Nutrition Coaching: Alcohol and Weight Gain
Does alcohol cause weight gain? The long term belief that doing multiple sets of beer bottle curls will lead to an expanded waist line hasn’t stopped most from drinking, but what does the research say? Surprisingly, scientific data shows mixed results. You’ll see that alcohol and cause certain issues with your digestive system, and also disrupt your hormones, but it’s not as clear cut as “drink beer – gain weight.”
Before we go any further though, we have to clarify what we’re talking about. A couple of drinks (a couple means two) a week isn’t going to necessarily break your goals. Now, several drinks a day can cause problems. You also have to distinguish between the actual physiological effects of alcohol on your hormones or if alcohol leads to excessive calorie consumption. Sometimes it’s just as simple as being around booze often ties in with French fries, cheese sticks, and other tasty treats that aren’t kind to your midsection.
What the Heck is It?
The alcohol you drink is actually called ethanol and comes from the fermentation of different plants. It contains 7 grams of calories per gram but is considered a non-essential nutrient. A large chunk of the drinks you consume will go directly to your liver to be metabolized (hence the damage that a long term alcoholic can do). Actually, it’s through the metabolism of alcohol that creates two substances; it’s these byproducts that can be toxic to your body, not the actual alcohol itself.
What About Those New Reports That Say Alcohol Builds a Healthy Heart?
We have to make note of the difference between a cause and a correlation. There appears to be a relationship between the two, but most studies on alcohol consumption are longitudinal studies – meaning they track subjects over a long period of time. So it could be alcohol consumption that leads to a healthy heart, but it could also be a lifetime of strength training, athletics, and good food choices. At the end of the day, you can build a healthy heart on a steady diet of grapes and 800 meter runs (among other things).
On an interesting note, studies have shown that most people underestimate their alcohol intake. Since different drinks contain varying percentages of alcohol, several glasses of wine a week along with a weekend happy hour can actually classify you as a “heavy drinker” based on the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
It’s the Inside that Counts
This is where we can start to look at alcohol and weight gain. For one, studies have shown that alcohol can convert testosterone into estrogen. It helps to think that testosterone helps build muscle and burn fat while estrogen can cause fat storage. This is especially true for beer, since beer is made from hops and those hops can be very estrogenic.
In an interesting study, it was shown that alcohol can impair the effects of a good workout. After you get done circuit training, your body goes through a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS helps repair damaged muscle so you can recover from exercise. It also causes your metabolism to elevate. A study was done in which subjects were given alcohol, protein, or a combination of both after a workout. The alcohol/protein combination was found to have a 24% reduction in MPS compared to the protein group (1).
To some, that might not sound like too much of a sacrifice. But let’s dig a little deeper.
Body Composition: It’s estimated that there’s a relationship between increased alcohol intake and increased calorie consumption. There’s also the case that many may drink in replacement of food, leading to loss of muscle and increase in bodyfat. According to Precision Nutrition, a higher alcohol intake correlates to a higher BMI in men.
Nutrient Absorption: Alcohol can block the absorption of different nutrients, like B vitamins and certain amino acids. Blocking amino acids can once again mess with that little thing called protein synthesis, and lacking in B vitamins can affect your body’s ability to produce energy during a workout.
Your Digestive System: Your pancreas doesn’t like alcohol; as a response, it won’t release enzymes that help breakdown protein and fat. Alcohol can also mess with insulin sensitivity, which is a huge issue with fat storage and can lead to obesity.
What to Do with This Information
As you can see, the scoop on alcohol isn’t what some think: it’s not exactly like you can say “if I drink XXX amount of drinks, I’ll gain XXX amount of weight.” Alcohol will have different effects on different people, based on:
Your body size and age
Your genetic tolerance
The type of alcohol you consume
Other factors (foods you eat, how frequently you train)
With that being said, you also have to assess your current lifestyle. A couple of drinks per week is probably nothing that will affect long term progress, but if you have to be honest with that assessment of how much you consume. As you can see, a week in, week out consumption of it can affect your hormone profile, digestive enzymes, and protein metabolism. If your goal is to excel at your own performance level and reach ideal body composition, it may be best to make some cutbacks to you consumption. Some things that you can do:
-Treat alcohol like cheat days – pick your one or two days to have a drink (if going out two days, then one drink a day).
-If consumption is more frequent, it may be wise to cutdown in small increments, like 25%. So if you have ten drinks a week, cut down to 8. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s a start, and going cold turkey with anything never usually helps.
-Avoid having alcohol at the house, and take limited cash with you if you do go out (although a lack of funds might not stop the female clients from an endless line of guys offering to buy them a drink).
-If you plan on not drinking for a day, then simply don’t hang out with people who want to drink. Social settings can have a huge impact on what you put in your body.
If you have any questions, remember to schedule your nutrition session. As a UEFP client, your nutrition sessions are already included with your personal training service.
In the meantime, keep working towards those goals!
1. Parr, E.B., Camera, D.M., et al. “Alcohol Ingestion Impairs Maximal Post Exercise Rates of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Following a Single Bout of Concurrent Training.” (2014) PLoS One 9;2: e88384