What Alcohol Does To Your Body Composition

There are numerous myths surrounding alcohol and the impacts it has on body composition and performance.

Alcohol will turn muscle into fat – untrue. These are two different types of tissue.

Alcohol contains almost as many calories as fat per gram – true. Alcohol contains 8 kcal per gram and fat contains 9 kcal per gram.

Alcohol makes me a better dancer – untrue. Enough said.

The reality is that alcohol has some place in most people’s lifestyle. It also has an impact on energy intake, exercise and recovery, and therefor must be considered when it comes to body recomposition goals.

The first point of call isn’t to remove alcohol completely from a client’s lifestyle. Quite often, people have already decided to take a break from alcohol when they are invested in body recomposition. However, this is their decision, not mine. Provided they control their current intake, we can start from there.

Read on to better understand alcohol and management strategies for body recomposition and how we do things at Integrated Fitness & Nutrition. 

 

Alcohol

Alcohol can be metabolised and provide usable energy. Each gram of energy contains 8 kcal of energy, which can be stored or burnt, just like carbohydrate, protein and fat.

One overlooked aspect of alcohol metabolism is the process it takes to convert alcohol (ethanol) to acetyl-coA, which can be used for energy. Unlike carbohydrates, protein and fats which simply require degradation to be used as fuel, alcohol must be converted to acetyl-coA through a series of reactions.

As a result, the thermogenic effect (energy required for the conversion) of alcohol is considerably higher than other nutrients. I have seen estimates from 40-80% of energy being lost during this process. For this reason, I don’t consider the energy content of alcohol to be the biggest concern for beginner-intermediate level clients.

 

Additives

What is more concerning are the additives – primarily sugar – added to beverages for flavour. Not many people are going to sip on vodka, so a highly-sweetened soft-drink or juice will often accompany these drinks.

A vodka lemonade mixer might look something like this:

  • Vodka (30m): 90 kcal from 10g alcohol
  • Lemonade (300ml) – 108 kcal from 27g carbohydrates.
  • Total: 198 kcal per drink.

Even if a large proportion of energy from the alcohol intake is lost, those 27g of sugars won’t be going anywhere. Now remember this is one drink – how many would you usually have on a night on?


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Direct impacts on body composition

Alcohol certainly doesn’t turn muscle into fat, but it can make it difficult to build muscle. Alcohol impairs muscle protein synthesis, which is responsible for the regeneration and continual turn over of muscle tissue in the body.

What happens a lot with young men is as follows. They train five times during the week, between Monday – Saturday. Friday night involves a few drinks after work and then Saturday is a bigger night on the town. They find that despite the amount of training and good nutrition, they cannot make much progress on the muscle building front.

Alcohol intake can often be limiting muscle protein synthesis at key recovery periods. The training is providing the stimulus for positive results, but the alcohol intake is impairing adaptation. Despite this, the amount of exercise and energy expenditure is enough to keep him in steady shape, without gaining any weight.

In the end, they don't gain fat, but they don't gain muscle either. It's a lot of hard work for very little reward. You might even know someone like this, who, despite partying a lot, still maintains a good physique. But think about this – are they making much progress for the amount of work they put it.

Now the decision for this guy is to decide what is his main priority. If he is already in good shape, he may very well choose to continue with what he is doing.

 

Indirect impacts on body composition

Exercise, sleep and nutrition can all be negatively impacted in an indirect manner.

If you are going to after-work drinks, there won’t be time for a gym session that afternoon. Likewise, if you have a few too many, tomorrow morning’s session might be cancelled as well.

Alcohol intake can disrupt sleep patterns – which seems like a pretty obvious thing to say (how many all-nighters do you pull sober?). This can also negatively impact exercise (too tired) and nutrition (hungry at different times) compared to your normal routine in the following days.

The inhibitory effect of alcohol can make some non-ideal nutrition choices seem very tempting. An extra portion/dessert at dinner, obligatory pizza/burger/street food before you go to sleep and a greasy breakfast can really add up... a lot!

You could easily hit an extra 3000-4000kcals in those three meals alone, not even considering energy intake from drinks. If you are focusing on a weight loss or body recomposition goal, could be your weekly energy deficit gone in 18 hours or so…

 

The Integrated Approach

We ask our clients about alcohol intake – drinks, frequency and volume. This provides a useful insight into non-food energy intake, which is useful for assessing their progress. Aside from that, we rarely do too much to alter intake in the early stages of body recomposition.

With regards to management, alcohol free days are a useful recommendation. However, like mentioned before, many clients are already restricting their alcohol intake at their own accord, as they want to maximise their own progress while working with us.

If progress is slowing and alcohol is viewed as a course, we can implement strategies to promote cutting back. Exercising in the evening has been a successful strategy we have previously used to reduce alcohol intake, as it gives the evening a purpose and non-alcoholic stress release from the days events.

Not everyone needs to cut down their alcohol intake to lose weight or achieve body recompositon goals. Yes, it might help, but it won't always be a limiting factor and it is often possible to make progress without doing so. So acknowledge alcohol as a nutrient and it's impacts, then manage it direct and indirect impacts accordingly.