Ask the Expert: Will Drinking Alcohol Hurt My Results?
When it comes to getting fit and healthy, alcohol is one of the first things you’re told to eliminate from your diet. Yet studies regularly show that those who drink live longer and healthier lives than those who don’t. So, what’s the deal? Is alcohol a magic potion for a long and healthy life, or is your fitness the only thing it’s going to take the edge off?
The consumption of alcohol in some form or another has been around since the first caveman left some fruit in the sun too long, causing it to ferment (what a crazy night around the fire that was). Since we’ve always had it and, if history is any indication, we always will, we should have a strategy about how to use it.
What is alcohol?
Alcohol starts out healthy enough, as a plant, where it’s the byproduct of the decaying process (fermentation). Although it’s technically a depressant, its effect on the human body manifests as making you feel giddy, powerful, and awesome on the dance floor. And because it’s natural, you know, like tobacco and opium, it’s got to be good, right? Oh, wait. Maybe not.
And just like other natural things, the food industry has found unnatural ways to create alcohol that tend to be cheaper and even less healthy. But, I’m nitpicking because ultimately alcohol is alcohol. You’re going to get hammered whether you drink Night Train or single-malt Scotch—although all the chemicals in the rotgut might give you a worse hangover.
And for you out there who think you’re beating the system with your Diet Coke and rum, alcohol has calories. A lot of them. At 7 calories per gram, alcohol has more calories by volume than both carbs and proteins and slightly less than fats. (Plus, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Medicine, drinking diet soda with alcohol could get you drunk faster.)
More importantly, these calories have no food value. That’s right. Nada. Zilch. You’re adding calories to your diet, the only performance-enhancing quality of which is to help you brag about yourself down at the pub.
The big question people usually ask me is whether or not they should drink alcohol while doing a fitness program or boot camp-style training plan. When you’re trying to change your body, the crux is making the nutritional switch from high-calorie/low-nutrient foods to low-calorie/high-nutrient foods. Since alcohol is a very high-calorie/no-nutrient food, you can see why it doesn’t rank very high on the list of healthy choices.
Keep in mind that we’re not telling you to abstain from alcohol forever. We’re advising you cut down on it—or completely cut it out—while you’re trying to transform your body.
What about all the studies showing alcohol is good for you?
The lifestyle studies that show up on the wires almost ubiquitously champion alcohol consumption because moderate drinkers always outlive everyone else. In fact, one major study showed that even excessive drinkers lived longer than teetotalers. There is no scientific surface explanation as to why this would be the case, so most experts chalk it up to lifestyle. Those who drink tend to be less stressed about life, in general, and stress is intricately linked to shorter life spans.
This is why our nutrition guides also generally give parameters for moderate drinking. If it makes you happy then, by all means, don’t quit. Just learn to be a healthy drinker.
But as I said above, when you’re doing one of our programs, the rules of nutrition shift slightly. You’re pushing your body harder, so it behooves you to keep nutrition tiptop. Furthermore, if you can’t go 90 days without a drink, you might want to consider your relationship with alcohol. It is, after all, an addictive substance.
The Dark Side of Drinking
And on that topic, alcohol has a dark side beyond calories. It can easily lead to an excessive path. If you’re a clever writer, you might make a nefarious career out of being a boozer, but it wreaks havoc on most of us.
Behavioral issues aside, let’s take a quick look at how alcohol can add up from a dietary perspective. A 12-ounce beer is about 150 or so calories. Ditto a 5-ounce glass of wine. One shot (1.5 oz) of the straight stuff has between 85 and 115 calories, depending on what proof it is.
Unfortunately we tend to have more than that one serving. Often a lot more. Those longevity studies give the best numbers to folk who have 1–2 drinks a day, not those taking the Silver Bullet Express to every sporting event on TV.
When you pound a twelver during a weekend double-header, you’ve done serious dietary damage. Factor in that in our tendency to offset a drunken state-of-grace with greasy indulgences and it’s easy to see how Monday Night Football at Cheers might result in unnecessary roughness. And despite the advice you’ll get on Good Morning America, a quick jog the next day is not going to fight the beer belly you’ll get from those binges.
So the short answer here to whether it’s okay to drink when you’re working out is, “Sure. In moderation.” If you don’t already drink, I don’t think you need to start, but if you’re already a drinker, limit your intake and take the occasional time off, especially if you’re into a serious training cycle.
Do that, and I’ll raise a glass to you!