The Alcohol Guide

Andy MorganDiet & Nutrition, Diet Theory138 Comments

Alcohol diet fat loss

Update 17th March 2014: Rules for moderate drinking are best summarised in the more recent article, The Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance #2 – Macros, Fibre & Alcohol.

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I’m often asked by clients, “How can I drink and not screw up my diet?”

Good question…

I believe the best diet is the one you can keep in the long-term. Plan for the ‘screw-ups’ and make them work for you.

I never say “No!” to alcohol with my clients diets. It’s not realistic. It will set them up for failure, because once they have one beer, they decide, “I’ve already screwed up so I may as well have 10.” Which combined with the ‘drunken munchies’, means game over.

Beer, shots, margarita’s; they can all be ok. Following a few rules could save you.

But, first…

Things you need to understand

  1. Eating more calories than you need (maintenance calories) makes you fat.
  2. Alcohol itself does not make you fat, but it does have calories.
  3. Fat will only make you fat when you eat over your maintenance calories for the day.
  4. Alcohol calories take priority as fuel for your body over fat-stores and glycogen. This is because the by-product of alcohol metabolism, acetate is toxic. So when you drink, fat burning stops until you burn those calories off.
  5. Drinking can push you over your calorie budget for the day. This causes some, or all of the dietary fat you ate for this day to be stored as body-fat, depending on how much over your maintenance calories you drank.

Alcohol calories are empty calories. They can’t help you recover or build muscle, but they can fuel you for moving around etc. Alcohol calories will still count to the weekly overall calorie balance and thus will help determine whether you lose or gain weight.

Now, when running a calorie deficit recovery becomes an issue. To use alcohol calories (instead of say, carbs) to make up your calorie budget you’re stealing from the band-aid drawer so to speak. In moderation it’s not so much of an issue, especially when bulking.


Once a week moderate to ‘hard’ drinking

Plan carefully and don’t go over your maintenance calories you can drink any alcohol and still lose weight. Problem? -Counting calories isn’t very fun when you’re in the middle of a party.

So, on days that you know you are going to really drink:

  1. Keep that day very low fat. – Drinking too much (meaning over maintenance calories) will cause you to store only the fat you ate in your diet this day. Fat burning will be halted, but no other punishment besides the hangover.
  2. Eat your protein for the day to preserve muscle mass (lean sources such a chicken, egg whites, casein protein) and restrict carbs to veggies.
  3. Drink shots, dry red wines (they are lower carb), and zero-calorie mixers (I like Coke Zero and Jack) in whatever quantities you want, and don’t feel guilty.

Q. What about drinking beer?

If you want to drink mostly beer then employ the first two strategies above. But bear in mind that you will store all dietary fat consumed on this day.

Q. So are you saying I can drink zero-carb alcoholic drinks on my rest days and it’s no problem?

Alcohol has calories. When you start drinking, you start eating into the calorie deficit that we have created. The more you drink, the less fat you burn, and when the alcohol calories push you over maintenance calories for the day, you’ll start storing the dietary fat you ate on this day. So no. Best case, it’ll halt your diet.

If you follow those few rules and keep it to one a week you won’t ruin your diet or hard-earned body.


Drinking in moderation a few times a week

Q. Can I have a large glass of wine or beer with a meal a few times a week?

Any amount of alcohol will blunt lipolysis (fat burning). In a mixed diet with alcohol, total calorie intake is what matters. If you want to drink on a regular basis (more than once a week) then you will need to make other adjustments in your diet.

Q. Training day or rest day?

Rest day is preferred as the other macros can be adjusted easier without negative effects.

Q. Why not a training day?

On a training day we eat a calorie surplus making the likelihood of the fat eaten on this day being stored, high. Adding alcohol calories to the mix will just make this fat storage inevitable as it will push us even more over budget.

Q. So can I just reduce my carbs then on the training day? What “negative effects”?

I have made reference to drinking beer on a training day before. This is actually a little misleading as a long-term strategy.

If we take away some carbs to make up for the alcohol calories (7kCal per gram) then (simply put) we’re taking away part of the body’s ability to recover, replenish glycogen and build muscle, which is the main purpose of the surplus calorie training day. We don’t really want to do this, thus ideally alcohol will be avoided on a training day.

Q. So what adjustments should I make on rest days?

We don’t want to decrease our protein as this is necessary for maintaining muscle mass.

We don’t want to reduce our vegetable intake as it slows the digestion of the protein, which is good for maintaining muscle mass. Also the fibre in it helps us to defecate, which can become a problem on low carb diets. This is a good reason not to reduce fruit consumption too much either as fruit contains fibre.

Thus this leaves us with the option to reduce starchy carb intake (which may be very low already for those on a diet), fruit intake, or fat intake in proportion to the calories in the drinks.

Q. How many calories in ‘x’ and how does this equate with the simplified rules?

I do not want to encourage you to drink on a regular basis (read: more than once a week), because it starts messing with the macro balance and makes you more likely to do something stupid (i.e. eat a lot of snacks at the bar). -Trust me on this, I see it a lot.

This then is the only thing I will say further on the issue: You will need to maintain your calorie balance by decreasing the macros from those three sources mentioned above (fruit, fat intake or the starchy carbs for the day).

Don’t ask me for calculations or substitution rules.

Q. Ok just one, please? If my rest day fat intake is ~60 grams, and I intend to have 2 glasses of wine with dinner, how do change the fat intake to make up for it?

Fair question.

So you’re using my simplified rules. They make your life easier but they make that fat figure a conservative estimate. There’s little point using those simple rules to then get painful about calculating how many grams of fat equals one or two glasses of wine in calories. (Sure, do that if you want, but I’m not going to do the maths for you.)

What we can do which is much simpler is to reduce the consumption of the “fatty meat”  on this day. So let’s say for example I have asked you on your rest day to eat 500g of the meat consumed on this day as coming from the “fattier” category. To reduce the fat consumption on this day without counting then just halve the fatty meat consumption (250g) and eat the rest from a very lean source (i.e. Chicken breast, grilled but smothered with cracked pepper and BBQ sauce).

Does that equal 2 glasses of wine? I don’t know, or care really. – I want you to relax about things, and pick up the broad brush strokes rather than worry about the fine details of the  diet. It’s a good rule of thumb though.

Q. What about beer?

Absolutely possible, but I want you to educate yourself. Blanket rules won’t work here.

- Beer on a Training day: You can use some of the carbs from the beer to replenish glycogen stores. So you can replace some of your rice for the beer carbs, but you will store all of your consumed fat on this day. So if you do it, keep the fat very low (even lower than normal) on this day.

- Beer on a Rest day: You will need to make the alterations to your macros mentioned above.

Q. So when altering things do I just adjust for the beer carbs?

No, you need to take into account the alcohol calories also.

I had previously recommended that people take 20g out of the rice-cooker earlier in the day for every beer you want to drink in the evening. (Look up your favorite beer here.) However looking at little more closely than that, it is a guideline that needs to be taken with caution: As a very general guide, 500ml of beer is about 20g of carbs and has 250 calories.

20g of carbs is 80kCal, which means that there are 170 empty calories here. It should be easy to see that drinking beer will reduce your calorie deficit significantly if it is a rest day (you will have to adjust the other macro nutrients) and if it is a training day then it will push you well over maintenance and make you store all the dietary fat.

Q. From what meals would it be best to skip the carbs from?

-Training day: Keep the carbs in the post-workout meal as much as possible. Take away from the others.

- Rest day: Any meal is fine, though your carbs will probably be low anyway so you may have to adjust fat calories too.

Q. I like to drink vodka shots, 3-4 doubles a night. Is this ok?

There’s ~64kCal in a 1oz shot.

So 3-4 doubles is 384-512kCal. Combine that with one regular soda, (conservative estimate 200kCal) and it has cost you 1lb of fat not lost a week. (It doesn’t always quite work out this way but: 1lb of fat is about 3500kCal. 3500kCal/7 days is ~500 a day.)

Unfortunately you’re not going to be able to drink every day in the same way or it’ll screw things up. Yes we could subtract calories from the training day but then you’d risk not recovering properly because of the reduced carbs replaced by the nutritionally empty alcohol calories. -For this reason I wouldn’t recommend it.

Yes we could have a rule that you make the meat you eat on rest-days very lean so that your fat numbers for the day come down by ~30g which is 270kCal. But then you’re stuck eating boring chicken.

Fat isn’t going to be burned on the training day as we’re in a calorie surplus.

You could drink more on your rest day but if you do, you eat into the nice calorie deficit that we created on the rest days which is the time when we burn the body fat.

Those are the trade-offs.

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If you would like to understand the science behind this further so that you can plan your mischief a little more cleverly then I highly recommend this article over at Leangains.com.

Note: I’m not suggesting anyone ‘drink’ their calories on a regular basis. I’m just saying, you don’t have to let worries about your diet spoil your social life.

I hope you found this helpful and the update cleared things up.

138 Comments on “The Alcohol Guide”

  1. Pingback: É possivel ingerir álcool sem atrapalhar a dieta? Como?Dieta & Malhação

  2. FlexibleDieter

    Science based information, amazing page! glad theres people who wants to spread the good stuff!
    Cheers from the Dominican Republic!

  3. Simon

    Excellent article Andy, I’m a Geordie and we are probably just as bad as Scots if not worse haha! I’ve had good results with leangains in the past. I’m going to start the morning protocol as I train at around 5.30am with BCAAs either side of the workout. My eating window is around 12-8pm. I have my macros for training and non training days. I’m a weekend warrior drinking wise. I’m just struggling with where exactly to pinch the calories from, do I need to adjust only on the day I drink or could I lower other days to suit? It sounds to me like I’m best off eating only protein on a Saturday to cater for Saturday nights. Also, with me training early am and my eating window starting at 12.00, does this class as a higher carb training day…or should I eat more carbs the day before to stock up for the early morning workout? Does this make sense? One answer from you could save me a few weeks of wasting my time. Cheers.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Dieting into great shape while still getting hammered over the weekends, consistently every weekend is difficult, as you can wipe out an entire week’s deficit very easily by doing that. Sacrificing carbs or fats is only a short term solution, as it will lead to recovery issues. It is what it is, you probably want to curtail things for now.

  4. bob

    Hello :)
    I have a couple of questions on behalf of a friend.

    1) at a festival – say, 4 nights of crazy high drinking – will it put you back all your progress over the past few months?
    2) if you just didnt eat for the 3 /4 days and only drank alcohol would you avoid gaining weight
    [Lastly, your opinions on drugs and weight loss?]
    Thanks,
    _
    Bob

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Bob.
      1. Depends on how much progress your friend made over the last few months. You can gain a lot of water, but there are physical limits to the actual amount of fat one can gain in a few days. And if you’re drinking hard, you will simply not have the stomach for it.
      2. Probably. You’d lose muscle though. Not a practical suggestion.
      3. Stupid. If you don’t lose it in a sustainable way, you won’t maintain it.

      I’d highly encourage your ‘friend’ to stop thinking in extremes/ black & white. A little reading is all that is required to clear up the confusion here. Between this post and the post, The Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance – #2 Macros, Fibre & Alcohol, I have anyone covered that wants to put the effort in.

  5. Pingback: How To Count Macros, More Flexible Approach | RippedBody.jp

  6. Jase

    Hi Andy,

    Just a quick question on drinking on training days.
    As per the rules I would keep fat low and eat my my protein for the day. I’ve also seen on Martins site that he says to keep carbs from veggies and trace amounts in protein sources only. My question is, is getting the carbs from non starch veggies going to be enough for recovery? And would it be OK to include some fruits on these days? Possibly banana just post workout, but then keep rest of the days meals low carb?

    Cheers Mate,

    Jase

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Jase, I believe you’ve missed the point. Within the context of Martin’s article (i.e. referring to a heavy drinking situation, where calorie intake from alcohol will be large) the job you’re trying to do on this day is to minimise fat storage, minimise risk of muscle catabolism, yet still drink your face off. You compromise recovery on this one day.

      You want to keep your calorie intake for the day as low as possible. Protein intake is essential, veggies (leafy ones have very low calorie density) and are thus a good choice for satiety, and that is important so that you don’t find yourself at the kebab shop at 2am.

  7. Alain

    Why will all far be stored with beer as opposed to other beverages? is there no way to change this?

  8. Cody

    Andy, great stuff here.

    Question: Is it alright to eat lean protein while drinking? Say there is an event in which there is drinking is done early in the day(making it difficult to eat all the day’s protein before). As long as its something lean like chicken breast or casein, eating during/after drinking(while intoxicated) should not be a problem, right?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Right Cory. Refer to the nutritional hierarchy of importance pyramid. Timing is there in 4th.
      Did someone tell you that you can’t/shouldn’t eat after having had a drink?

      1. Cody

        You did mention that alcohol is our body’s priority fuel over fat and glycogen, but I was not sure if that also applied to protein as well.

        If not, then great. I don’t have to fear food(as long as its lean protein) while drinking.

        Cheers.

  9. Pingback: The Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance – #2 Macros | Rippedbody.jp

  10. Pingback: The Article on Drinking and Fitness That I Had to Write

  11. Walky

    Hi Andy,

    Amazing article, thank you for the clarity.

    Please let me know if I’m intruding here with this information but another thing I wanted to point out (and this may be dependent on where in the world you are) for everyone is that if folks can find a beer with no carbohydrates (there is one in Australia) then it could simply be considered amongst the ‘better’ choices to make if you prefer a beer (like myself) over a spirit or dry wine. Obviously the overall caloric intake still has to be considered in a surplus but no carbs is still no carbs if you like a beer and I’m sure if Australia manufactures one, the rest of the world would be doing something very similar. Just a thought for carbohydrate conscious individuals on a training day calorie surplus.

    Love the site Andy, one of my favourite references buddy and truly appreciate the time you’ve spent putting it together for us.

    1. Andy Morgan

      No carb beer eh? Thanks for the suggestion Walky. Actually taste like beer should though?

      1. Walky

        To be honest mate it gets poor reviews across the board from most local enthusiasts but I enjoy all kinds of beer and this one is no exception (it’s no Asahi or Sapporo though!).

        Perhaps it’s just me being grateful that I can enjoy a beer without having to calculate the carbohydrate macros and only account for alcoholic calories. Sometimes I’ve found it’s just a mental hurdle with carbohydrates despite calorie deficits being undoubtedly effective, add to that the metabolic pathways with alcohol and fat storage being less efficient than carbohydrate metabolism.

        Cheers again Andy, love your site mate.

  12. Pingback: What Makes A Good Diet Coach? |

  13. Mitch

    #5 says: “Drinking can push you over your calorie budget for the day. This causes some, or all of the dietary fat you ate for this day to be stored as body-fat, depending on how much over your maintenance calories you drank.”

    On the “depending on how much over maintenance” you drank: Let’s say the only thing you ingested on a drinking day was 4 tablespoons of olive oil or ~56 grams of fat (476 Calories). Then you drank a bottle of wine ~650 calories. So your total caloric intake was 1,126 calories in that day. Let’s further assume your maintenance level is 1,800 calories. How much, if any, of that would be stored as fat? It seems to me, none. This make sense?

    1. Andy Morgan

      None, you would lose fat because you are under maintenance. You missed the key word OVER in my point 5.

  14. Richard Gibbs

    Hey Andy, just saw a mistake wasn’t sure whether to read you or email you to let you know but since you updated the page

    “When I checked the mirror last night, I could have sworn my abs look harder than the week before (see above picture taken yesterday), and no it wasn’t due to dehydration.”

    There is no picture above and there was before I think?

    Feel free to delete comment after :p

  15. Alex

    My protein macros on rest days is 160g. Would the safest thing to do be to eat ONLY this protein amount (along with veggies for fibre) and leave it at that — zero carbs, zero fats — and assume the alcohol will up the calorie count for the day?

    Basically, since these rest/drinking days are a waste for fat-loss, there’s no point eating macros other than protein and alcohol, right?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Alex, everything I have to say on the topic is said above in the article or linked to bud. You’re asking me to give a black and white answer when the real one is gray.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Try and keep to your feeding window regarding food if you can within the rules states above. If that falls into the period that you are drinking then so be it.

  16. tehlolcat

    What about drinking in moderation? I can in terms of calories squeeze in a glass or two of red wine on rest days, knowing rougly how much that reduce my deficient for the day (not much). But you wrote “Any amount of alcohol will blunt lipolysis (fat burning).” So being tipsy is just as bad for lipolysis as being drunk as a M.F? Might as well have two-tree glasses while I’m at it, in case I already screwed up my fatburn that day…?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Put in simpler terms: The amount of alcohol you drink in calories, will reduce the fat burned for the day by that number of calories when in a deficit.

  17. Pingback: When is Cardio a Valid Tool for Fat Loss with Intermittent Fasting? | RippedBody.jp

  18. joe

    I’m trying to gain more muscle mass and beer slows the metabolism and I eat like a pig after. I gain muscle and a lil fat. How do I get a six pack again and stay ripped all still eating and drinking to maintain my mass?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Not quite sure I understand the question Joe. Everything I have to say on alcohol is above. Everything I have to say about dieting is written in the ~100 articles on the site. Maintenance is just finding a calorie balance when you have dieted into the position you want to be in.
      Beer does not slow the metabolism.

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