Alcohol and fitness. It’s a touchy subject for a lot of trainers and coaches, many of whom tell you it’s bad for you and will completely ruin your hard work in the gym and kitchen– because it’s ‘empty calories’ or will ‘wreck your hormones.’
Well fortunately for those of us who like to enjoy a pint with our mates, or a glass of wine with dinner, they are wrong.
What is alcohol?
Drinking alcohol (ethanol) is a naturally occurring short chain alcohol, generally formed from the fermentation of sugars/grains by yeasts and other micro-organisms in the absence of oxygen (it is a similar process to anaerobic respiration in humans that produces lactic acid). It is most commonly found in overly ripe/rotting fruit.
Contrary to any belief, fermentation and rotting of fruit are separate processes.
Ripening of the fruit is caused by plant growth hormones; these convert the natural starches (long chain carbohydrates) into sugars (short or ‘simple’ carbohydrates). These sugars are metabolised by different micro-organisms and fungi/mould (usually introduced by insects, animals or another mechanical means such as wind) which cause decomposition (rotting). Some yeasts produce alcohol (an antiseptic) as a by-product of fermentation; this has the advantage of killing off competing micro-organisms allowing the yeast to thrive.
Alcohol is toxic to mammals as it causes depression (slowing) of the central nervous system, but because it occurs naturally, regularly appears in the food chain. If mammals or other organisms were unable to metabolise (break down) alcohol sufficiently, it would build up within their system, resulting in eventual death from alcohol poisoning (it would also accumulate a higher concentrations further up the food chain – think back to your science lessons where you learned about the pesticide DDT and its effect on the food chain).
Therefore organisms that were able to metabolise alcohol safely and efficiently would be more likely to survive and pass on these advantageous characteristics, according to Darwin’s theory of Natural selection (1859).
The family of enzymes expressed through evolution are alcohol dehydrogenases. These enzymes are present at high concentrations in the liver and stomach lining of humans and on many other animals/organisms, allowing them to efficiently metabolise alcohol.
A quick social history of alcohol:
As you can take from the above alcohol has been a natural- and common- part of the food chain for many animals. Including humans.
And we loved alcohol so much, we started to make more of it ourselves! There is archaeological evidence for the social production and consumption of alcohol dated as back as far as the 7th millennia BC in China and 3rd millennia BC in the Middle East and Europe.
Back then it was then consumed as part of social rituals and celebrations but now, due to the increase in quality and availability, alcohol is now more frequently enjoyed for its taste. But how does it affect us?
Effects of alcohol:
Unfortunately, the fitness industry is full of people that love to take extreme views on nutrition and training – often backed by no (or postulated) science. They extrapolate these ideas from; if a little of something is good for you, you should have loads of it and if a lot of something is bad for you, you should have none of it.
The second point has been applied to alcohol consumption.
I am not going to sit here and say chronic alcohol abuse is healthy and won’t affect your training- because we all know it will. It leads to decreased performance in the gym and impaired recovery between sessions. But I am going to bust the mountain of hormone myths people quote as to why you shouldn’t drink alcohol:
Alcohol will cause your testosterone levels to drop.
FALSE. Low doses of alcohol have been shown to increase serum testosterone.
Alcohol will cause your growth hormone levels to drop.
I cannot find a paper categorically stating that the above is untrue, but increases in growth hormone levels are associated with increases in alcohol dehydrogenase (the enzyme that breaks down alcohol), which seems converse to that statement.
Alcohol will increase your cortisol levels.
FALSE. There is no difference in cortisol levels before and after a low dose of alcohol.
Alcohol will impair your sleep and recovery.
FALSE. Low doses of alcohol have been shown to improve sleep efficiency.
But the most remarkably, there is no difference between the hormone levels of healthy individuals and those of chronic alcoholics.
Therefore, EVEN IF short-term hormone fluctuations (within the physiological level) affected muscle growth or fat loss, a low dose of alcohol would have very little adverse effect – in fact, it would likely have positive effects!
As for the health effects, a low-to-moderate dietary alcohol intake actually has a beneficial properties.
So why are coaches and trainers adamant you should be teetotal?
Because some like to take extreme views on health and fitness, or worse, are too lazy to do their own research around alcohol so adopt these extreme views as their own!
But alcohol can make you fat, like ANY FOOD can, because it contains calories. Adding surplus calories- from any food- to your diet will slow the rate at which you lose, or cause you to gain additional, body fat. But luckily, if we stick to our macros we can easily build small amounts into your diet.
How to build alcohol into your diet:
For example, if I wished to have an alcoholic beverage with my meal that had the macros of:
40g Protein, 50g Carbohydrates, 20g Fats (total 540kcal).
First of all, I would look at the total kcal in the drink. In this case, my beer has 100kcal in it.
I would therefore have to reduce the kcal in my meal to 440kcal to avoid going over my total kcal.
This means reducing the amount (macros) of carbohydrates and fats I am about to also eat.
Carbs have an energy density of 4kcal per gram, I would have to remove 25g of carbs from the meal to offset the beer I am also having.
Fats have an energy density of 9kcal per gram, I would have to remove 11g of fat from the meal to offset for the beer I am also having.
We like to strike a middle ground removing some carbs and some fats- 14g of carbs and 5g of fat (total 101kcal).
So our new meal will look like this:
40g Protein, 36g Carbohydrates, 15g Fats and my delicious beer (total 540kcal).
A lot more fun than just rice, tuna and nuts!
But remember, we don’t condone excessive or binge drinking- it is about enjoying things in moderation. And never drink before you go to the gym!
We believe that the gym should be part of your life, and not dominate your whole life- ultimately you shouldn’t feel less dedicated, or made to feel belittled, if you would like a drink every so often. Achieving sustainable balance is the key to a healthy and enjoyable lifestyle, and ultimately progress in and outside the gym!
As always tweet your feedback to @LDN_Muscle and @LB_LDNM.