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The truth about alcohol, fat loss and muscle growth

Die Wahrheit über Alkohol, Fettabbau und Muskelwachstum

I've been getting a ton of questions lately about alcohol and fat loss. This happens every year when the summer season starts - parties, clubs, vacations and all that stuff. Alcohol is a key ingredient. What people want to know is basically how much alcohol can make you fat, how it can affect protein synthesis, how they can plan it into their diet and what they should be drinking when they go out partying.

I think this is an interesting topic to look into - not least because most people in the health and fitness world tend to miss out on a lot of fun as they try to avoid alcohol. I know a lot of people who would rather stay at home and look after their diet than go out and have a few drinks. It's really sad because it's for the wrong reasons.

I don't blame these people. Read through the bodybuilding and fitness magazines or listen to the "experts" and you will quickly believe that a few drinks will make your muscles collapse, make you impotent and give you a fat paunch. Of course, most of this is complete nonsense. But none of this is surprising when we're dealing with mainstream fitness fanatics who couldn't even put things into perspective if their lives depended on it.

This article is meant to serve as an overview of the effects of alcohol on all things that might interest someone interested in optimizing their body composition. And at the end of this article, I will show the reader how even a hopeless binge drinker like myself can stay lean despite regular alcohol consumption.

Alcohol and thermogenesis

There is an ongoing debate about whether or not alcohol calories count (1). This debate has been sparked by the fact that drinkers weigh less than non-drinkers (2) and studies have observed accelerated fat loss when fat and carbohydrates are replaced by an equivalent amount of calories in the form of alcohol. The link between lower body weight and moderate alcohol consumption is particularly strong in women. In men, this link is neutral or weak, but it is there.

How can this be explained given the fact that alcohol is second only to fat in terms of energy density per gram of all nutrients? Not to mention that alcohol is consumed in the form of liquid and that liquids do not contribute much to satiety.

The calorie content of alcohol is given as 7.1 kcal per gram, but the real value is more in the region of 5.7 kcal per gram due to the thermal effect of food (TEF), which is around 20% of the calories in alcohol (3). This puts alcohol in second place in terms of thermal effect only just behind protein, which has a thermal effect of 25 to 30% depending on the amino acid composition. The increased thermogenesis resulting from alcohol consumption is at least partly mediated by catecholamines (4).

Is a higher thermogenic effect a viable explanation for the lower body fat percentage of people who regularly consume alcohol? We must take into account that alcohol does not affect satiety like other nutrients. The inhibition of impulse control associated with increased alcohol consumption can also result in increased calorie intake. Have you ever come home from a party in the middle of the night and wolfed down an entire box of breakfast cereal? That's what I mean.

It is unlikely that the effects of alcohol on body weight in the general population can be attributed solely to the thermic effect. An alternative explanation is that alcohol consumption reduces food intake in the long term (6).

Another explanation is that regular alcohol consumption affects nutrient partitioning in a desirable way by improving insulin sensitivity.

Alcohol, insulin sensitivity and health

Moderate alcohol consumption improves insulin sensitivity (7), lowers triglyceride levels (8) and improves glycemic control - not only in healthy people but also in type 2 diabetics (9). There is no clear consensus on the mechanisms underlying alcohol's improvement in insulin sensitivity, but one possible explanation could be that alcohol promotes thinness by stimulating AMPK in skeletal muscle (10). It is not far-fetched to suggest that this could have desirable effects on nutrient partitioning in the longer term.

If the effects of alcohol on insulin sensitivity don't impress you, then you should consider the fact that studies have consistently shown that people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol live longer than those who don't (11). This can mainly be attributed to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. However, alcohol can also contribute to a healthier and disease-free life, as it can protect against Alzheimer's (12), metabolic syndrome (13), rheumatoid arthritis (14), the common cold (15), various types of cancer (16), depression (17) and many other diseases of the Western world - and the list goes on and on.

It can be said almost without a doubt that moderate alcohol consumption is healthier than complete abstinence. With this information in mind, it is strange that the fitness and health community rejects alcohol. This irrational attitude seems to be based on the view that alcohol makes you fat and hinders muscle gains. So let's take a look at these claims.

Alcohol, hormones and training

You've probably heard that alcohol lowers testosterone levels. Even if this is true, the actual effect is greatly exaggerated. A three-week study in which men and women consumed 30 to 40 grams of alcohol per day showed a 6.8% reduction in testosterone levels in men at the end of the study period, while no changes in testosterone levels were observed in women (18). This equates to three beers a day for three weeks with a measly 6.8% reduction in testosterone levels in men. What effect do you think a few beers in the evening once or twice a week would have? Probably next to none.

To achieve a significant reduction in testosterone levels, you would need to consume serious amounts of alcohol. 120 grams of alcohol, which is equivalent to about 10 beers, will lower testosterone levels by 23% for up to 16 hours after binge drinking (19). If you drink so much that you end up in hospital, you'll achieve a similar effect with a reduction in testosterone levels of around 20% (20).

A few studies have looked at alcohol consumption during the post-workout phase. One study looked at the hormonal response to post-workout alcohol consumption, which was 70 to 80 grams of alcohol, equivalent to about 6 to 7 beers (21). So much for "optimizing" nutrient timing. However, despite this heavy drinking binge immediately after training, no effects on testosterone levels and only a very small effect on cortisol levels were observed. The latter was to be expected due to the effects of alcohol on catecholamines. A quote from this paper summarizes the scientific findings regarding the effects of alcohol on testosterone levels as follows:

Although the majority of studies conducted with humans have failed to observe an effect of ethanol on serum levels of luteinizing hormone (LH), some have observed an increase, while others support a reduction.

Koziris LP, et al (2000)

It seems as though the fitness mainstream, which most intensely promotes the "alcohol lowers testosterone levels" myth, has been cherry-picking the studies that support this claim. Well, that's not really much of a surprise. We've seen similar things very often in the past with meal frequency and countless other nutrition myths.

When it comes to recovery after strength training, moderate alcohol consumption (60 to 90 grams of alcohol) does not increase exercise-induced muscle damage (22) or impair muscle strength (23).

However, the study situation on this topic is somewhat mixed. One study, in which only very brutal eccentric training was used, followed by alcohol consumption in the range of 80 grams of alcohol (1 gram per kilogram of body weight), was able to observe impaired regeneration of the trained muscles (24). In this context, it should be noted that recovery takes longer after eccentric training and that the volume used in this study was quite insane.

Another study looked at exhaustive endurance training followed by alcohol consumption in the range of 120 grams (1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight) and observed significant reductions in testosterone levels that lasted until the next day (25).

The commonality in these two studies is that either extremely brutal training or unusually high alcohol consumption after training was used. As long as you don't make a habit of going from bar to bar all night after 50 eccentric repetitions of leg extensions until muscle failure, these studies shouldn't apply to you. And yet, it's studies like these that raise eyebrows among members of the fitness movement who are adamantly against alcohol.

And what about protein synthesis? Strangely, there is virtually no data in the scientific literature on the acute effects of alcohol on muscle protein synthesis in normal people. These effects have only been studied in chronic alcoholics, who have a reduced rate of muscle protein synthesis from the outset. Chronic alcoholic myopathy, which causes muscle loss, is an adverse side effect of alcohol abuse (26). However, one study also showed that alcoholics who did not suffer from myopathy had a lower body fat percentage and the same amount of lean muscle mass as people who did not drink alcohol (27). So much for the claim that alcohol will make your muscles shrink.

If you attach any value to studies done with rats, then it's clear that alcohol negatively affects protein synthesis. But then again, the results of rat studies are almost never directly applicable to human physiology. There are profound differences in the way humans and rats handle macronutrients and toxins (28).

Alcohol and fat storage

Let's take a quick look at how nutrients are stored and burned after a mixed meal:

  1. Carbohydrates and protein suppress fat oxidation via an increase in insulin levels. However, these macronutrients themselves do not contribute to fat synthesis to any significant extent.
  2. Since fat oxidation is suppressed, dietary fats are stored in fat cells.
  3. As the hours pass and insulin levels drop, fat is released from the fat cells. Fat storage is an ongoing process and fatty acids continuously enter and leave fat cells throughout the day. Net fat accumulation is more or less dictated by calorie intake and calorie expenditure.

If we now add alcohol to this mix, it takes immediate priority in the substrate hierarchy (29): alcohol slows down fat oxidation but also suppresses carbohydrate and protein oxidation (30).

This makes sense if one considers that the metabolic waste product acetate of alcohol is toxic. Metabolizing this toxic waste product is therefore a top priority. The following quote summarizes the metabolic fate of alcohol quite well:

"Ethanol (alcohol) is metabolized into acetate in the liver. An unknown proportion of this is then activated to acetyl-CoA, but only a small proportion is converted to fatty acids.

Most of the acetate is released into the bloodstream where it affects peripheral tissue metabolism. The release of non-esterified fatty acids from fat cells is reduced and acetate replaces lipids in the energy fuel mix (31)."

Hellerstein MK, et al (1999).

Acetate itself is an extremely poor precursor for fat synthesis. There is simply no metabolic pathway that can produce fat from alcohol with useful efficiency. Studies on fat synthesis after substantial alcohol consumption in humans are non-existent, but Hellerstein (31) estimated de novo lipogenesis after alcohol consumption to be about 3%. Thus, only a meager 0.8 grams of fat were synthesized in the liver from the 24 grams of alcohol consumed in this study.

The effects of alcohol on fat storage are quite similar to those of carbohydrates: by suppressing fat oxidation, alcohol facilitates the storage of dietary fats. However, while conversion of carbohydrate to fat may occur once glycogen stores are saturated, de novo lipogenesis via alcohol consumption appears less likely.


  • Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a variety of health benefits. The long-term effects on insulin sensitivity and body weight (via insulin or a reduction in appetite) may be of particular interest to us.
  • The thermic effect of alcohol is high and the true calorie content is not 7.1 kcal, but rather in the region of 5.6 kcal per gram. However, it is still easy to consume too many calories through alcohol consumption. Calorie for calorie, the short-term satiating effect of alcohol is low. In addition to this, increased alcohol consumption can also encourage overeating by disinhibiting dietary restrictions.
  • The negative effects of alcohol on testosterone levels and recovery are greatly exaggerated by the mainstream fitness movement. Apart from very high acute alcohol consumption or prolonged daily alcohol consumption, the effects are not significant and are unlikely to negatively affect muscle gains or training adaptations.
  • The effects of alcohol consumption on muscle protein synthesis are unknown in normal human subjects. It is not unlikely that a negative effect could exist, but it is very unlikely to be as strong as many people would have you believe.
  • Alcohol is converted into acetate by the liver. The oxidation of acetate takes precedence over the oxidation of other nutrients, with acetate being oxidized to carbon dioxide and water. However, even though alcohol is a potent inhibitor of lipolysis, alcohol/acetate alone cannot cause fat gain. Rather, it is all the junk that people consume in combination with alcohol that leads to fat gain.

How you can lose fat or prevent fat gain from alcohol consumption

Now that you know the effects of alcohol consumption on substrate metabolism, it's time for me to show you how you can make alcohol work for your fat loss - or alternatively - how you can consume alcohol regularly without putting on fat. And without having to count calories and you can drink as much as you want.

Use this method exactly as I have described it. If you have been paying attention, you will understand the underlying mechanisms. I have tested this method on myself and numerous clients. So you can be sure that I am not conducting a large-scale bizarre experiment here.

The rules are as follows:

  • Limit your fat consumption to 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight on this day (or at least stay as close to this value as possible).
  • Limit your carbohydrate intake to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. Consume all carbohydrates in the form of vegetables and the carbohydrates hidden in protein sources. At the same time, limit all carbohydrate-rich alcohol sources such as cocktails made with fruit juices and beer. A 330 ml glass of beer contains about 12 grams of carbohydrates, while a regular Cosmopolitan contains about 13 grams.
  • Good sources of alcohol include dry wines, which are very low in carbohydrates and provide only about 0.5 to 1 gram of carbohydrates per 100 ml. Sweet wines are much higher at 4 to 6 grams per 100 ml. Cognac, gin, rum, scotch, tequila, vodka and whisky are basically practically carbohydrate-free. Dry wines and high-proof drinks are what you should ideally be drinking. (However, there's no need to be super neurotic about this. Ultimately, you should enjoy your drinks. Just be aware that there are better and worse options).
  • Eat as much protein as you want - yes, that's right, there are no limits. Due to the limitation on dietary fats, you need to get your protein in the form of lean protein sources. Protein sources such as low-fat cottage cheese, protein powder, chicken, turkey, tuna and egg white are good sources of protein on this day.
  • For effective fat loss, this should be limited to one evening per week. Follow this protocol and you will lose fat on a weekly basis as long as your diet fits during the rest of the week.

Basically, the nutritional strategy I've outlined here is all about focusing on the substrates that are least likely to cause net fat synthesis during hypercaloric situations. Alcohol and protein, your primary macronutrients that day, are extremely poor precursors for de novo lipogenesis. Alcohol suppresses fat oxidation, but by depriving yourself of dietary fats that day, you will not store fat. Similarly, protein will not cause measurable de novo lipogenesis. A high protein intake will also compensate for the weak effect of alcohol on satiety and reduce the risk of ruining your diet if you drink alcohol.

A nice bonus after an evening of drinking is that alcohol effectively eliminates water retention. You can experience a water eliminating effect, which can be motivating for those who have reached a plateau in their fat loss efforts. Use this strategy with common sense. Remember that this is a short-term strategy* for those who would like to have a drink without significantly impacting their fat loss progress or causing unwanted fat gain. This is not something you should do on a daily basis, but it is one of the strategies I use to maintain a low body fat percentage for myself and my clients.

* Of course, you can always drink in moderate amounts and make sure you never go over your calorie budget for the day. But where's the fun in that? I prefer to trick the system with the kind of metabolic cheating I described above.


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