By Debra Soufleris, B.S., DTR
You’ve cleaned up your diet. You’re being more active, and you’re even trying to get more sleep. All things you should be very proud of. However, you’re still not seeing the results you want. If you’re like many working professionals, you find yourself indulging at happy hour and on the weekends. Could it be that alcohol and workouts don’t mix?
As delightful as a glass of wine is after a long day, or enjoying a cocktail at happy hour with your coworkers, this habit might not be doing your body any favors. Let’s look at exactly what happens inside your body when you consume alcohol—and see if this habit is preventing you from reaching your goals.
Unlike other nutrients, most alcohol is not broken down through traditional digestion. It moves much faster and takes shortcuts along the way; essentially, your body gives it priority status over other nutrients. Alcohol moves directly through the stomach lining and wall of the small intestines and straight into the bloodstream. If you haven’t eaten, the rate of absorption is even faster, roughly about twenty minutes. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have some food in your stomach before drinking to help slow down the rate of absorption.
Blood alcohol levels depend on the amount of alcohol consumed over a period of time, as well as body composition, body size, metabolism, gender, and medications. A healthy liver can detoxify alcohol at about one-half ounce per hour. Therefore, having just two regular-sized drinks per hour could take about two to three hours for your body to process.
Additionally, the effects of alcohol on women are much more potent than men. (Sorry ladies.) This is partly due to body size and metabolism, but also because the enzyme (alcohol dehydrogenase) that helps metabolize alcohol is less active in women, and more alcohol gets absorbed in the small intestines. As a result, women are at greater risk for problems related to alcoholism. Some practical advice would be to drink slow enough for your liver to keep up—which equates to about one standard-sized drink per hour.
When it comes to alcohol and exercise, if you drink regularly, over time, the extra empty calories could affect weight loss goals and muscle performance. Alcohol is dense in calories compared to other macronutrients; alcohol provides 7 calories per gram, whereas carbs and protein provide 4 calories per gram, and fat provides 9 calories per gram. In addition, alcohol provides very little, if any, nutrients and can inhibit other nutrients from being absorbed. In the case of muscle performance, alcohol inhibits calcium from being absorbed in the muscle cells, which can lead to cramping.
The excess calories also depend on other ingredients mixed into your alcohol, like sugary sodas and syrups added to mixed drinks and fancy cocktails. Some drinks like margaritas or piña coladas can have a whooping 500 calories—and tons of added sugar. If you drank one 6-pack of beer on a given day, that would amount to approximately 900 extra calories to your daily total. You can see how quickly the calories add up—which may not be aligned with your goals. You’re much better off sticking with spirits diluted with plain soda water, beer, or wine to help keep the extra calories under control. Or, try more of a healthy cocktail recipe (or rather, less unhealthy).
So, what can you do? Frankly, I believe alcohol can still fit into a healthy lifestyle—as long as it’s kept in moderation. Whether you drink alcohol after a workout or the day before, moderation is always key. According to the 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guideline for Americans, that means 1 drink for the ladies per day and 2 for the guys, for most healthy people. When preparing for a social event that involves alcohol, try to plan ahead and consume some good fats and lean proteins, to help slow the rate of absorption. If you drink more than one cocktail at an event, pace yourself to no more than 1 alcoholic drink per hour, and drink a glass of water in between rounds to help prevent dehydration.
Finally, focus on the people around you and enjoy the conversation—rather than just the food and drinks. You will probably get a better night’s rest and be more motivated to work out the next day. Excessive alcohol and workouts don’t go well together. All it takes is a bit of pre-planning and knowledge to keep your drinking in check—and to keep it from derailing your fitness goals.