How to enjoy alcohol while staying fit and healthy
There’s nothing like an ice-cold beer, a glass of your favourite wine or a fresh, fruity cocktail when the sun is shining and good vibes are flowing. If you’ve ever felt a twinge of guilt after enjoying alcohol, though, you’re not alone. It can feel like a step in the wrong direction, especially when you’re trying to lose weight, build muscle or just stay fit and healthy. Does that mean you have to choose between achieving your goals and drinking? Absolutely not! The key to enjoying a drink or two while staying on track is simply understanding alcohol and the effects it can have on the body. We’ll be discussing all this and more below, to help you live life to the max in the healthiest possible way.
What is alcohol?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines alcohol as a ‘psychoactive substance with dependence-producing properties’. There are several types of alcohol, although ethanol is the only one used in drinks like beer, wine and spirits. It has been used recreationally for centuries because of its intoxicating effects, which include feelings of euphoria, decreased anxiety and a loss of inhibitions. The adverse effects of alcohol? You got it… a hangover.
If you’ve ever felt a twinge of guilt after enjoying alcohol, you’re not alone.
What is an alcohol unit and how much alcohol is too much?
In the UK, alcohol is measured in units, which are a simpler way of showing a particular drink’s alcohol by volume (ABV). One unit is equal to 10ml of pure alcohol, which is roughly the amount an average adult can process in an hour. If a bottle of wine is 13% ABV, for example, it means that 13% of that volume is pure alcohol. To calculate this in units, you multiply the volume (let’s say 750ml for a bottle of wine) by its percentage (let’s stick to 13%) and divide by 1000. So:
750 (ml) X 13 (%) = 9,750
= 9.75 units
It’s generally recommended for both men and women to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week to avoid health risks. That’s 6 pints of 4% ABV beer, 6 175ml glasses of 13% ABV wine, or 14 25ml shots of 40% ABV spirits.
How can alcohol affect my health & fitness goals?
There are various ways alcohol can impact your health & fitness journey.
Alcohol and weight gain
If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll need to keep an eye on what you’re drinking as well as what you’re eating. Yes, sadly, alcohol contains calories. A pint of 5% ABV beer, for example, contains almost 240kcal; a regular 175ml glass of 12% ABV wine contains 133kcal; and a large 50ml shot of 40% ABV gin has 95kcal. So, it goes without saying that drinking too much can hinder your weight loss goals and, especially for men, lead to the infamous beer belly.
Did you know?
Even though it’s called a beer belly, it’s not specifically beer that causes it. When you consume more calories than you burn — food or drink — the excess energy is stored in fat cells. It just so happens that male abdominal fat cells enlarge more than women’s. The real culprit here, then, is the calories themselves.
Alcohol and sleep
The sedative effects of alcohol can often make it seem like it improves sleep quality. A glass of wine or whiskey before bed might help you drift off to sleep, although studies have shown that heavy drinking can lead to delayed sleep onset, sleep disruptions and decreased quality of sleep. Naturally, this can make you feel sleepy or lazy during the day, which can impact your motivation to hit the gym, go for a power walk or meet your friends for a kick about in the park. Further studies recommend stopping drinking at least four hours before bed to minimise the chance of sleep disruptions.
Alcohol and dehydration
If you’ve ever drunk a little too much alcohol, you’ll be more than familiar with the consequences. A splitting headache, dizziness and nausea are common hangover symptoms and a result of dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic — a substance that causes the body to pass more liquid through urination. It strips the body of electrolytes and decreases the production of the anti-diuretic hormone, Vasopressin, which helps the body re-absorb water from urine. So, after each drink our body loses more electrolyte-rich fluids due to the lack of Vasopressin available.
According to the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, a dehydration level of just 2% is enough to impair cognitive performance. When it comes to dehydration and physical performance, symptoms like fatigue and dizziness cast little doubt that a lack of fluids can impact those squats, sprints and box jumps in a negative way.
Tips to stay hydrated while drinking:
In short, it’s all about staying on top of your hydration game, so you can wake up fresh and ready to take on the next day’s goals.
We hate to break it to you, but yes, alcohol does indeed affect muscle growth. We know the importance of consuming enough protein (either through our diet and/or protein shakes and bars) for the body to be able to repair and build muscle (a process called protein synthesis). A 1991 study, however, found that chronic alcohol use prevents protein synthesis. If you’re serious about bodybuilding or your performance on the weights, you may want to consider drinking less or kicking the booze completely.
The effects of alcohol can often lead to people drinking in order to deal with symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. Indeed, alcohol can make you feel more confident and chatty because it releases dopamine (a chemical involved in helping us feel pleasure as part of the brain’s reward system) in the brain. Alcohol, however, is a depressant, meaning it affects the central nervous system. One of the ways it does so is by decreasing serotonin (a key chemical involved in regulating mood) in the brain. Low levels of serotonin have been linked with depression. So, chasing those feel-good feelings through drinking can mean the beginning of a vicious cycle into alcohol abuse and dependence.
Did you know?
A much healthier alternative to boosting serotonin is exercise. Get some outdoor workout inspiration and feel that post-workout high!
Tips to stop drinking so much:
If you’re struggling with alcohol or mental health in general, you can reach out to your doctor, who will provide you with all the relevant options on finding the right support.
The effects of alcohol on men vs. women
Men and women respond to alcohol in lots of different ways, both socially and biologically. Here are just a few examples:
- Men are more likely to exhibit risky behaviours when trying to fit in with their friends, in this case binge drinking₁.
- Women tend to use alcohol as a form of self-medication more than men₁.
- Men have much higher levels of the enzyme responsible for metabolising alcohol (ADH) in the stomach and liver. As such, they’re able to reduce the amount of alcohol absorbed into the bloodstream by about 30%.
- Women, with minimal amounts of ADH, absorb almost all the alcohol they consume, causing them to be more intoxicated, even if they drink the same amount as a man₂.
- While alcohol abuse puts both genders at risk of liver disease, men are more likely to die from such an illness, whereas women develop liver problems at a higher rate₃.
Are there any benefits of alcohol?
That’s just wishful thinking! Although, some experts do believe that antioxidants found in red wine, like resveratrol, can be beneficial for the heart. Unfortunately, though, the risks still far outweigh the benefits.
The next time you feel guilty after that last sip of piña colada, remind yourself that moderation is key, and that sometimes, you just deserved it.
Now you’re armed with everything you need to know; you can decide what works for you when it comes to alcohol. Do you want to have a good balance of enjoying a drink while maintaining a healthy lifestyle, or are you ready to cut back and get to that next level? Either way, check out our 5 favourite summer mocktail recipes! The next time you feel guilty after that last sip of piña colada, remind yourself that moderation is key, and that sometimes, you just deserved it.
1. SEX DIFFERENCES, GENDER AND ADDICTION - PMC (nih.gov)
2. Gender Differences in Alcohol Metabolism – The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership (duke.edu)
3. Sex and gender-related differences in alcohol use and its consequences: Contemporary knowledge and future research considerations - PubMed (nih.gov)