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By Stefan Ianev

The consumption of alcohol plays an important social role in many cultures around the globe. Unfortunately, heavy alcohol consumption has also been linked to increased total and central adiposity or fat storage (1,2). 

At nearly 7 calories per gram, alcohol is the second most energy dense macronutrient after dietary fats. Additionally, most alcoholic beverages contain extra calories from sugar. In fact, one beer contains about the same number of calories as a slice of pizza. 

However, unlike calories from carbohydrates, protein, and fat, our bodies cannot store calories from alcohol (3). Alcohol increases fat storage by inhibiting fatty acid oxidation and absorption of other nutrients, until all the alcohol is metabolised. Furthermore, alcohol has been shown to have a stimulatory effect on appetite leading to overeating (4).   

In addition to the adverse effects on body composition alcohol may also negatively impact bone density, immunoendocrine function, blood flow, protein synthesis, hydration, and glycogen resynthesis, so that recovery and performance are impaired (1,5).

Athletes are not exempt from the influence alcohol has on society as they often consume greater volumes of alcohol through bingeing behaviour compared with the general population, yet it is often expected and recommended that athletes abstain from alcohol to avoid the negative impact it may have on recovery and performance.

Given the role that alcohol plays in society, it is an unrealistic to expect or recommend that someone abstains from alcohol entirely to maximise their health and body composition. The reality is that people have been consuming alcohol for thousands of years and will continue to do so. The best we can do is try and manage the negative effects of alcohol and mitigate the damage. 

Unlike heavy alcohol consumption, light to moderate alcohol consumption has not been associated with weight gain or negative endocrine effects (1,2,5). More specifically, studies have shown that if athletes consume alcohol after sport or exercise, a dose of approximately 0.5 g/kg body weight is unlikely to impact most aspects of recovery (5).  

A standard alcoholic beverage contains about 14g of alcohol. Therefore, a 60kg person can get away with 2 standard drinks with no problem, while a 90kg person could have 3 standard drinks. 

As you can see it is not necessary to abstain from alcohol completely. You can still have it in moderation and enjoy a glass of wine with your dinner or a couple of beers with your mates on the weekend. The key is just not to go overboard with it. And of course, you have to factor in the extra calories from the alcohol into your daily caloric intake.  

References 

  1. Coulson CE, Williams LJ, Brennan SL, et al. Alcohol consumption and body composition in a population-based sample of elderly Australian men. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research. 2013;25: 183.
  2. Traversy G, Chaput JP. Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update. Curr Obes Rep. 2015;4(1):122–130. doi:10.1007/s13679-014-0129-4
  3. Lieber CS. ‘Alcohol: Its Metabolism and Interaction With Nutrients’, Annual Review of Nutrition, 2000. vol. 2, pp. 395-430. 
  4. Yeomans MR, Caton S, Hetherington MM. Alcohol and food intake. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2003;6(6):639–644. doi:10.1097/00075197-200311000-00006
  5. Barnes MJ. Alcohol: impact on sports performance and recovery in male athletes. Sports Med. 2014;44(7):909–919. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0192-8

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