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Was dry January a good idea? How alcohol effects fat loss…

As we come to the end of what for many will have been a ‘dry’ January, I want to talk about how alcohol can have an impact on people’s fat-loss efforts and what you can do so that it doesn’t derail you.
Alcohol is high in calories…and calories matter
Whatever way you cut it you can’t get away from the fact that calories in versus calories out matters for managing body weight (this will be the topic for another blog post). In short, if you consume more calories than you expend then there is a surplus of energy (calories = energy, sort of, kinda) and your body needs to do something with that extra energy so it stores it as body fat. If you eat as much calories as you expend then you are in energy balance so there’s not any extra energy to be stored so weight should stay the same. If you eat less calories than you expend then your body needs to find more energy to make up that energy deficit so it accesses your body fat stores and we lose body fat. Yay.
Alcohol then by virtue of the fact it is high in calories (7kcal per gram) by consuming too much of it you could push yourself out of your calorie deficit and away from your goals (if your goal is weight-loss as it is for most people).
  • A pint of beer is about 250kcal
  • A 175mL glass of red wine is about 140kcal (about 600kcal for a bottle)
  • A 35mL measure of spirits is about 80kcal
Looking at then you can see that if you went out and had six pints on a Friday night (which wouldn’t be uncommon) that would land you with 1500kcal before you even consider your food for the day. If you’re looking to be in a calorie deficit for the week because you want to lose weight then a big night out could really put a dent in your progress if you don’t do something about it.

Drinking and Food

When it comes down to it though probably what I would see as being the biggest detriment about drinking is all the extra food it can make you consume. Alcohol can first of all lower your inhibitions so you’re more likely to want to eat more and it also i) dehydrates you – so you end up craving salty foods – think bar nuts or chips and ii) plays havoc with your blood sugar levels so you end up very very hungry which is a bad combination if you’re trying to maintain good eating habits. Cue kebabs, pizzas, burgers, takeaways and whatever else might seem like a great idea when you’re leaving the pub or club. These sorts of meals can easily slap on another 600-1200kcal to your total for the day and we still haven’t considered that you likely had plenty of food during the day before you even went drinking. You can see now how it racks up the calories?
And then we have the next day with the potential ‘hangover’ feed which doesn’t tend to be low calories either. It’s more of the same – tasty, high fat, high carb, high salt foods to help you replenish the sodium you’ve lost. So, that one day of going out drinking, getting food and then getting more less healthy options the next day can set you back for sure. Bigger guys may get away with this to an extent but for smaller females who don’t have a very high calorie requirement to begin with it can wipe out their weekly calorie deficit pretty easily.

What to do about it?

Now that I’ve described the main ways in which I think alcohol (and the food that goes with it) can upset people’s health and fitness goals from a fat/weight-loss perspective I want to talk about what you can do about it.
  1. Choose better drinks more of the time. If you’re keen to have say two bottles of wine on a night for a total of 1200kcal if you say swapped out one bottle for some gin and slimline tonic instead that would turn the 1200kcal into 900kcal which isn’t bad going. And then say you chose to have just two glasses of wine (half a bottle) and the rest gin and slimline tonic you’d bring it down to about 750kcal. Not too shabby. Generally then, a spirit plus a zero calorie mixer like diet sodas, soda water or slimline tonic (not regular tonic) is going to be your best option. Sugary mixed drinks or cocktails like ones with syrups, juices, sodas are the worst and beers and wines fall somewhere in between. My advice then would be to have whatever you like best for the first one or two and then switch to some of the better options.
  2. Be a little bit more prepared with your food for the next day. If you have something ready to go that you’ve made in advance you’ll more likely eat that instead of needing to order pizza from the foetal position. Or, you could have a healthier, lower kcal option in mind that you’ll get if you do want to get a takeaway. Make the conscious (if still possible) decision to avoid the big feed at the end of the night. You could bring a protein bar or small snack out with you to munch on to help curb the hunger and settle your blood sugars. Or if there are any shops open you could opt for a sandwich or yogurt or some other ready-to-go food that’s going to be a bit lighter.
  3. Adjust your eating earlier in the week and on the day. In an effort to ‘budget’ some kcals that will help buffer the few drinks you could opt to eat a bit lower carbs and/or fats during the week – swap out a serving of starchy carbs for more vegetables or pulses, use less oils or lower fat dairy products or choose some leaner proteins for a few more meals than you might usually to help account for the drinks later in the week. Then on the day itself fill up on lots of protein-rich foods and vegetables at the earlier meals so any food or drink later on that evening won’t have as much of an impact. Keep other liquid calories to a minimum.
  4. Avoid the hangover. Nobody wants to be hungover right? It sure enough will lead to poorer food choices and you’ll be way less likely to exercise so lets try and avoid that shall we? A large part of the ill effects of a hangover come from dehydration and the toxic byproducts of alcohol as it’s broken down by the liver. So it would make sense to support hydration and detoxification of alcohol. You can support hydration by consuming water regularly throughout the night and especially when going to bed. Add some electrolytes like a Nuun tablet to help replenish the minerals you lose from drinking, these are lost mostly by the increased urination that alcohol causes. And to help the liver break down the alcohol take supplemental N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) before and after you go drinking. This increases levels of glutathione in the body – the ‘master’ antioxidant which we need to help metabolise the alcohol. It gets quite depleted during this process so it makes sense to add in extra for support.
That’s it! I hope you find those tips useful in helping you manage a night out with a few (or a few too many) drinks while being able to work towards your physique, health or fitness goals.
by Brian Ó hÁonghusa, BSc (Hons) Human Nutrition, ANutr, PN1, PN2

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