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Alcohol: Are There Health Benefits or is it Derailing your Fitness Goals?


We’ve all heard the research that a glass of wine everyday confers health (specifically cardiovascular) benefits. Although there is significant research to support this claim, some people have twisted the research in a way it was never intended. Some believe that if one glass of wine per day is beneficial, alcohol in general can’t be “too bad” for their health or fitness. After reading this, you may rethink your stance on how much even mild alcohol consumption can hinder exercise progress.

Moderate, Heavy and Binge Drinking Defined – You may be surprised!

“Moderate” drinking, according to the Center for Disease Control, is 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men (consumed each day, not averaged from weekly consumption).

“Heavy” drinking is more than 1 per day OR more than 7 per week.

“Binge” drinking is 4 drinks for women and 5 for men, in one sitting.


•Are you trying to adhere to a calorie goal/deficit? If so, like anything else, alcoholic drinks ALWAYS need to be budgeted for. What does this mean? If you have a drink, something else has got to go that day! Most people trying to lose weight don’t have 120+ calories to blow each day.

•Are you really being served only ONE serving (12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of liquor) ? Do you measure it at home to make sure? Do you think it’s measured in a restaurant/bar? Probably not. Being off by a ½ serving can mean an extra 50-120 calories you’re not counting. Done regularly, this adds up.

•Regular alcohol consumption suppresses fat oxidation in the body. When you consume alcohol, it is eventually converted to acetate in the body. Your body will use this source of energy first at the expense of using other forms (carbohydrate and fat) resulting in more fat storage. Studies have shown that for several hours after drinking, whole body biomarkers of fat burning drop by 73%!

•Alcohol reduces our inhibitions and can increase our appetite. You are likely to eat more than if you were not drinking.

Exercise/Calorie Expenditure

•Drinking can affect the intensity at which you exercise at the next day, which lowers calorie expenditure. Even very small amounts have been shown to have a negative effect on aerobic performance. Alcohol lowers muscular work capacity, decreases performance levels (e.g., slower running pace), impairs temperature regulation during exercises, and increases fatigue. As alcohol is absorbed by cells, it can disrupt the water balance in muscle cells, which alters the cell’s ability to produce energy for muscle contractions.

• If alcohol makes you less active the next day, you are essentially expending less calories, in terms of daily activities.

•When we eat food, our body expends calories to digest the foods we intake (it’s called the “thermic effect”). However, the thermic effect of calories is lost when consuming alcohol! Since alcohol is metabolized differently, we miss out on the calories that would be normally expended to digest other foods; thus, we reduce our calorie expenditure even more. For example: our body doesn’t burn the roughly 50 additional calories for every 300 calories or so of alcohol, because the thermic effect is lost.

Effects on Exercise Adaptations and Recovery

•Consuming alcohol in the hours after a workout can negate the physiological gains from that workout. Alcohol use diminishes protein synthesis, resulting in a decrease in muscle repair and muscle building (more soreness and less benefit from the workout). Even short term alcohol use can impede these muscular responses to exercise, which means a lower metabolic rate since muscle plays a critical role in metabolism.

•Alcohol reduces muscle glycogen storage (carbohydrate) by more than 15%. Muscle glycogen is your muscle’s energy and impacts your exercise performance. Post-exercise, your glycogen stores are depleted and need to be replenished. Alcohol will disrupt this process.

•Alcohol creates excess urine production and therefore contributes to dehydration, which decreases exercise performance and recovery.

•Alcohol consumption can disrupt sleep cycles, decreasing energy levels the next day and decreasing growth hormone release (HGH) by up to 70% , thus impairing recovery from workouts. Sleep deprivation suppresses normal hormonal levels, which results in decreased oxygen availability and consumption, therefore lowering endurance.

Health Effects

•Alcohol consumption is associated with a variety of health issues, including breast cancer, liver disease, and abdominal obesity, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. It also exacerbates hypertension because heavy alcohol consumption triggers release of certain stress hormones that constrict blood vessels, thereby increasing blood pressure.

•Alcohol consumption interferes with the process of glucose utilization. The pancreas secretes insulin and glucagon, which control blood glucose levels, and helps cells use the energy from the glucose. Alcohol can damage pancreatic cells, thus lowering the amount of circulating insulin and allowing blood sugar levels to elevate.

• If you’re counting calories and budgeting for those drinks, you’re missing out on the nutrients from the foods you would have eaten if you hadn’t budgeted for the alcohol.

Closing Thoughts

While there could be potential benefits to small amounts of alcohol consumption, the data is mixed. In fact, the Center for Disease Control does not advocate drinking alcohol for any health benefits. As you have read, there are so many adverse effects to alcohol consumption that the possibility of any potential health becomes secondary at best. Back to the initial question, could alcohol be derailing your fitness/health goals? Absolutely!


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