Most of us know someone who has gotten in shape and lost weight, and attributes at least part of his success to cutting out booze. At the same time, most of us have heard about the health benefits of drinking moderate amounts of red wine (antioxidants like resveratrol are a real thing, yall), and have heard of people in Italy and France who drink plenty of wine on the regular and somehow still maintain better health and smaller waistlines than most of us in the States.
So what’s the deal? What role does alcohol play in health, and how much should you be cutting down if you want to get in better shape? Since the topic of how alcohol impacts health is a loaded one (like a baked potato) with many layers (like nachos), this article will only be focusing on one specific piece of the pie (mmm, pie). Today I’m going to specifically address how alcohol impacts fitness, and primarily how it factors into the most common fitness goal – weight loss.
Here’s the first thing to remember: The health benefits of alcohol do not outweigh the risks that come with drinking alcohol. After all, it is a class 1 carcinogen (which means it’s known to have cancer-promoting properties), and when taken in excess, can become addictive, impairs judgment, encourages reckless behavior, and can ultimately lead to fatal cases of alcohol poisoning.
In other words…
Never increase your alcohol consumption for the sake of health.
In fact, most of us would probably do well to cut down on alcohol consumption, especially if it’s happening in the form of mixed drinks. There is no potential health benefit you could receive from drinking alcohol – yes, red wine included! – that would warrant increasing your alcohol consumption.
That being said, depending on how much (and what) you currently drink, you don’t necessarily need to cut out alcohol completely in order to lose weight/improve your fitness. Let’s start by looking at the ways alcohol can cause weight gain or prevent weight loss – although there is a definite connection between drinking and weight gain (or not drinking and weight loss), it might surprise you.
#1 Guilt By Association – when you drink, you also happen to eat a ton of unhealthy foods.
Think of all the situations in which people drink alcohol – at parties, on dates, at football games, at barbeques, at weddings, at dive bars on karaoke night. What do these situations have in common? Usually there’s alcohol, and usually there’s a ton of potentially-delicious but not-nutritious food being consumed, too! Think of a Superbowl party…sure, there might be lots of beer involved, but there’s usually also a huge spread of snacks that include fried-everything and an excess of Velveeta cheese (neither of which is going to do any huge favors for your body, no matter how delicious).
#2 Bad Decision Juice – when you drink, you end up eating junk foods you normally avoid.
This is when you go out with friends, throw back a few drinks, then come home and order pizza and wings and maybe a box of Krispy Kreme donuts somehow gets into the mix, too. Or it’s when you’re still at the bar and decide to order their giant platter of nachos (somehow Velveeta cheese is implicated again…) to split with yourself and – oh, wait, no, you just ordered that for yourself. In other cases, it might be that you wake up the morning after drinking quite a bit, and in order to help your hangover, you – quite naturally – reach for the greasiest, most carb-y, food you can think of. Carl’s Junior’s “baconator” burger come to mind, and the extra-large side of fries with ranch is just a given.
#3 Sneaky Mixed Drinks – small cute drinks packing a giant ogre-sized calorie count.
Yes, alcohol has calories – 7 calories per gram, to be exact. (By comparison, carbs have 4 calories per gram.) That’s not what makes alcohol potentially fattening, though. The kicker with alcoholic drinks is the mixed drinks – those bad boys are typically loaded with sugar, and are the nutritional and caloric equivalent of drinking Dr. Pepper mixed with a Capri Sun. Beer can be pretty calorically dense as well, and easy to overconsume. On top of that, with any kind of drink, once you have one or two, the alcohol tends to lower most folks’ inhibitions enough that they order a few more. It would not be hard to take in 1,000 calories from alcoholic drinks in one night out with friends. That’s right – that doesn’t even include all the junk food that usually accompanies a night of drinking.
#4 Sophie’s Choice – pick one: booze drinking or fat burning.
The least charming thing alcohol does is put the brakes on your body’s fat burning systems. Alcohol has the lovely effect of inhibiting lipid oxidation (fat burning) while it is in your system, so until your body has metabolized it, your body cannot burn fat nearly as effectively as otherwise and is primed to store anything you eat as fat.
Now, remember that these are all potential reasons alcohol can cause weight gain or make it difficult to lose weight. But like so many things, it’s also highly individual, because this all depends on how you consume alcohol? Are you someone who enjoys a glass of wine (or, ok, bourbon) with a nice dinner once or twice a month? If so, the negative effects of alcohol are likely so minimal that they’re not going to effect your fitness goals – you would be better off focusing your energy on dialing in a different part of your diet or exercise routine. On the other hand, are you someone who throws back a few beers almost every night, and enjoys going hard most weekends? In that case, alcohol is probably something that is having a fairly significant impact on your health and fitness, and it would be wise to start dialing that way back.
The rule of thumb is that the more you drink – whether in greater frequency or greater quantity – the more likely it is that you will benefit from cutting back on alcohol. For some folks, that truly can make a huge difference in their health and in how they’re able to lose weight and get in shape! On the other hand, you might decide that your drinking happens infrequently enough and in modest enough amounts that it isn’t impacting your fitness goals – in that case, good for you. If you are going to drink, just be smart and be safe, ok yall?
I’d love to know if you’ve ever cut back on drinking in attempt to be healthier – how did that go for you? I’ve heard that #DryFebruary is a trend that’s happening now, where folks abstain from drinking for the month of February…is anyone doing that?
I hope this was helpful, friends. As always, if there’s a way I can help you with anything fitness or nutrition-related, please let me know!
PS: As I mentioned before, any potential health benefits from drinking alcohol – such as the antioxidants found in red wine – are never going to outweigh the risks and drawbacks that come with drinking alcohol. It will never be a good idea to increase your alcohol consumption in the name of “health,” and regardless of your fitness goals, it’s always good to be mindful of your habits around drinking. This is especially true if people in your family currently have or have previously had problems with alcohol or other substances in the past, as that can indicate a genetic predisposition to addiction. Trust me, I’ve seen that play out in people, and it’s not something you want to risk. If you have the feeling that you might be drinking more than is healthy, or if you have a loved one whose drinking patterns concern you, there are lots of resources out there that can be helpful – this website is a great place to start. xo