reason you feel more confident when you drink is that – as stated before, alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment. This combination creates an environment in which people do things they might not do on a daily basis. This can be good and bad.
“Alcohol doesn’t cause you to do things you don’t want to do, it enables you to do something you’ve repressed” – Neil Strauss
Now I’m not advocating going on a drinking binge, by all means, I am just using it as a metaphor to loosen up a bit.
SO WE KNOW THE GOOD AND BAD BUT WHY DO WE DRINK?
There are many reasons that we drink. For one, it’s always been a major part of the culture not only in the United States but around the world.
Heading out with friends, family, or while on a date – a drink or two has become a fun and enjoyable part of how we live.
However, some people use it as a coping mechanism to deal with stress, relationship problems, work issues, anxiety, depression, or just to help them relax.
Others drink as a way to help them deal with difficult situations or to help them make decisions. As mentioned before this is when that “liquid courage” comes into play.
Others just enjoy the taste and for some, it’s an important part of their culture.
Maybe it’s a way you’ve always bonded with a friend, family member, or coworker.
INSTEAD OF ALCOHOL. HOW ABOUT ONE OF THESE?
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a having drink to unwind and relax at the end of the day are there any other strategies you can use to help do the same thing?
- A hot shower
- Quick workout
- A good conversation with someone
- Trying something new like dance classes, rock climbing, or reading a good book
- A little dark chocolate
Are you grabbing drinks as a way to socialize? Again, I love having a nice glass of wine with a friend or heading out to the cigar shop and tasting some scotch but I like to keep this to a minimum.
- Going on a hike
- Trying new sports together
- Painting or other arts
- Taking a class together (dance, educational, fitness)
- Improv classes
- Just playing catch or tossing the frisbee
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Joining a league together (bowling, basketball, other activities)
Why have another business meeting over dinner and drinks? Why meet your friends at another bar? Let’s get creative and try a little something new.
SO SHOULD I DRINK ALCOHOL OR NOT?
It’s very common to have competing goals. You say losing body fat is a priority but you’re staying out late and drinking with friends, hmmmmmmm…. they don’t really go well together.
You can still be social, hang with friends, and maybe still have a drink or two but make sure to get clear on what your goals are and where your priorities lay first. If losing body fat, building muscle, or getting healthier is really important to you you might have to sacrifice happy hours and drinks out on the town.
If you’re really trying to drop body fat, lose weight, build lean muscle, help with recovery, or improve performance then it might not be in your best interest to be drinking. Alcohol will interfere too much with your sleep, muscle recovery, and the hormones that assist with building muscle and dropping body fat (1).
However, If you are ok with slower progress, are comfortable with where you are physically and mentally, and want to enjoy a drink now and again then I say go for it but try and limit yourself to no more than three to four drinks spread out over the week.
Monitor your behaviors when drinking. Does it cause you to make poor food choices or other decisions that may affect your health or even the health of others?
The best way to go about this is to assess your goals and measure your progress by taking weekly body measurements and months before and after photos. Use a habit tracker to see if you’re dialed in and practicing healthy habits consistently.
If you find you’re able to have a few drinks and still make progress then it might be ok for you.
I’M HAVING SOME DRINKS. WHAT ARE MY BEST OPTIONS?
If you’re interested, here’s a write up that I did over at The Ultimate Paleo Guide outlining some of the best and worst alcoholic beverages to drink and not drink.
The Norcal Margarita is a great tasting beverage that’s low in calories, sugar, and day to make. See the recipes here.
Red wine is another great choice. I consider it a sipping drink so it usually takes me a long time to drink it (a good thing) and I find it to be really relaxing. Plus there are actually some possible health benefits to it.
An ounce or two of liquor on the rocks or mixed with a diet beverage. I’m not huge on artificial sweeteners but in this case, I’ll take a little bit over it’s higher sugar counterpart.
You’ll want to stay away from any mixers that contain sugar like sodas, juices, and even frozen mixes. This is going to add a ton of calories, sugar, and will wreak havoc on your blood sugar.
But what about beer?
Beer is a lot lower in alcohol content than the other drinks mentioned above, which means you’ll have to drink more of them to get the same effects. This translates to more calories, more carbohydrates, and more dehydration.
- 100 proof = 50% alcohol
- 80 proof = 40% alcohol
- 40 proof = 20% alcohol
- Wine = 8-14% alcohol
- Beer = 4-6% alcohol
The lower alcohol content in beer is one reason it is much easier to consume more of it.
Many of us have a drink or two… or three as a way to unwind, relax and de-stress. Because of the lower alcohol content, you’ll need a few more beers to feel the dopamine and feel-good effects of beer.
If you’re going to drink a beer I say drink a good one. One that you’ll really enjoy just keeps it to one top.
A FEW OTHER IDEAS IF YOU KNOW YOU’RE GOING TO DRINK
If you already know that you’re going to have a drink there are a few other things you can do.
To minimize your chances of developing a hangover, use less toxic alcohols like vodka (made from potato), gin, and tequila while avoiding beer, wine, and colored spirits like rum.
Take 500 mg of vitamin C and 600 mg of Nac-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) to help lower liver aldehyde, a toxin that your liver creates from alcohol.
Use vitamin B1 or alpha-lipoic acid before each drink, and add 4 capsules of activated charcoal after you drink, because these will bind with the byproducts of the alcohol, reducing their effects on your body.
PROTEIN AND VEGGIES ON DRINKING DAYS
As mentioned earlier, your body will be spending an awful lot of time trying to detoxify and metabolize the alcohol in your system, and may not have the time or the energy to process the calories from fats and carbohydrates.
Those carbs and fats that are not metabolized get stored in the form of fat. Protein is safe to eat in this case because, for the most part, your body does not store it in the same way.
OTHER WAYS TO DRINK, BE SOCIAL, AND STILL STAY HEALTHY
1 – THE FAKE DRINK
Sneaky? Maybe, but it works. Let’s say you’re out with friends and you’re really committed to having just one drink that night but everyone is pressuring you to have a few more.
Order a water or club soda on the rocks with a straw and lime wedge. Boom! You’ve got yourself a gin and tonic. Oh no, I just gave away my secret.
2 – COMMIT TO A GLASS OF WATER AFTER EVERY DRINK
So if you finish a beer make sure to drink a full glass of water right after. If you decide to have one more beer then have another glass of water right after that.
Go into whatever situation it is you’ll be drinking and allow yourself to have one drink and only one drink. Set a limit and stick with it. The intent is far more powerful than willpower.
3 – VOLUNTEER TO BE THE DESIGNATED DRIVER
It may not sound like the best of times but you’ll be doing everyone a solid by making sure they get home safe at the end of the night.
4 – FOCUS ON PROTEIN AND VEGGIES THE DAY YOU DRINK. SLIGHTLY REDUCE YOUR CARBS AND FATS
If you plan on drinking create a calorie buffer by reducing your carbs and fats during the day. Focus on lean proteins and veggies to keep you satiated and full.
5 – HAVE A DRINK BUT SWAP OUT THE HIGH-CALORIE MIXERS
Enjoy your drink but opt for zero-calorie mixers or no mixer at all. You’ll save a ton of calories.
6 – REMOVE FOOD TEMPTATION
Oh you know this is real. What’s the liquor gets flowing all inhibitions are gone and our decision-making is impaired. Plus, greasy, high cal, and high palatable foods sound ideal to soak up all that booze. Make sure this stuff is harder to get to.
HELP! I TRIED ALL OF THESE THINGS
But everyone always pressures me or buys me drinks without asking. What can I do then?
Well, if you’re out drinking then I’m going to assume you’re over the age of 21 and thus you’re a grown-up. You can make your own decisions. If you want to have a drink then have one, if you don’t then don’t.
Politely decline and tell them exactly why you’re not drinking this evening. Tell them about your health and fitness goals, that you’re the DD for the evening, or say no thanks and point to your fake gin and tonic.
If they still buy you one or push one on you you can again politely decline and offer to reimburse them for their kindness. My point here is that you have a choice. No one can make you do anything you don’t want to do.
IT’S CLOSING TIME. ONE LAST CALL
Wow, so this little article about how to drink alcohol and still be healthy turned into a 4,000+ word guide.
I’ll leave you with this, short and sweet I promise. I’m not much of a drinker myself but on occasion, I do like a nice glass of red wine (cold and with an ice cube if you must know) or even a NorCal Margarita.
I don’t use it to de-stress or cope with problems.
I use it as an opportunity to spend time with someone that I really care about and have a really great conversation and time with. We don’t need the alcohol to do this but I simply enjoy a glass of wine and a few per month hasn’t affected my fitness or life goals yet.
I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite drink? Why do you drink?