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.
- The guide has now been split into “Once a week moderate to ‘hard’ drinking” and “Drinking in moderation a few times a week.”
I’m often asked by clients, “How can I drink and not screw up my diet?”
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.
Things you need to understand
- Eating more calories than you need (maintenance calories) makes you fat.
- Alcohol itself does not make you fat, but it does have calories.
- Fat will only make you fat when you eat over your maintenance calories for the day.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- Eat your protein for the day to preserve muscle mass (lean sources such a chicken, egg whites, casein protein) and restrict carbs to veggies.
- 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.
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.
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.