I’m not much a drinker, but I do get these questions a lot: Is alcohol allowed? Do calories in alcohol count? If I do drink, is one drink better than another? What follows is a (fairly geeky) bio-chemistry lesson that will answer these questions in as much plain-english as I could muster. =)
If you’ve ever looked at the nutrition label on a bottle of pure Vodka, you’ll notice something interesting about the label… In 1 ounce serving, there’s 64 calories, 0 fat, 0 carbs, and 0 protein. On the surface, this makes absolutely NO sense! If there’s no fat, no carbs, and no protein, where do the 64 calories come from? And since there are no macro-nutrients, if I drink it, does it count towards my macronutrient goals / calorie goals, or not??
The answer is that alcohol is actually its own macro-nutrient category. (Yes, it turns out, there is a FOURTH category: carbs, fat, protein, AND alcohol!)… Alcohol is converted to calories at a ratio of 7.1 calories per gram. Except unlike carbs, fat, and protein, your body doesn’t have a storage mechanism for alcohol.
When you consume alcohol, your body responds by immediately converting the alcohol to energy. (Those 7.1 calories per gram we talked about earlier). And since there’s no storage mechanism, the alcohol-derived energy goes to the front of the line as it’s processed. (Yes, I know the idea of alcohol as energy seems counter-intuitive.. But calories are energy.. Obviously the effects of that energy are offset dramatically by the depressant effect on the neurological system… stay with me on this one..)
The up-side to this is that your body will not and cannot store the calories from alcohol as fat, no matter what. The downside is that if you have OTHER food in your stomach at the time you consume alcohol, THAT food gets pushed down the priority list and is more likely to be stored as fat, in the event that your body doesn’t need the energy derived from the food-calories. (Thus, the “calories-in, calories-out” rule has not been cheated — and the calories from alcohol do, in fact, count towards your daily numbers.).
One important side-note: most people don’t drink pure alcohol — they drink alcohol mixed with other, sugary beverages. A pina colada, for example, has about 1.5 oz of alcohol, and anywhere from 600 to 900 calories, depending on the recipe. (Yeah, they’re LOADED with sugar!!)… So unless you’re drinking PURE alcohol (or highly refined alcohol, such as vodka), the calories in the alcohol itself are the least of your problems.
BUT… if calories from alcohol have no storage mechanism, and there’s absolutely NO food in your stomach when you consume the alcohol (aside from the likelihood of getting drunk really quick), and you are consuming actual alcohol (not sugar / carbs), is there any downside from an energy / calorie perspective?
The answer: Probably not!! In fact, with the above information in mind, it is possible to prevent fat-gain completely (and still drink as much alcohol as you want) by following a few rules:
First, as noted above, this is referring to alcohol ITSELF and not the mixers that often accompany it. You will need to be mixing your alcohol with zero-calorie drinks, such as diet-soda, in order for this to work.
The rules are as follows:
- On the day you plan to drink, restrict your intake of fat to 0.15 grams per pound of body weight (or as close to this figure as possible). So if you weigh 200lbs, you should not at more than 27 fat-grams.
- Limit carbs to 0.75 grams per pounds of body weight. (So if you weigh 200lbs, you would not eat more than 150 carbs). All of your carbs should come from veggies and whatever carbs go with your protein sources. (And again, don’t drink anything that has carbs with it — such as beer, or sugary stuff).
- No carbs within about 3 hours of the time you plan to start drinking. (So if you plan to head out drinking around 9pm, don’t eat any carbs after about 6pm).
- Dry wines which are very low carb, at about 0.5-1 g per 4oz glass. (Sweet wines are typically loaded with carbs). Cognac, gin, rum, scotch, tequila, vodka and whiskey are all basically zero carbs. Take them straight or mixed with diet soda.
- Eat as much protein as you want (within your calorie limit, of course). However, because you’re watching your fat number, you need to get your protein from lean sources (low fat cottage cheese, protein powder, chicken, turkey, tuna, pork and egg whites are good sources of protein this day.)
- Don’t do this more than one evening a week.
This approach is about focusing on macronutrients that are least likely to cause fat-storage when you exceed your calorie limit. Alcohol suppresses fat oxidation, but by depriving yourself of dietary fat during alcohol consumption, you won’t be storing anything. Nor will protein cause any measurable fat storage. High protein intake will also help make you feel full (so you’re not drinking on a completely empty stomach) and make you less likely to blow your diet when you’re drinking.
By the way, a nice bonus after a night of drinking is that it effectively rids you of water retention. That in itself can be motivating for folks who’ve been experiencing a plateau in their weight loss.
Use good judgement. Don’t go do something stupid. Remember, this is a short-term strategy to being a social person a few nights a month without blowing up or circumventing fat-loss.