Alcohol isn't commonly thought to be a "healthy" part of a weight loss program, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a drink or two without screwing up your progress.
First let's talk about why we're even addressing this topic. Considering that drinking inhibits fat loss and adds excess calories, wouldn't it make sense to forego it altogether?
If this is possible for you, great. There's no shortage of articles (such as this one) on how alcohol physiologically hurts your efforts.
But weight loss isn't just about physiology. If it were, everyone would be able to just "eat less, move more" their way into skinny jeans. In reality, your environment is just as important as your physiology to weight loss, and there are few things as native as alcohol. It has played a central role in almost all cultures since neolithic times, and there's even evidence to suggest that it played a key role in human evolution.
When you attempt to eliminate something so ingrained into your environment or your habits — like alcohol or carbohydrates — you often set yourself up for failure. Instead, it may* better to intelligently integrate these occasional treat into your weight loss program.
*There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as clinical alcoholism. We'll discuss this in "next steps" section at the end.
What The Research Says
Consuming alcohol isn't automatically bad. In fact, it has a myriad of health benefits at low-to-moderate doses. Fitness author and nutritionist Martin Berkhan states:
Moderate alcohol consumption improves insulin sensitivity, lowers triglyceride concentrations and improves glycemic control. Not only in healthy folks, but also in type 2 diabetes. There is no clear consensus on the insulin sensitizing mechanism of alcohol, but one viable explanation may be that alcohol promotes leanness by stimulating AMPK in skeletal muscle. It's not a stretch to assume that this might have favourable effects on nutrient partitioning in the longer term.
If the effect of alcohol consumption on insulin sensitivity doesn't impress you, then consider the fact that studies have consistently shown that moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers. This can be mainly attributed to a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. However, alcohol also contributes to a healthier and disease-free life by protecting against Alzheimer's disease, metabolic syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, the common cold, different types of cancers, depression and many other Western diseases. The list goes on and on.
Still, alcohol physiologically decreases fat loss, so it should impede your results, right? According to nutritionist and frequent Vitals contributor Alan Aragon, the research is surprisingly inconclusive:
One study found that men consuming an average of 56 grams of ethanol per day (four beers) took in 16 per cent more total calories than a matched group of non-drinkers. The two groups — drinkers and non-drinkers — had identical amounts of physical activity. So, logically, you'd think that the drinkers packed on some pounds. They didn't. Both groups had the same body-mass index, despite all those excess calories for the drinkers.
This study wasn't just a fluke. Alan continues:
Another study compared two weight-loss diets (1,500 calories per day, or the equivalent of the crumbs from one of John Berardi's mid-morning snacks). In one diet, subjects got 10 per cent of their total calories from white wine — 150 calories, or just over a glass per day. The other group got 10 per cent from grape juice. After three months, the white wine group lost almost a kilogram more total body weight (a kilogram is 2.2 pounds), although the difference wasn't statistically significant.
In other words, when it comes to your waistline, alcohol is a bit of a wildcard — some people may be impacted, but some aren't. For those with more sensitive waists, the culprit might be the decisions from alcohol, rather than the substance itself. According to a 2013 study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, subjects consumed a higher amount of calories and saturated fat when moderate drinking occurred.
At the end of the day, everything still comes down to calories as far as changes in weight is concerned. It's not the alcohol itself that packs on the pounds, but the late-night burgers and fries runs that often come along with it.
Knowing this, we can formulate a plan enjoy a drink here or there and feel like your life controls your diet — not the other way around.
Making Alcohol Fit Your Program
I mentioned that it may be a good idea to consume alcohol in moderation, rather than abstain altogether. There are two exceptions to this:
First, you might be completely happy abstaining from alcohol. If you don't need it and have no problems abstaining altogether, that's fine too, no matter what your friends and family say.
The second exception is those who are true addicts in the clinical sense. When it comes to consuming things in moderation, alcohol is very different from food. Dr Todd Ivan, a psychiatrist who helps alcoholics in his practice, explains:
The current standard of care for alcoholics (and those with other substance use issues) is to encourage abstinence and seek care in the form of therapy and medication. There are some people who want to adopt a harm reduction model, where we don't insist upon 100 per cent abstinence. Unlike with food, regrettably when a relapse does happen, it's usually a dramatic event.
In other words, you can kill someone through drunk driving, whereas no one's likely going to die when you cave in to Girl Scout Cookie Season.
If you feel like you truly have issues with alcohol, seek help and abstain altogether. Otherwise, follow the rules below.
Step 1: Figure Out Your Diet Plan
The first thing you'll need to do is determine what and how much to eat. You can do this one of two ways. If you're new to tracking calories, you can use these basic instructions:
- Determine how many calories you expend every single day. You can use ExRx's calculator here. For best accuracy, calculate this by body fat percentage. If you don't know your current body fat percentage you can use this helpful article by Leigh Peele.
- Reduce your calorie intake by 20% of your maintenance calories. Any time you decrease your caloric intake, it's helpful to simultaneously increase your amount of protein in order to stay satiated. (Protein also has the higher Thermic Effect of Food out of any macronutrient, meaning your body needs to expend more energy to digest it in comparison to carbs or fats.)
More advanced dieters might benefit from targeting a daily intake of protein, fat, and carbohydrates — affectionately known by fitness buffs as "macros." If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) has a great tool here. I also created a calculator that accounts for different levels of difficulty.
Step 2: Identify Days That You Will Be Drinking
Figure out in advance days in the week that you'll be drinking, and determine if they're "casual" or "free" drinking days. (We're not suggesting the latter so much as telling you what steps to take if you're going to do it anyway.)
Casual drinking days are reserved for occasions where you won't down more than a few drinks — think happy hour with coworkers or dinner with a bottle of wine.
On these days, keep your dietary rules the same except for one thing: count each alcoholic beverage that you consume as 10g of fat, plus however many carbohydrates they contain.
For example, a glass of red wine would count as 10g fat, 3g carbs. A serving of whisky would only be 10g of fat (it contains no carbohydrates).
Free drinking days consist of events like bachelor's parties, weddings, or this year's Super Bowl if you're a Seahawks fan. During these days, we'll use the following guide from Martin Berkhan:
- For this day, restrict your intake of dietary fat to 0.3 g/kg body weight (or as close to this figure as possible).
- Limit carbs to 1.5 g/kg body weight. Get all carbs from veggies and the tag-along carbs in some protein sources. You'll also want to limit carbohydrate-rich alcohol sources such as drinks made with fruit juices and beer. A 33 cl/12 fl oz of beer contains about 12 g carbs, while a regular Cosmopolitan is about 13 g.
- Good choices of alcohol include dry wines which are very low carb, clocking in at about 0.5-1 g per glass (4 fl oz/115ml). Sweet wines are much higher at 4-6 g per glass. Cognac, gin, rum, scotch, tequila, vodka and whiskey are all basically zero carbs. Dry wines and spirits is what you should be drinking, ideally. Take them straight or mixed with diet soda. (No need to be super-neurotic about this stuff. Drinks should be enjoyed after all. Just be aware that there are better and worse choices out there).
- Eat as much protein as you want. Yes, that's right. Ad libitum. Due to the limit on dietary fat, you need to get your protein from lean sources. Protein sources such as low fat cottage cheese, protein powder, chicken, turkey, tuna, pork and egg whites are good sources of protein this day.
The mindset of free drinking days should be damage mitigation for the day, rather than ensuring a caloric deficit. By following his rules — keeping dietary fat consumption low and protein consumption high — there's a smaller chance that you'll store additional fat in the event of a caloric surplus.
We're not telling anyone to become alcoholics here, and there is certainly a risk of using this knowledge to justify drinking more. (Protip: Don't.) But here's why this skill may be incredibly important: One of the biggest problems with weight loss is that one day's success is so often determined by whether you believe it was successful. If you feel like you "ruined your diet" just because you had one beer, you're more prone to acting in ways that ruin your diet. By having a flexible protocol that makes occasional alcohol "part of the plan," you'll always have a way to stay on plan.
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.