Alcohol’s and Fat Loss, with Bonus Cheat Sheet

I can only imagine how proud my Kinesiology and Nutrition professors at UMass would be to see me, part owner of my own gym, writing an article on which alcohol is the best compliment to a fat loss program. Anywho- here I am.  Go Minutemen!! 

Let me first start by explaining what this blog is intended for as to avoid any confusion.  The last thing I want is for anyone to start running around town telling everybody their trainer is recommending they up the boozing to get results.  That’s not what I’m trying to convey. This is simply a guide for you to use so that you can make an informed decision and understand how it can affect your results in regards to fat loss/gain.  If you’ve been told that alcohol is a death sentence when it comes to fat loss and any small amount will totally reverse your hard earned progress, I’ll tell you that’s probably not the case. All of us know that drinking too much can cause a whole host of problems not related to body composition, but I am not a doctor, and I won’t try to get into any of that.  I repeat, this is all about how different alcoholic beverages can impact results in regards to fat loss.

So what amount of alcohol is the best to achieve absolute maximal results?  Well, probably none. But the fact is that a lot of people drink (about 56% of American adults at least monthly) and when it’s consumed in moderate amounts it won’t completely derail or halt your progress.  One study conducted by Harvard University even showed light drinkers had a slightly lower BMI than non-drinkers over an 8 year period.  I can also say anecdotally, having trained hundreds of adults, and just recently attending a fitness summit with 1300 trainers (and an open beer/wine bar mixer) that even very fit people can have a drink here and there.

There’s no set rules as to how many drinks per day or week you can have and still achieve fat loss, so it would be unwise to make specific recommendations.  There are so many factors that need to be accounted for such as the food your eating, current body composition, activity levels, stress levels, sleep patterns, and so on, so you can see why specifics get tricky here.  Although I really dislike the phrase “everything in moderation” (is a moderate amount of road rage a good thing? You know, not a lot, just a moderate amount), this may be an instance where it is appropriate. My colleague and Registered Dietitian, Anne Rollins often explains to clients that if they have a drink or two a couple nights a week they can still get results.  If they up that to 3-4 nights a week they can expect less results, 5 nights even less, and so on. I believe the same is true for the number of drinks. As with anything related to fat loss, you need to find what works best for you. You need to consistently measure results, and when you’re no longer achieving the results you want, you need to make a change.

Without getting too far into the science and biochemistry of alcohol metabolism (I see your eyes glazing over already), here’s a super quick breakdown of how alcohol is processed in your body and its role in fat loss/gain.  In nutrition we talk about three nutrients your body uses for energy, the macronutrients; carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. There is actually a 4th energy source which is alcohol, or ethanol specifically. Our bodies are also very particular as to the order they break down and use those macronutrients when we eat or drink.  Let’s say you eat a hamburger. Your body first metabolizes all the carbs in the bun/ veggies/ condiments, then the fat in the meat, and finally the protein in the meat. Now let’s say you have a shot of tequila with the hamburger. Since alcohol is seen as a toxin by the body, it immediately jumps to the front of the line to be broken down and metabolized so it’s not sitting around in our system for long.  In essence, alcohol slows down the metabolization of everything else you consume. So now the next time you’re out to dinner with friends you can give them a quick science lesson on all the processes going on in the digestion of their meal… Just kidding, they won’t invite you out again.

It’s almost time to look at what options are better or worse for you to accompany your healthy lifestyle, but first a quick note on nutrition labeling for alcohol.  You might have noticed that most beers, wines, and spirits don’t have a nutrition label like food you find in the grocery store. The reason for this is because they’re regulated by the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), and not the FDA, so they are not required to provide nutrition facts.  There has been a big push to change this over in the past decade and we’re even seeing some companies listing nutrition facts on their own usually to claim themselves as a healthier option.  In any sense it makes this whole thing a bit trickier for you to navigate, and for me to come up with the following list. This should serve as a good general guide, but you won’t see specific brands for the reasons above, and for the fact that I have no idea if they can sue me over that.  This is also not an all inclusive list as there are thousands of different drinks. If you are unsure of something, try to find a similar drink on the list to get clarity.

So now that we’ve discussed all the details, let’s take a look at how the different types of alcoholic beverages stack up against one another, starting with…

The Biggest Offenders:  Save for rare occasions

Super Sweet Mixed Cocktails: 

These are the drinks with tons of ingredients, tons of sugar, and a good amount of alcohol.  Think of the popular drinks at beach bars and asian restaurants. An average 9oz pina colada has about 500 calories and 64 grams of sugar, ouch!

Examples: mai tai’s; pina coladas; strawberry daiquiris; rum runners; scorpion bowls; punches, frozen margaritas, etc…

Mixed Drinks with Soda: 

As with anything involving soda, these drinks contain huge amounts of sugar.  The only reason they might be a slightly better option than the drinks above is because they’re not always gigantic.  

Examples: long island iced tea; moscow mule; gin and tonic; rum and coke; whiskey and ginger ale; vodka and sprite; tequila and san pellegrino(soda not seltzer water); or any other combination.

Mixed Drinks with Fruit Juice: 

Similar to the previous two categories, these drinks are a combination of lots of sugar and alcohol.  They get a slight edge over soda based drinks because the juice is typically more natural and might have less sugar.  Note – if the juice is fresh squeezed by the bar it will be a better option that juice from concentrate that is loaded with extra sugars.

Examples: sangrias; screwdrivers; vodka cranberries (or Cape Coddah’s as us New Englanders say); gin and juice (shout out Snoop); margaritas from sour mix; or any other combination.

Hard Lemonades/ Iced Tea’s

These are beer alternatives that are loaded with simple sugars.  Usually seen as summer or beach drinks.

Examples: all major hard lemonade and iced tea brands as well as similar malt beverages

Sweet Ciders:

Ciders keep getting more popular so there are a ton available now, and thus a huge range when it comes to sweetness.  Unlike most alcohol on this list, ciders have to list nutrition facts (weird I know) so you can usually see how much sugar is in them.  I consider these to be the ciders containing 10 grams/ serving or more (this will be most of them.). If you can’t find the sugar content, the sweeter it is, the more sugar it has.

Examples: Usually the more widely available brands; the ones that are labeled as ‘sweet’ rather than ‘dry’.

Heavy Beers: 

Sorry beer connoisseurs, but these are the types of beers that my beer drinking friends tell me are the best as they laugh at American-made light lagers.  These are usually higher carb, higher calorie, and it seems to me usually bigger (when did 16oz become the new 12)? They get a slight edge over the other drinks in this category, because they contain less simple sugars.  Quick side note – having celiac, I’ve noticed a ton of new gluten free beers of all varieties. I would categorize them exactly the same as far as fat loss goes. The heavier gluten free options belong in this category.

Examples: most IPA’s; most pale ales; most craft beers; usually beers that fill you up quickly.

Slightly Better Options:  Proceed with caution

Lighter Beers:

My self described “beer snob” friends just stopped reading.  These are the beers that appear lighter (easier to see through), taste lighter (more watery), and could possibly even be labeled as a ‘light’ beer (but not always).  These are the beers that are found in Super Bowl commercials and college campuses on a Friday night, as well as the ones readily available at most any bar you walk into here in the U.S.

Examples: most big name American lagers, especially those listed as ‘light’; the easiest to find Dutch, and Mexican lagers as well

Less Sweet Ciders:

These are less readily available than sweet ciders, but can usually be found at places that sell craft options.  Less than 10 grams of sugar/ serving. Slight edge over beers because they are not grain based.

Examples: usually listed as ‘dry’; more often craft than the big name brands

Sweet and Semi-Sweet Wines/ Champagne’s

These can be either red or white.  Their nutrition facts will rarely be listed so it makes categorizing them tougher.  Many will be labeled as ‘sweet’ or ‘semi-sweet’ and taste much sweeter because they contain sugars that haven’t been fermented into alcohol.  Cheaper wines also tend to have a higher sugar content to enhance the taste.

Examples: moscato; rosé; port; dessert wines; shiraz; zinfandel; grenache; non-brut champagnes; sweet rieslings; madeira

Classic Cocktails with Sweet Mixers

These include the classic drinks that contain a sugary mixer, but are predominantly alcohol.  You could say these are the drinks that contain only a “splash” of the mixer as opposed to some of the categories above.  These drinks tend to be strong as well and therefore take longer to drink.

Examples: cosmopolitans; old fashioneds; any fruity martini; bloody mary’s; “skinny” margaritas with lemon and lime juices

Spiked Seltzers

Similar to ciders, seltzers have gained a ton of popularity over the past decade and are required to list nutrition facts, making them easier to navigate.  Choose the options without added sugar. Most will have around 1-2g of carbs per can or bottle and are typically lower in calories compared to beers and ciders.

Examples: most major spiked seltzer brands

Classic Cocktails without Sweet Mixers

Same as above, without fruit juice or simple syrup/ sugar.

Examples: manhattans; dry martinis; dirty martinis

The best options:  These can still be overdone

Dry Wines

Wine makes its way into this category because it’s one of the only drinks on here in which people will argue its health benefits.  For the record, I won’t do that but the Mayo clinic will (click here).  Dry wines are the ones in which almost all if not all of the original sugars from the grapes have been fermented into alcohol.  These can be red or white and often will be listed as ‘dry’. More expensive wines typically have lower levels of residual sugars.  European wines tend to emphasize dryness as well.

Examples: merlot; cabernet sauvignon; pinot noir; chardonnay; sauvignon blanc; Italian pinot grigio; extra brut champagne

Spirits on the Rocks/ Mixed with Water

Any alcohol by itself or mixed with some type of water (plain/ seltzer/ soda water) will be one of your best options when it comes to maintaining fat loss and preventing fat gain.  These drinks are consumed slowly, in small amounts, and contain no sugar or carbs. Within this category, I’d say tequila(100% de agave) is the premium option because it is not grain based like most of the other spirits and it has the least impact on blood sugar.  Adding a squeeze of lemon or lime will add flavor without much of an impact on carb/ sugar content.

Examples: tequila(100% de agave); vodka; gin; rum; whiskey; scotch; bourbon

So that concludes my list.  I hope you can use this guide in some way to make informed decisions and keep you on track toward your goals.  And if you read this and came to the conclusion that you need to increase your drinking…RE-READ IT!!!!!!

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