A Guide to Alcohol for “Muscleheads”

Posted: December 3, 2012 in Sports Nutrition


In general, alcohol has a positive and negative side ; In low doses ( i.e a glass of wine per day) has potential health benefits. However, in high doses, it makes us feel like wreck cars. Historically, alcohol has been blamed for many of the world’s tragedies and problems, from the fall of the Roman Empire (1), to the disbanding of many families. Alcohol (a broader term for ethanol, or ethyl alcohol) is one of those substances that blurs the line between food and drugs. Actually it’s a macro-nutrient like carbs, protein and fat with seven calories per gram. However, contrary to the other 3 nutrients, alcohol it’s not an essential nutrient. That means that the body can not use ethanol for fuel (survival and growth).

Alcohol and Thermogenesis:

There is ongoing interest on alcohol calories, and people are wondering if alcohol calories count or not. This is because drinkers weigh less than no-drinkers (2) and studies showing accelerated weight loss when fat and carbs are exchanged for an equivalent of calories from alcohol. Specifically, one study compared two weight-loss diets (1500kcal per day). In one diet, subjects got 10% of their total calories from white wine while in the second group the 10% of their calories was coming from grape juice (4). After three months the white wine group lost almost a kilogram more of total body weight, although the difference was not statistically significant. No one knows how this would work out in a long period of time. To explain this phenomenon, I came across with some ideas below.

Well alcohol has 5.7 calories due to the thermic effect of food (TEF) which is 20% of the ingested calories. This makes the TEF of alcohol similar to that of Protein (20-35% depending on aminos composition). However, is higher TEF the reason that regular drinkers have a lower body fat percentage? It’s unlikely that the effect on body weight in the general population can be attributed only to the high TEF of alcohol. An other explanation is that alcohol consumption decreases food intake in the long term as research has shown so far(3). Another explanation is that regular alcohol consumption affects nutrient partitioning favourably via improvements in insulin sensitivity. Specifically, alcohol’s activation of AMPk, a metabolism-regulating enzyme, helps you lose fat by increasing insulin sensitivity (5).

Effects of alcohol in muscle mass and testosterone:

A lot of people are wondering if alcohol destroys muscle mass. Well, maybe. But you have to drink a lot to reach this level. Research so far, on alcohol’s effect on muscle-protein metabolism is on heavy alcoholics who consume more than 100gr of ethanol per day. This means more that seven drinks per day. Almost 2/3 of these people end up with a condition called “alcohol myopathy”. This condition is characterized by muscle weakness and atrophy, frequent falls, walking difficulties. The high volume of alcohol tends to displace essential nutrients, which means casual drinkers aren’t likely to lose their hard-earned muscle mass :) There is another study though, in which it was shown that 2-3 beers per day decreased testosterone levels by 6.8% during a 3 week period (6).  However, it’s worth to mention, that this consumption of beer increased “dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate” (DHEAS) by 16.5%. A review in 2003 suggests that low serum levels of DHEAS may be associated with coronary heart disease in men, but it was insufficient to determine whether DHEA supplementation would have any cardiovascular benefit. Thus, DHEAS elevation might have a potential to decrease cardiovascular disease risk.

Alcohol, performance and recovery:

This topic is a bit hard to investigate since it is difficult to get approval for a study in which athletes get drunk after a workout. It’s even harder to get approval for a study to investigate getting drunk before a workout. However, some kind of studies on this topic have been done. From the few studies available, in one study (7), subjects were given the equivalent of six drinks and then tested for strength and endurance. Contrary to what researchers expected, the alcohol had no negative effect on any of the strength tests. In addition to that, there was no increase in creatine kinase which is an indicator of muscle damage.

When it comes to recovery, a study looked at the acute effect of alcohol intoxication on post-exercise hormonal response, using professional weight lifters (8). In this study, subjects were divided in two groups. The first one was given the equivalent of five drinks after a workout. The researchers examined all hormonal reactions for the next 5 hours. Surprisingly, no differences were seen in Testosterone and other related hormones in either group, except from a modest increase of cortisol levels. When it comes to post-workout strength, research has been shown mixed results. In one study, where it was used eccentric training to examine the alcohol effects post-workout, researchers noticed an impaired recovery in the trained muscles. However, we should take into account that the program followed was really rough, which itself is hard to recover from. A different study that looked at the results of post consumption alcohol (120g) of exhaustive endurance training, noticed a significant decrease of testosterone levels which were suppressed till the next day. Taking into consideration all these information, you have to be either a heavy drinker or undertaking extremely tough workouts, in order to have a problem with alcohol. Unless you are in a habit of going bar-drinking every day after 50reps of max eccentric leg extensions, this stuff does not apply to you.

Small advices to prevent fat gain when drinking:

Now that you have all the information you need to know about alcohol it’s time to learn how alcohol works for fat loss, or at least to prevent fat gain. Especially when you do not have to count calories and while drinking as much as you want. Just be aware that there are better and worse choices out there.

1) For this specific day, limit fat and carbs to 0.3g/kg of body weight and 1,5g/kg b.w respectively.
2) Get all carb calories from veggies and tag-along carbs in protein sources.
3) Try to select good sources of alcohol such as: dry wine (almost 0g of carbs) vs sweet wine (4-6g of carbs). Other drinks with zero carbs are gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey.
4) Eat as much protein as you want. Due to the limit on dietary fat, you need to get your protein from lean sources. These are: cottage cheese, protein powder, chicken, turkey, tuna and egg whites.
5) If you are following a fat loss programme, this method should be limited to once per week.

Apply this with good judgement and don’t go out and do something stupid now. Remember, this a short-term strategy for those that want to be able to drink freely without significantly impacting fat loss progress or causing unwanted fat gain. From an overall perspective, if you don’t already drink, there is no reason to start. If you drink a lot, you risk a lot. And if you drink in moderation by following simple guidance like the steps above, there is no reason to quit.


1. http://www.abc.net.a…hol/alcohol.htm
2. Yeomans et al. 2010. Alcohol, appetite and energy balance: Is alcohol intake a risk factor for obesity?
3. Kokavec, 2008. Is decreased appetite for food a physiological consequence of alcohol consumption?
4. Flechtner-Mors M, et al. Effects of moderate consumption of white wine on weight loss in overweight and obese subjects. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004
5. McCarty MF. Does regular ethanol consumption promote insulin sensitivity and leanness by stimulating AMP-activated protein kinase? Med Hypotheses. 2001
6. Burke LM, et al. Effect of alcohol intake on muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2003
7. Poulsen MB, et al. Motor performance during and following acute alcohol intoxication in healthy non-alcoholic subjects. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2007
8. Koziris LP, et al. Effect of acute postexercise ethanol intoxication on the neuroendocrine response to resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2000

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