Can you drink and get jacked?
Plenty of people out there, including myself, like to crack open an ice-cold brewski from time to time. So crisp, and so refreshing in a mid-summer heat wave.
But, it can be somewhat unclear whether or not indulging in the occasional bottle of booze is impeding your gains. There are even commercial advertisements depicting people heading straight from the gym to the bar to cool-down with a low-calorie brewski as their “post-workout meal.” This can’t be a good idea, right?
To make an informed decision, let’s take a closer look at the properties of alcohol and its physiological effects on the body as they relate to training and recovery.
From an energy density standpoint, alcohol has 7 calories per gram. That puts it right between carbs and protein-- which both have 4 cal/g, and fat-- which has 9 cal/g. Unlike the other three molecules, we don’t really consider alcohol an essential macronutrient, but this information can be helpful in the case of tracking nutrition and calculating the delicate balance of “energy in” versus “energy out.” As we know, when “energy in” is greater than “energy out” for a period of time, weight gain occurs; and when the reverse happens, weight loss occurs. Since alcohol is slightly higher in calories per gram, it may play a role in excessive calorie intake-- plus, drinking a boozey beverage that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy could increase the likelihood of late-night snacking, further tipping us out of energy balance.
But in the case of alcohol, things may not be as simple as the “energy in” vs. “energy out” rule. Alcohol is a toxin, and it affects the body in peculiar ways that can complicate our normal physiology, especially in the setting of muscle repair and recovery. For instance, studies have shown that alcohol impairs protein synthesis for several hours after consumption, which is not an ideal scenario for people looking to build or maintain precious muscle mass. Imagine spending all that time and energy in the gym lifting heavy weights and getting sick pumps, but then putting the brakes on your body’s ability to repair the damage. In this state of catabolism, you’re basically burning the candle at both ends.
Alcohol also tends to dehydrate us by interfering with antidiuretic hormone (ADH), leading to water loss at a greater rate than what we can feasibly replace. Even if we try to alternate water intake with alcohol intake on a night out, we’ll still be net-negative in terms of hydration for several hours.
It’s important to note that the degree to which the effects of alcohol occur can vary based on several modifiable and non-modifiable factors, including one’s genetics, gender, body mass, and nutrition status, as well as the amount of alcohol consumed.
This idea of the post-workout beer likely gained traction after a study was published in 2013 with the title “Beer as a Sports Drink.” Researchers had the subjects drink beer with differing ABV (alcohol by volume) and sodium contents after performing aerobic exercise and observed the effects on dehydration. While all of the beers induced fluid loss, the one with the lowest ABV (2.3%) and highest sodium content had the least dehydrating effect on the subjects. The authors came to the following conclusion: “A low-alcohol beer with added sodium offers a potential compromise between a beverage with high social acceptance and one which avoids the exacerbated fluid losses observed when consuming full strength beer.” (Desbrow, Murray and Leveritt, 2013).
The media took this small sliver of hope and ran with it, drawing comparisons between beer and chocolate milk as optimal post-workout drinks. While a low-ABV, high-sodium beverage may be the lesser of two evils for a post-workout refuel compared to a hefty imperial stout, the most optimal route would be to give those muscles what they truly need after exercise: an easily digestible, well-balanced meal, perhaps with some electrolytes to aid in proper hydration.
A few hours later, you can indulge in your IPA of choice knowing that your body will be better off having soaked up those crucial nutrients first.
Even though it almost goes without saying, I should add that it is pretty much never a good idea to have a pre-workout libation, both for safety reasons as well as the impending decrement in performance.
I hope this video helped clarify some things for you guys. As always, leave your questions in the comments below. Head to hybridperformancemethod.com to learn how you can work with a Hybrid Nutrition coach to sort through the BS and find a sustainable way to reach your personal goals.