Alcohol and Dieting.
When it comes to health and dieting, the obvious answer to the question is to avoid alcohol completely. However, for many of us, and our clients, having a drink with friends is a massive part of their social life and many people look forward to a beer or glass of wine (or more!) at the weekend after a long week of work. Although far from essential, it can be difficult to give up because of the social repercussions, especially here in the UK. When talking about dieting, we are always looking for sustainable and realistic ways to make it consistent and so that you or your clients can stick to it in the long run. Sometimes, what looks perfect on paper isn’t always realistic for someone to stick to, and there can be a need to find a middle ground somewhere. So how can we approach the subject of alcohol and dieting?
Firstly, we wouldn’t be a fitness education provider without reminding you of what alcohol does to your body. Alcohol is classified as a drug, and as a depressant, regular overconsumption can lead to many physical and mental health problems, so consumption in moderation is, of course, paramount to anyone interested in their health and fitness. It is different to all 3 of our macronutrients, in that it does not behave the same way in the body. There is no place inside the human body to store it, so it enters the bloodstream or is excreted through sweat, urine or through the breath. The fact there is nowhere to store it, means the body has to metabolize it immediately in order to get it through the system. This means that all other metabolising of the other macronutrients will slow and be put to the wayside as it does this. This can effect the bodies fat burning process for example, which is far from ideal when on a diet. The liver will work to detoxify the blood so the ‘toxic’ alcohol can be removed from the body, which is why excessive drinking can cause serious liver problems.
Do we need to count our alcoholic calories? Alcohol itself is pretty calorie dense, meaning it comes in at 7kcal per gram, making it more dense than both protein and carbohydrate. Yes, that does not mean alcoholic drinks are ‘free calories’. Quite the opposite, depending on how much you consume, they can end up taking up a portion of your daily caloric needs. This has to be made quite clear for any nutritional advice to be successful, that drinking calories can not be forgotten about. Alcohol itself has little or no nutritional value, however what the alcohol is mixed with can greatly differ the calorie content.
So does it matter what type of alcohol we drink? In short, yes, it does. The difference between a distilled spirit and a wine or beer can be quite stark. A typical pint of lager can contain upwards of 250 calories, whereas a shot of vodka (with a low cal mixer) can be around 100 calories. So if you or your client is choosing to have a drink, it is important that they are aware of the lower calorie choices which may be more beneficial for them in regards to their goals. This will potentially mean less damage done to their energy balance.
We know we need to include our alcoholic calories and choose lower calorie alcohol drinks, is that it? Once you’ve worked out how much calories you are typically going to consume, you will need to adjust your calorie consumption through food accordingly. As alcohol is high calorie and has a low nutritional value, it can be considered as ‘empty calories’. That means prior to drinking, you should be looking to make sure you are hitting any daily nutritional targets that you have. For example consuming 500 calories of alcohol in a 2000 calorie diet, means that you only have 1500 calories to hit your protein target (we talked on the previous blog about the need for keeping protein intake high while in a caloric deficit). This will mean you will have to change your diet prior to drinking, potentially consuming more protein and less carbohydrates, in order to compensate for the ‘empty calories’ you are about to drink. This will free up some calories for you to drink while keeping your total calorie intake roughly where it should be.
Is there anything else we need to be wary of when drinking? The most influential part of drinking alcohol is how it lowers your inhibitions. In a dietary sense, this can mean making poor nutritional decisions during and after drinking. A study has shown that drinking with a meal can lead to a 20% increase in calories. This is because alcohol can stimulate your appetite. That means that when you are drinking, you are more likely to make poor food choices on top of the extra calories consumed through the alcohol itself. On top of that, you are more likely to make poor food choices the following day as well, as you are hungover and looking for quick fix foods to make you feel better.
In summary, alcohol itself is best consumed in moderation, or avoided completely, but for those who do wish to drink for many number of reasons then there are ways to minimise the damage. Keeping track or predicting as best you can how much you are going to drink, adjusting your calories for this, making low calorie alcohol choices and most importantly, not letting your diet go out the window during and after you have been drinking.
When dealing with clients, some will have unhealthy relationships with alcohol, and that means they may struggle to remove it completely. Small goals should be set first, in order to try and change or reduce certain aspects before working towards the larger goal. Remember, it is everyones own choice if they wish to drink or not, so rather than say their diet is a write off, we can try to work towards minimising the damaging and helping to have a better, healthier relationship with alcohol in the long run.