10 perspectives on the elusive balance between consuming alcohol and nailing your fitness goals
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
Every Sunday, my clients each send me a quick check-in. They share a win and a challenge from the past week, as well as a plan (something to which I can hold them accountable) for the following week.
Here’s a challenge one of my clients recently sent me:
“Challenge: Figuring out how to still have a social life while trying to avoid alcohol and stay within macros. I find myself just preferring to stay home rather than going out and having to deal with temptation.”
I have several other clients dealing with similar dilemmas. How the hell do we balance our badass fitness and nutrition goals with going out, having a social life, and enjoying alcohol? (Let’s avoid turning into hermits, shall we?)
I’m not the best person to ask, since I don’t drink. That’s my own choice, and not one I think should apply to everyone. Here are my personal reasons for never drinking alcohol:
1. I don’t like the taste of 99% of alcoholic beverages.
2. I prefer saving my treat calories for chocolate, Swedish berries, chocolate, Oreos, salted caramel coconut ice cream bars dipped in chocolate, and did I mention chocolate? (I.e., things that actually taste good to me.)
3. Ingesting alcohol can make food allergy reactions worse. I already have potentially life-threatening food allergies and carry two EpiPens on my person at all times, so I don’t need the risk of making reactions worse, thank-you-very-much.
4. I’m a total lightweight and do not enjoy how alcohol affects my body and makes me feel, even in tiny amounts.
5. I'm on anti-anxiety medication (a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, or SNRI) for generalized anxiety and panic disorder. Consuming alcohol while on medications like this is generally not recommended. Combining alcohol with these meds can lead to internal bleeding, it can worsen anxiety symptoms, and it can cancel out the medication's helpful effects.
I’m lucky to have friends who give zero shits about whether or not I drink, and many of them don’t drink either. What we do for fun is stuff ourselves with Indian food or go for long walks around town or pump iron or have music jam sessions, not hang out at bars.
For these reasons, I wanted to outsource advice that I could give to clients struggling with finding an alcohol consumption level that feels comfortable to them, given their health and physique goals. I thought of several clients and coach friends who, I felt, had their shit figured out.
I knew some of them didn’t drink and I wanted to get their perspectives, but I was surprised by a few responses. More of these people than I thought have made the decision to not drink at all. That doesn’t mean you have to never drink again, but it was an interesting observation.
Before we get into my colleagues’ and clients’ insight and suggestions, lemme give you a quick rundown of why alcohol might be interfering with your physique and fitness goals.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with alcohol; there’s no such thing as “bad” foods (or “good” foods, for that matter). However, if you’re trying to lose fat, here are some points you may want to consider:
Alcoholic drinks can mess with your calorie goals
Alcohol itself contains 7 calories per gram. (Compare that to carbs and proteins, which have only 4 calories per gram. Fat has 9 calories per gram.) Obviously you’re not drinking 100% straight-up alcohol – your drinks contain a percentage of alcohol – but the calories can add up. On top of calories from alcohol, many alcoholic beverages come with calories from carbs: sugars from grain and fruit in beer and wine, respectively, or processed sugar in mixed drinks.
There's nothing inherently wrong with alcohol, and there's nothing inherently wrong with carbs. Calories from alcoholic beverages, however, can add up quickly if your goal is to be in a caloric deficit.
When your body is processing alcohol, it postpones processing fat
Alcohol is our bodies’ preferred fuel source. When your body is processing alcohol, it postpones processing fat from the food you eat. Precisely how long this lasts depends on many factors, like your age, sex, weight, alcohol tolerance, absorption rate, and more.
A healthy liver will eliminate a standard drink in about an hour, but alcohol is detectable via urine or breathalyzer tests for up to 24 hours.
When your body is working on ridding itself of alcohol, it’s not working on processing fat.
Note: A moderate level of drinking can work perfectly well and still get you results when you’re focusing on losing fat. However, if your diet is on point, you work out regularly, and you’re still not seeing the results you want, decreasing (or eliminating) alcohol could be worth trying out.
Alcohol often goes along with less-than-stellar food choices
Whether it’s because you’re buzzed and your inhibitions are lowered, or because you’re in a social situation that involves treat foods, or because some types of alcoholic beverages actually increase hunger, alcohol often goes hand-in-hand with nutrition decisions that don’t support your health and physique goals.
Alcohol can mess with your workouts
One of the main reasons I don’t drink is that I’m so damn sensitive to everything. I’m one of those people who gets aallll the possible side effects of medications, for example. I once ate a single bite of a pot brownie, and felt like absolute shit for 48 hours. Lesson learned.
The average trainee who makes it to spin class twice a week, or someone new to working out, might not notice the effects of alcohol on their training. However:
The more advanced you want to get with your fitness, the more diligent you need to be about factors potentially affecting your workout performance.
My advanced clients are much more likely to notice the immediate effects on their training of things like not enough sleep, a day of sub-par nutrition, changes in their daily routines, or – you guessed it – alcohol consumption. One of my clients didn’t realize that alcohol was affecting her workouts until she drastically decreased her consumption, and noticed a boost in her energy and performance in the gym!
Alcohol can mess with your hormones
There’s some evidence that regular alcohol consumption is associated with increased abdominal fat. Some research suggests that alcohol’s specific effect on the body leads to fat deposits in the abdominal area, while other research suggests it’s just the extra calories.
Alcohol can also increase your cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which can then hinder your ability to lose fat. This is mostly related to heavy drinking, but even a short bout of heavy drinking can increase cortisol levels – it’s not just long-term heavy drinkers who are affected.
Now I'm having an existential crisis! What do I do?!
I’m not gonna tell you to cut out alcohol completely (although that does work for a lot of people! Just sayin’.) Here’s where my awesome clients and coach colleagues come in.
They each have a different perspective, illustrating the age-old “one size does not fit all” concept. Many of them also include tips for food consumption when you're out socializing.
Actor, entrepreneur, CEO of Prestige Worldwide Financial Group, president of Temple Productions and executive producer of the Gracie Film (story of how the UFC began). Father of 2 Harvard students, surfer, snowboarder, scuba diver, sky diver, and pilot.
So this is my perspective:
I started to look at the reasons why I was drinking alcohol, and it was things like to fit in with my friends, or because everyone did it, or to relax.
I then started thinking about what I really wanted in life. I want to be healthy and wealthy, having a life filled with fun, love, laughter and adventure, spending lots of time with family and friends.
I started to think about life as a series of decisions. The decisions were based on, “Does what I am doing move me closer to my ideal life, or further away?”
Now on almost every level, drinking alcohol moved me further away from what I wanted. Probably the hardest part was that I had a lot of fun drinking. But I could get this fun elsewhere. I got my skydivers license. I am doing my pilots license. I am constantly traveling to the most exotic parts of the world.
I am still friends with most of the people I was friends with when I was drinking, and it is not even an issue that I don’t drink.
I am a healthier, happier version of myself.
On a practical level, one of the best pieces of advice someone gave me on how to manage cravings for junk food at social occasions is to have a glass of water with you all the time, and just sip water. Simple but super effective.
Owner of Flawless Fitness and Evil Munky Enterprises, author of Pleasure Not Meating You, and coach with over 20 years of personal training experience. Melody has held state and American records in all three lifts in powerlifting, has competed in strongman events, holds a Master’s degree in health psychology, and has been featured in numerous magazines and TV programs.
Believe it or not, I’ve never been a drinker. I know it doesn’t fit the stereotype of a heavy metal musician (which I am), but I’ve never been drunk, never been high, never touched a cigarette. I never liked the taste of alcohol or saw it as something I needed to develop a taste for, and none of the other stuff ever tempted me at all.
I went to one of the biggest party schools in the USA at the time (University of Wisconsin/Madison) and never touched a drop. I go out all the time to bars for shows or to see friends, and just don’t drink. I’m well past the stage where people pressure me, and I’ve never been one to give in to peer pressure anyway.
I think what people don’t realize is, unless they are extremely insecure themselves, no one who matters really gives a crap if you’re drinking alcohol or not, as long as they have your company.
So when it comes down to it, the onus to not drink is on you, not them.
I did water shots with lemon at a friend’s birthday party. I have water or iced tea when I go out. I always have a bottle of water onstage with me, and when people in the audience try to buy me a drink (which isn’t unusual), I politely tell them that I don’t drink, and no one is bothered about it.
So if you don’t want to drink when you go out, don’t drink. Simply enjoy the company of the people you’re with. If they give you trouble for it, they’re probably not worth spending time with, anyway.
Susi de Leeuw
Mechanical engineer and long time gym rat who has a passion for health and wellness.
I stopped drinking over 8 years ago so no longer can speak to that, but I do understand the challenge of trying to maintain nutrition goals in social situations.
In the past when I was working towards fitness goals, I thought I had to be super strict and never ever stray from the program. What I realize now is that this makes the approach feel super restrictive – and quite frankly it was not good for the mental part of it all. If something feels like it’s a drastic measure, it likely is, and it won’t be sustainable and you will often feel bad because you can’t make it work.
I am currently on a calorie reduced food plan. I focus not only on the calories but making sure those calories are nutrient dense and my protein content is up there. Rather than setting a number of calories I must achieve, I set a range. That way on days when I am training hard I can go up a bit if I need it, and on days I am more sedentary I stick to the low range.
I pick and choose which social events I attend and when I am not going to worry about counting calories. Recently my parents had their 50th anniversary and we had two food events to go to. An event like this doesn’t happen often, so I let go of counting calories and focused on the fun and people. I make sure I don’t do that on a weekly basis as that can set one up to lose track all together. If it’s a dinner with friends, I sometimes step in to make a suggestion of where to go so I know I can get a meal that fits with my plan. Eating out always is more calories, so I also eat a bit less during the day to give me room to play with. Other times I just say no, I can’t go, if it doesn’t work for me.
The things that I do make this a liveable plan. I wanted to ensure I could do this long term without feeling I failed if I went over on my calories now and then.
I feel I have achieved a balance that is sustainable and that still allows me to enjoy going out with family or friends, while continually reaching my goals.
Video producer/director and managing partner of Kulture Digital, located in Austin, Texas.
My relationship with alcohol has its roots all the way back to my very first sip of a tan Coors when I was ten years old. It was an innocent act of my father sharing just a sip of his frosty beverage with me, and I promptly spit it out. I'd never try beer again until my later high school years. Then, like any else, I consumed more during college and steadily in social situations as my twenties progressed and into my thirties.
Cut to forty years old: I was now brewing my own beer and weighing in at 255lbs. During my wife's pregnancies with our first two kids she'd go to bed early and my love for an IPA grew. One became two, two became three, onto four almost daily. Obviously this was doing nothing for my physical well-being, and my weight was climbing steadily. How could I even get any bigger? I was, and beer wasn't helping.
I would often wonder if I had a problem – or was this the norm? I wasn’t sneaking hard liquor or hitting a bar on the way home, but could my nightly routine still be a problem? You bet.
Right around this time a dear friend of ours suffered a heart attack in his sleep and died. Only eight years older than me, my wife and I were shocked and completely stunned at this sudden loss of life. Soon I would be sitting at his funeral and watching his twelve-year-old son stand weeping next to his late father's casket. That image cut right through me and that very night I went home, took a shirtless picture of myself, poured out all my beer (also gave a ton away), cleaned out our liquor cabinet, and said enough.
This coming March will be three years of no alcohol in my life, and it's the most important thing I've ever done. My weight loss journey would never even be close to what it is now with beer still in my life.
Being sober has not been easy. I've found that I've had to face a lot of personal demons head-on, with no cover of an IPA to mask away my sorrows. Still, I'm the better for it and not a day goes by that I don't smile knowing I no longer drink. It is truly freeing.
Of course I was met with a ton of, "You're doing what?!" Everyone knew me as a home brewer and now out of the blue I quit drinking? You're god damn right. Alcohol was holding me back from being who I'm truly meant to be. I've tackled some big life decisions since giving up alcohol and am all the better for it. I've been in just as many social situations now without consuming alcohol as I was when I was drinking, and I've discovered that it's such a poison, and honestly it holds everyone back. It almost feels by design. I still hang out with my friends at bars, parties and other gatherings, often sipping a Topo Chico or just water. Now, almost three years later, no one even cares. The main topic now is how much weight I've lost and what I did to change so much.
Alcohol was a massive fog that pinned me to the couch every night, and now almost eighty pounds later I never even think about having a single sip. I’ve literally forgotten about it.
For many, the thought of never drinking again is just not anything to consider and it is very hard to let it go. It takes time, determination and patience but once removed, it too will drift away and new healthier horizons will come into full view.
Personal fitness trainer and mindset coach from Miami, owner of Jennifer Alice Training & Coaching LLC. With a background in Social Psychology, Jennifer focuses on providing a holistic approach to health and fitness to help women become happier, healthier, and more confident.
Having a social life while at the same time trying to achieve your fitness goals can seem impossible at times. Here are a few tips I give my clients to help them navigate the minefield of social events:
1. Suggest activities that don’t involve alcohol like going for a hike, snorkelling (if you live close to the beach), having fun at an escape room, or testing your mini golf skills.
2. You want to meet for dinner with your friends? Great!! Find out which restaurant you will be going to (or even better, be the one who suggests a place).
Take a look at the menu before you even leave the house and make a decision about what you will order beforehand. Once at the restaurant don’t open the menu, just place your order.
3. Order a box with your food. Restaurant food almost always has more calories than the meals you prepare at home. A simple order of pancakes can come in at a whopping 1,000 calories. When you place your order, ask the server to bring a box with it. Place half of your food in the box BEFORE you start eating. Out of sight, out of mind.
4. When it comes to alcohol, try spending more time with friends who don’t drink or who drink only occasionally. When you do go to a bar or for dinner, order your favorite cocktail and drink it slowly. Take your time. The longer you hold on to your drink, the less alcohol you’ll consume.
Online strength and conditioning coach, competitive Brazilian Jiu-jitsu athlete, and CrossFit L1 trainer. Tobias writes about veganism, training, and nutrition at Athlegan.com and runs the Athlegans Facebook group, as part of his mission to create more fit and strong vegans.
With these kind of things it's always a good idea to first decide how serious you are about your fitness. Maybe you're a professional fitness model, making your living off of your aesthetics, or perhaps your idea of fitness is playing FIFA on the PlayStation. More likely, as you're reading this, you're somewhere in between.
Your fitness is a reflection of your lifestyle's average.
Where the fitness model spends every waking moment dedicated to aesthetics, the couch potato spends about zero. Both their fitness will be a reflection of their averages. The cool thing about averages is that they can be attacked from two sides – the low (beer and cake) and the high (food prep and workout).
That means you can raise your high to allow a little wiggle room in the low. Be serious about your training, cook healthy food, and get proper sleep. Then have a beer or two and indulge in some cake one Sunday here and there.
When Karina recently asked me to contribute to a post about alcohol, I quickly fired back that I’m one of “those”. Those being someone who doesn’t drink. And in Australia, we’re a rare breed. Alcohol is intimately intertwined in our culture. Heck, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke held the world record for sculling a yard glass of beer. So as you can see, it’s well and truly an “Aussie” thing to do, to enjoy a drink or four. So, as a coach and a coach to many Australians, I’ve been asked the “What about alcohol?” question many, many times. And for most, abstinence is a dirty word. So I’ll share some of the tips I’ve shared with them: 1. Not all alcohol is created equal; some are high in calories and some are low. If weight loss or weight management is the plan, then you’re best to stick with the lower calorie stuff. 2. Mixers can be tricky. Obviously mixing your bourbon with a Coke adds many more calories than say a Coke Zero, but it is worth noting, you will feel the effects, i.e. you’ll feel intoxicated faster with the zero calorie options. For some, they’ll see this as a bonus, for others, not so. 3. More often than not, it’s not the alcohol that causes the most damage, it’s the bar snacks that come along with it. It’s the 4am greasy feed or even the much loved hangover breakfast. This is where most plans go astray thanks to a very human ability to justify our poor choices. 4. This is a follow on from number 3 because I didn’t really give a solution, but it’s important to know, the personality, the willpower, the ability to say “no” is rarely the same person who is 6 tequila shots down. So be aware of this reality. Be aware if you’ve been down this path before, you’ll most likely go down that path again.
If your goals are more important to you now, saying “I’m not drinking tonight” might just be your best course of action. Plus everyone loves a designated driver.
With over 20 years of practical experience as a personal trainer, youth fitness specialist and mindset performance coach, Mike has continuously sought out the best ways to help people achieve sustainable success. Along the way he has orchestrated meaningful, individualized solutions to thousands of clients both in Vancouver and around the world.
A go-to strategy for general eating behaviour is implementation intentions: This is a fancy-shmancy term for “a plan”. This strategy is particularly useful when there is an event/holiday or any social situation where there will be access to highly palatable food or alcohol.
Decide in advance exactly HOW you are going to indulge and in what types of foods. For example, you may decide on a single drink and a single dessert. Have an "if/then" plan. I.e. IF they serve dessert THEN I will say, "No thank you" and walk away from the dessert tray.
Another useful habit is leveraging your social circle to an advantage. Instead of being pressured into having more than you had expected, use your friends to help you consume less.
Message whomever you are going out with and tell them of your plan. Put your money where your mouth is. Tell them you will owe them $20 each if they catch you eating more than 1 dessert or consuming more than 1 drink (or whatever you’ve decided on).
Lastly, re-frame what social events are truly about… Socializing. Focus on engaging in conversation, meeting new people and taking in the experience. Make the tempting food and drink backdrops instead of the main focus.
Ren Jones is a Charlotte, NC based personal trainer and nutrition coach who specializes in providing 30 minute workouts for busy women through online training.
Initially, nutrition and training clients can struggle with maintaining a social life and adhering to their nutrition program. In my experience with clients, the root of this can be the initial philosophy that their nutrition program stems from.
A "clean eating" philosophy, for instance, can sometimes cause the client to demonize the foods. Labeling an apple as "good" or a slice of pizza as "bad" will invariably cause them to take inventory of all the food available in a social setting and pretty much "opt out" of most of what's available. The friction starts socially when a friend offers something on the "bad" list, which raises anxiety – because now the client has to choose between being the "food Nazi" at the party or ruining all their progress (at least in their mind).
The same can happen when following macros, as it becomes really complicated really fast when they try to guesstimate carb, protein, and fat content of restaurant food, party appetizers, and alcohol. It's a mental crapshoot. So once again, they end up with anxiety levels that totally ruin the fun they came to have. Now a perfectly good party's turned into a math exam with friends. Math sucks.
What I've found that works for clients is approaching food from a basic perspective (taking math out of the equation) in social settings, utilizing some simple habits that are rooted in science. Eating slowly is a huge asset. You're much less likely to overeat and people generally don't notice it in a social environment.
Also, eating all your protein before eating any of the other items on the plate. Starting with a full glass of water will also help minimize the amount of not only food consumed but alcohol as well. Alternating alcoholic drinks with water is also a great strategy and not likely to draw attention. If there's a bar, another great trick is to get some seltzer water (or sparkling water) with juice. Socially it allows you to drink and engage in the habit of sipping with friends, but there's none of the angst of calories from alcohol.
One of my clients really accelerated her progress and minimized her social anxiety by drinking "mocktails" all through the summer.
The simpler the plan initially, the easier the client can adjust it slightly to adhere to their goals.
Emma Green (PhD, MSc, BSc) is an online fitness coach and freelance writer based in London, UK. She is passionate about helping people navigate BS and develop a healthy relationship with food, exercise and their bodies.
Personally, I’m not a big drinker. I drink only occasionally because I don’t enjoy it that much. However, most of my clients drink alcohol and I work with them to find a way that they can enjoy it, whilst still reaching their fitness goals. As far as I’m concerned, unless you’re planning to compete on a bodybuilding stage or are very close to a powerlifting meet, there is no reason that alcohol has to be completely avoided.
Most of my clients use a blend of macro tracking and intuitive eating. When they are in social situations with food and alcohol, they tend to opt for the latter approach. Calculating and tracking macros often takes away from the enjoyment of the event. I’d rather my clients focus on having a good time and don’t stress about what fits or doesn’t fit into their macros. When these events happen occasionally, it really doesn’t make a big difference over the long term. For those who are intuitively eating, they tend to naturally eat a little less on the days following these kinds of events anyway.
For clients that want to track, or have goals where they need to be a little more precise with their tracking, we plan ahead. We discuss what they are likely to eat or drink at the event and determine how we will accommodate this into their macros.
I like to think of macros over the course of a week, which allows a lot more wiggle room. For example, perhaps they consume an extra 500 calories. The next 5 days they could eat 100 fewer calories per day and they’ve balanced it out perfectly.
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