July 20, 2010

Beach Body or Beer Belly: Alcohol and Your Physique

“To booze or not to booze, that is the question”.

I get asked quite often, “What is the best alcoholic beverage to have?” This is quickly followed up by “I’m not an alcoholic or anything but on those odd occasions I do drink…”

I’d guesstimate that 98% of the individuals asking this question have one of two motivations. They either want to know “how can I get buzzed while causing the least amount of damage to my waistline” or they are someone who has read that “having a couple of drinks can be beneficial to my health” and they want to know if that’s true.

In light of these motivations, my quick answer is always:

  1. Distilled spirits (i.e. vodka, rum, gin, etc) mixed with ice or water.
  2. Wine, with red being preferable to white.

For individuals seeking to minimize weight gain, they should definitely go with option #1. For individuals hoping to parlay a dose of flavanoids into a mild cardiac or anti-cancer benefit, then going with option #2 is the smarter choice.

Simple enough, no?

If that’s all you needed to hear, then stop reading right now and go enjoy a drink. If, however, you’d like a more in-depth lesson (albeit simplified) on alcohol metabolism then I suggest you read on.

Calorie Count of Popular Drinks

If you’ve ever come across the drinking and driving literature, you’re aware that the alcohol content of 12 oz. beer = 5 oz. wine = 1.5 oz spirits. However, the total calorie load can be quite different.

Alcohol Carbs Fat Calories
Spirits (1.5 oz) 13 g 0 g 0 g 100 kcal
Wine (5 oz.) 13 g 5 g 0 g 120 kcal
Beer (12 oz.)
– light (e.g. Coors Light) 11 g 5 g 0 g 105 kcal
– lager (e.g. Budweiser) 13 g 11 g 0 g 145 kcal
– ale (e.g. Molson Export) 13 g 12 g 0 g 150 kcal
– stout (e.g. Guiness) 11.5 g 17 g 0 g 155 kcal
Liqueur (e.g. 1.5 oz. Baileys) 6 g 8.4 g 6.5 g 147 kcal
Mixed drink (e.g. 1.5 oz rum + 3 oz coke) 13 g 11 g 0 g 145 kcal


[There’s actually a pretty neat interactive website, The Efficient Drinker, where you can look up the calorie count and alcohol content of various drinks. I particularly like the Virtual Mixologist function.]

By simply looking at this list we can see that spirits and light beer provide the fewest total calories per drink. Conversely, most mixed drinks, regular beer and fancy liqueurs provide about 50% more calories per serving.

This might lead you to conclude that as long as you match the total caloric impact (i.e. 3 shots of whiskey = 2 Budweiser) then it all amounts to the same in the end. Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, that’s not how your physiology works.

But before delving into the specific metabolic processes at work, we need to do a quick macronutrient review.

Macronutrients and Calorie Count

Many people seem to be aware that fat is the most energy dense of the macronutrients, providing a robust 9 kcal/g. Similarly, many people know that carbohydrates and protein both provide ~ 4 kcal/g. However, few people seem to realize that there is a 4th major energy source in the human diet and that would be alcohol, providing a smooth 7 kcal/g.

If we rank our macronutrients in terms of energy density, we get:

Fat: 9 kcal/g
Alcohol: 7 kcal/g
Carbohydrate: 4 kcal/g
Protein: 4 kcal/g

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at this list and see there’s a fairly large discrepancy between the elements at the top of the list (fat and alcohol) and those at the bottom (carbohydrates and protein).

It’s this energy disparity that has led many nutritionists to argue that we are better off eating a large portion of our diet in the form of carbohydrates rather than fat, since fat is so energy dense.

Sadly, this statement is seriously flawed as it presupposes that all macronutrients interact with your physiology in the same fashion. This obviously isn’t the case because if it were, your body would look the same whether you lived off of a 2000 kcal diet of Doritos and donuts or a 2000 kcal diet of tuna, broccoli and quinoa.

Trust me when I tell you, “A Calorie is NOT a Calorie“. If you need more convincing on this matter, I suggest you check out:

The Problem with the Calorie Count

Stopping our analysis with simple calories is problematic because it neglects what we know about metabolism. In fact, the whole issue of “what beverage should I choose” can best be addressed by the concept of: the hierarchy of metabolic fuels.

[Incidentally, I don’t think this term actually exists but it really should.]

If you look at the figure below, you’ll see that humans metabolize protein, carbohydrate, fat, ketones and alcohol to a common compound called Acetyl CoA.

Given that all macronutrients can be broken down to Acetyl CoA, this might lead you to conclude that the human body doesn’t really care where it derives its fuel.

However, as I explained in an earlier article, Carbohydrates: A Question of Need and as shown again by the graph below, at rest and during low intensity physical activity, the human body is PHYSIOLOGICALLY DESIGNED to satisfy the vast majority of its energy requirements from stored body fat (plasma FFA).

Originally posted on The Science of Sport.

If you are shocked to learn this, please re-read the last paragraph several times and commit this concept to your memory.

In fact, this concept is so important it bears repeating: our bodies are designed to primarily run off of fat.

Despite what you have been told, carbohydrates ARE NOT the preferred fuel for a human body at rest. And you’d better hope to never end up in the scenario where the bulk of your energy is coming from protein or alcohol… that’s just a recipe for metabolic disaster.

Keeping our metabolism at a point where we can happily roll along burning stored body fat is great, because that is what keeps us slim. However, when we dump a load of energy into our system that we have no immediate need for, we disrupt this process. And nothing moves us out of a fat burning state faster than drinking alcohol.

Ethanol AKA Poison

Unlike fat, protein and carbohydrates, the human body cannot store alcohol. This is significant because one of the intermediate products of alcohol metabolism, acetaldehyde, is extremely toxic to our system.

Whether we have one drink or twenty, our body will cease metabolizing other fuels and direct its energies into converting this metabolic poison (acetaldehyde) into acetate (Acetyl CoA), which we can oxidize.

Fair enough. Metabolizing alcohol ahead of the other fuels makes sense because it keeps us from poisoning ourselves. But how does that make drinking a case of beer any different than drinking a 26 oz. bottle of vodka?

The Double Whammy

The big physique wrecking impact of beer and mixed drinks stems from ingesting alcohol + carbohydrates coupled with our extremely limited capacity for carbohydrate storage.

This isn’t to downplay the significance of high blood glucose, which can be toxic over time; however, the short term effect of excess glucose have far more to do with promoting fat storage than it does with contributing to organ failure.

Most humans have a total glycogen storage capacity of between 300-700 g. You’d think this would leave ample space for a few extra grams of carbohydrates ingested in the form of a drink or two but you’d be wrong.

Our current recommendation for carbohydrate intake is 45-65% of total calories. This means that even on a 2000 kcal diet, you are being told to consume anywhere from 225 – 325 g carbohydrates/day.

If you are like me, you’ll see this recommendation as exceptionally high given how sedentary we are as a society and how our metabolism ideally runs off of fat at rest. However, what is far more disconcerting is that the average Canadian actually consumes more carbohydrates than that on a habitual basis, which suggests the average Canadian is pretty much glycogen saturated 24/7.

Remember, even a single beer provides 10-15 g of carbohydrate but let’s be honest, who stops at a single beer? A more representative night of drinking might be closer to 6 beers, which means you’ve got an additional 60-90 grams of glucose to deal with.

At rest, an individual with a normal blood sugar has only ~ 5 g (1 tsp) of glucose dissolved in their blood. Do the math and you’ll see that six beers provide 12-16 times the glucose your body needs to maintain homeostasis!

Since large elevations in blood glucose are toxic (admittedly to a lesser extent than alcohol), now we’ve got a serious dilemma. Not only must our bodies deal with all this alcohol energy, but we have to find some way of clearing the excess blood sugar as well.

The solution: either oxidize the glucose or store it (and if glycogen stores are full, our bodies will happily use the excess glucose to create new body fat).

Normally, following a meal containing a large amount of carbohydrates, fat burning would get suppressed for a period of several hours to allow you to metabolize the glucose instead. Alas, when you drink beer or a mixed drink, you’ve got to deal with the alcohol first. As a result, you wind up burning the alcohol and shuttling the glucose into storage.

Any idea which fat storage sites tend to take up carbohydrate-based energy most readily?

Yep, you guessed it: the belly.

Needless to say, combining two nutrient-devoid fuel sources is never a good idea.

So to summarize our hierarchy of metabolic fuels. Your body body will attempt to oxidize fuels in the following order:

  1. Alcohol: extremely toxic in the blood, must be dealt with ASAP.
  2. Carbohydrate: toxic in large quantities in the blood, needed in small amounts.
  3. Fats: free fatty acids are the preferred fuel source at rest.
  4. Protein: amino acids should rarely contribute more than 5-10% of total energy needs.

[Note: metabolism isn’t so cut and dry in real life, but you get the idea]

How much damage can you do?

Clearly, large amounts of alcohol and/or carbohydrate are not conducive to helping us return to a fat burning state. But what about more modest amounts like 3-4 drinks in a night, do they create the same kind of metabolic disruption?

Short answer: yes.

By now you’ve got a basic understanding of metabolism in general. You’ve also seen why your body must metabolize alcohol before the other fuels. Now we’ve got to look into the time course of alcohol metabolism.

Obviously there isn’t a single answer as everyone’s metabolism differs. Alcohol metabolism in particular will vary by race, gender, body size, food status, age etc. So while I can’t give you an exact number, I’ve located some research to help clarify the issue.

Adapted from Wilkinson et al., Journal of Pharmacokinetics and Biopharmaceutics 5(3):207-224, 1977

Yikes, even as few as four drinks can provide fuel for up to 7 hours (our liver can only metabolize between 7-15 g/alcohol per hour).

Considering that 4 drinks is a pretty modest night for many individuals and very few people limit themselves to spirits or wine, then its conceivable that you can easily have 7+ hours of alcohol to metabolize IN ADDITION TO whatever glucose or fat you slam into the system.

Are you beginning to appreciate the magnitude of the issue?

Let’s revisit our 6 drinks in a night scenario. If you are a slow metabolizer of alcohol (7 g/hour) and begin drinking your 6 beers (78 g alcohol, 72 g carbohydrates) at 9 PM, you’ll still trying to get through the alcohol by 8 AM the next morning.

Toss in the extra glucose to contend with and you may be lucky to return to oxidizing stored body fat by some point around noon!

Of course, this presupposes that you didn’t stop in for pizza after the bar, didn’t decide that grabbing a McDonalds breakfast will sop up the remaining alcohol or decide that a “the hair of the dog that bit you” is the ideal hangover solution.

By way of comparison, if you have a relatively lower carbohydrate dinner around 7 PM, you’ll return to oxidizing fat by ~10 PM at the latest and will spend the entire night in a pro-fat burning state.

A Final Word

Obviously, the point of this post isn’t to convince you to never drink again. Frankly, you are all adults and can decide for yourselves whether alcohol is going to be part of your lifestyle. Rather I just wanted to highlight the choice you have to make between instant gratification and long-term health.

If you place more value on having a daily nightcap, then you’ll also have to accept the extra 5 lbs of fat that tends to accompany such a habit. A glass of wine might be good for the heart, but it’s not great for the waistline.

Conversely, if you place greater emphasis on seeing your abs year round, then you’ll definitely want to limit your forays into the world of alcohol to special occasions and opt for physique friendlier choices when you do.

Remember, when it comes to booze and having a beach body, you can’t have it both ways.

Just something to think about as you prepare to head out on summer vacation 😉

Till next time, train hard and eat clean!


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