Forget About Weight Loss Unless You’re Willing to Do This

I was talking with an athlete earlier this week and our conversation turned to the issue of weight, as it has during nearly every coaching conversation we’ve had in the past year.

The athlete I was talking to is probably not that different from you.

He has worked hard and improved significantly. His power at lactate threshold is up, his weight is down, and he’s climbing faster than he has in 10 years. But his rate of progress has slowed, as it naturally does for any athlete, and he’s looking for ways to continue improving his power-to-weight ratio. His training is gradually increasing the power side of the equation, but the weight side of the equation is stalled.

Every time we talk he asks about another fad diet and I explain why it won’t work and how important it is for his nutrition strategy to optimally support his activity level and recovery needs. And his diet – like so many athletes we work with – is generally quite good. Athletes have gotten the message about eating whole food, minimizing processed food and fast food, incorporating lean protein and adequate fat, avoiding added sugar, and managing portions (although this is still a big challenge for a lot of athletes). The elephant in the room, though, is alcohol.

In a nutshell, here’s my advice: If you are struggling to lose the last 5-10 pounds on the way to a goal weight, stop drinking alcohol. If you want to keep drinking, that’s fine, but then stop complaining that you’re carrying extra weight when you ride or run.

I, for one, have decided I like a great glass of wine. Even better, I love sharing a great bottle of wine with friends. I also accept the consequences of being an athlete who consumes a moderate amount of alcohol. It’s important that you also understand those consequences so you can make an informed choice for yourself:

Alcohol Has Zero Benefit for Performance

There is evidence that moderate alcohol intake, including spirits, beer, and wine, may help people live longer (Paganini-Hill, 2007). That’s great news, but doesn’t mean alcohol improves athletic performance. As with other areas of sports science and nutrition (like sugar, fat, and sodium intakes) it is important to separate health-oriented from performance-oriented benefits.

Alcohol Is Non-Nutritive

There is no part of your body that needs alcohol. By itself alcohol provides no nutrition. It does, however, provide calories. A gram of alcohol provides 7 calories, almost twice as many as carbohydrate or protein (4 calories/gram) and nearly as many as fat (9 calories/gram).

You could look at that and say, “Alcohol provides energy, so it’s good!” But alcohol can’t even do that on its own, as you’ll see next. And high-calorie, fat-rich foods like avocados can deliver additional vitamins, minerals, and positive nutrients. Alcohol just delivers the calories without the nutrition.

Alcohol Is Metabolized as Fat

Your body is great at making the fuel it needs from other substances. For instance, you can make new glucose from protein via gluconeogenesis! In certain circumstances, you can make ketones from fat to fuel muscles and the brain when carbohydrate is unavailable.

But not only can your body not run on alcohol, you also metabolize it as fat rather than carbohydrate. Now, you can certainly use fat for energy and can even adapt to become better and more efficient at burning fat, but alcohol is not a good source of usable energy.

Alcohol Is a Powerful Diuretic

Your hydration status is directly linked to your post-workout recovery and the quality of your next training session. Alcohol is a diuretic, and even though your drinks are not entirely ethanol, it doesn’t take much for the diuretic effect of alcohol to overwhelm the amount of fluid in the drink and lead to an overall negative fluid balance. To consume alcohol after training is like purposely obstructing or counteracting the positive adaptations you were working to achieve.

How does this relate to weight loss? Training builds fitness and greater fitness gives you the tools to do more work per unit time (higher power output, more kilojoules per hour), which thereby increases the caloric expenditure you can achieve per hour and per training session. Hindering training adaptation or the quality of tomorrow’s workout slows or halts your training and weight management progress.

Alcohol Disturbs Sleep

Sleep is restorative and crucial for recovering from and adapting to training stress. While alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, you end up taking longer to reach REM sleep and spend less overall time in REM sleep cycles.

The biggest benefits to restfulness and training adaptation happen during REM sleep, so anything that reduces sleep quality ends up hurting your training. Being less rested also influences all of your decision making the next day, making it less likely that you will stick with a thoughtful nutrition strategy.

Alcohol Messes With Glycogen Replenishment

A post-workout beer is probably the worst thing you can do after any exercise you intend to benefit from. Yes, beer and wine have carbohydrate in them. No, that carbohydrate does not end up in your muscles. Not only does the alcohol get metabolized to fat, but even when you consume carbohydrates with the alcohol (pretzels and beer), glycogen replenishment is delayed by the presence of alcohol (Burke, 2003).

Note, I specifically used the phrase “exercise you intend to benefit from” in the paragraph above. When you roll across the finish line of the Dirty Kanza 200 or finished up an epic weekend ride with your friends, that post-ride beer may be part of the experience you’re looking for, and if that’s the case enjoy the beer! It’s important to realize there’s a difference between optimizing your training and creating the experience you want to have with the fitness you’ve worked hard for.

Alcohol Messes With Muscle Protein Synthesis

Alcohol lowers testosterone production and increases cortisol levels. Together these effects conspire to hinder muscle protein synthesis. Remember, muscle synthesis isn’t just necessary for building bigger muscles; it is also necessary for repairing and maintaining the muscle mass you have right now.

Again, you might wonder what this has to do with weight loss. Athletes tell me all the time that they are getting fat because metabolism slows as we get older. Not exactly. Metabolism is driven by muscle mass, and muscle mass tends to decline as we age because we have less combined activity in our lifestyle and training. If you further hinder your ability to maintain or build muscle by consuming alcohol, you are effectively cancelling out one of the biggest opportunities you have to keep your metabolism from falling.

Summary

In the face of everything written above, I will continue to consume and enjoy wine, beer, and whiskey. When my athletic goals were much loftier I didn’t drink alcohol. In later years as a more casual competitor, whenever I made a concerted effort to lose weight I eliminated alcohol for a period of time.

What I tell athletes is that your decision about alcohol depends on your performance and weight management goals. Alcohol won’t help you achieve either one. If you are struggling to reach valuable performance or weight management goals, eliminating alcohol needs to be part of the solution. If you’re not willing to do that, that’s fine, but then don’t say you’ve done everything you can to perform at your best and don’t complain about being heavier than you want to be.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


 

Burke, Louise M., Greg R. Collier, Elizabeth M. Broad, Peter G. Davis, David T. Martin, Andrew J. Sanigorski, and Mark Hargreaves. “Effect of Alcohol Intake on Muscle Glycogen Storage after Prolonged Exercise.” Journal of Applied Physiology J Appl Physiol 95.3 (2003): 983-90.

Paganini-Hill, A., C. H. Kawas, and M. M. Corrada. “Type of Alcohol Consumed, Changes in Intake over Time and Mortality: The Leisure World Cohort Study.” Age and Ageing 36.2 (2007): 203-09.

31 Responses to “Forget About Weight Loss Unless You’re Willing to Do This”

  1. RS

    Useful. Not all correct, though, such as this: “But not only can your body not run on alcohol, you also metabolize it as fat rather than carbohydrate. ” That’s just not true, but it also doesn’t make any sense — do you mean it’s stored as fat? That’s wrong. But it’s also not “metabolized as fat”, it ends up metabolized as acetate, then to CO2 and water.

    Reply
  2. Christopher Mumma

    Just finished a roughly 400 mile Challenge ride with a ProjectHero Ride2Recovery for Disabled Veterans ( Like me) and first responders ( Memorial Challenge).

    They provide lots of food via donations from great restaurants and the USO, but you can over ear if you are weak with your self control. I thought I was doing a good job with that, but I was consuming at least 1 drink a night if not 2 and I gained 13 lbs in a week 129-142. While I didn’t noticed any deficiencies in my riding, I can feel the extra weight.

    I am sure some of it is water wait, but I was surprised just how much I gained as I was burning at least 3000 calories on the bike a day. No alcohol for me for a while to check this out. Thank you, Chris for posting this.

    Reply
  3. Athlete

    Alkohol MUST be the part of our nutrition to stay healthy!

    Beer and red wie is beneficial to your fundamenytal health..
    French consume alcohol daily before (PASTIS), during (red wine) and after (Calvados) meals to impróve the digestion!

    They eat all the fatty shit and have great cholesterol level, are not fat, and do not suffer from hearth attacks.

    Any one who claim that alcohol is bad for you has some mental problems!

    Everything in MODERATION is good, in excess can kill you .. including drinking water!

    Lets cut this paranoya that alcohol is bad and fattening!

    Eat les have more woman every day and enjoy life, like you would die tomorow!

    Reply
  4. Ray Scott

    I am 73, live at the beach and love Happy Hours. Aint gonna happen. I have cycled for over 46 years. Still kickin ass on the bike so whats a few pounds at my age. LOL.

    Reply
  5. Michael

    I decided earlier this year to cut back on my two IPA’s an evening. No particular goal, just felt anything that was a habit that did not have proven benefits (including excessive mileage) could be jettisoned. My set weight at 1.74M has always been about 156 pounds since high school 50 years ago. Other than when I was running 70+ miles a week (much prefer cycling), or lifting weights competitively, my weight is always the same +/- a pound or two. So I was curious if my IPA abstinence (other than occasional social events) would affect my weight. The answer is no. It seems my body adjusts for this alcohol caloric loss by hunger for other food (basically vegan since 1971). It’s not likely anything I would consider eating or drinking, as long as I continue my now more modest levels of exercise in my dotage, would affect my weight in any significant way. If I really had that desire to be a much better climber (and I’m ok for my age), and get to that mythical 2 pounds per inch in height goal, I’d probably only manage it by a very high exercise load, and giving up all forms of weight lifting exercise. Only in 1976 for the bikecentennial when tandeming cross country, or in the 80’s running and training for marathons did I tip below 150. To get down to 135 or so would require extraordinary measures – maybe then, alcohol related weight gain would be a factor. But where I am now, and have been for 50 years – no.

    Reply
  6. Scott 2

    Great read Chris,
    Another great reason why I prefer cannabis, (now legal in many states). I realize it’s not for everyone, but the benefits of this plant trump alcohol from all the research I’ve done, and many athletes, (some pros), are making the switch.
    And, several studies have shown that consuming cannabis doesn’t not necessarily increase ones weight, (of course self-discipline matters here too).

    Cheers to rewards, Scott

    Reply
  7. Frank Bergen

    I’m training for two races this summer and would like to be 15 lbs less ( now 175) for best climbing ratio. I’m two days into your recommondation and will report back mid August

    Reply
  8. Olav H

    Great reprint!!
    A year ago, coming back from vacation in France with abundance of food and wine, weighing in at 196 or so at 6ft, I decided that I had wasted enough time and effort. Within 6 months I was down to 163-165 at 9% bodyfat. It took some effort, some structure, some calorie counting and no wine/beer but I allowed myself an occasional glass (not every occasional but once a month occasional). At 50, I will never win anything but it was indeed a great satisfaction to reach the goal and riding lighter and faster.

    Reply
  9. Charlene Gearing

    Love the science in your article. Athletes of all ages need to read this. Please share as widely as you can. Truth without preaching. Mahalo nui.

    Reply
  10. Marty

    I needed to hear this. Stop whining (applied to me) about those extra 5-10 pounds, or give up alcohol.

    Thanks Chris.

    P.S. Training is going great with my coach. Training with power now and love it.

    Reply
  11. Steve Benbow

    Great article – but I don’t drink – am I like Mark Twain said, “. . . a sinking ship with no luggage to throw overboard?

    Reply
  12. Ira

    So true. The first glass of red wine after nearly 5 month training and the TOC last year was an explosion of taste and joy. Something we rather loose with “drinking routine”.
    P.s It nearly knocked me out my socks though.

    Reply
  13. Kim

    Totally agree with you, Chris! I decided to lose weight the healthy and slow route, and one of the ways I did this was by not drinking any more alcohol right after my birthday on January 5, 2016. After 4 months, I have lost 30 lbs. – I feel great, exercise almost every day, and I don’t miss wine one bit. Woohoo!

    Reply
  14. Lorraine

    Was unsubscribing excess emails but yours wasn’t one of them. I have been reading your articles for years. There is no repetition, articles are discussed in a balanced manner and they are well researched. This one is no exception. LB Down Under.

    Reply
  15. Jeff Sipos

    I am a recovering alcoholic and have been sober for 34 years, nine months and ten days. Back in the day before I stopped drinking and started serious riding, I would enjoy a beer or ten after a sandlot baseball…NOT softball…game without fully realizing the consequences of both alcohol use and abuse. In addition to the addiction gene that my Dad passed on to me, he also so generously favored me with his sky high (no pun intended) metabolism which left my weight consistently hovering around 140 lbs. Right about the time I decided to sober up, I began to notice a bit of a beer belly rearing its ugly self. From the time I stopped imbibing until I was forced into retirement in 2010, I never had an issue with excess weight or fat…and then I put aside my riding for a couple of years. This time, the excess boiler area wasn’t from alcohol but rather Coca-Cola…empty sugar calories. I began a four-times weekly weight training program earlier this year…in addition to spinning and riding…and the issue is back under control. The point is this: no matter what one’s vice and/or metabolism, ultimately, there is a price to be paid. Like Chris, I also choose to continue with my (Coke) vice but at age 62, I can no longer rely on only my natural rhythm to keep a svelte appearance. Imagine if I were still drinking beer! Thanks for a great article.

    Peace,

    Jeff “Poppa Horse” Sipos
    John 16:33

    Reply
  16. gilles

    Health Canada recommends a limit of 2 drinks per day.
    That’s 14 per week at ~200 calories each, 2800/week.
    I obviously cannot afford these, no matter
    how much I ride.
    Favorite IPA’s, good wine and whiskey are reserved
    for special occasions and considered treats.

    Reply
  17. Mark Milliman

    …but alcohol tastes so good! Also, we live in Colorado with so many fine beers. I have several friends whose life revolves around brewing so it is very hard to cut down. I realized the fact that alcohol metabolizes right to fat when I started cutting weight. Now I’m down to maybe two servings a week, but the weight loss has plateaued. I’m trying to find that next “thing” to cut because with my metabolism and slow-twitch fiber muscle, my body very efficiently burns fuel which is good for long-distance rides and races but bad for losing weight.

    Reply
  18. G Kuch

    This article nailed It! Most of us don’t want to hear this, but that doesn’t mean it is not true. I personally subscribe to “periodization” when it comes to consumption of alcohol. I enjoy it in moderation much of the time, but when I am really trying to get to that next plateau, I cut it from my life. After I have reached that performance plateau and or completed a particular event, I resume moderation until next time. I realize that this is a bit of a self perpetuating circle, but I have made my choice and I live with it.

    Reply
    • oTTo

      Good one! 🙂

      Reply
  19. Dale Mc Vay

    I find that one ( and I do mean one!) martini on Friday is plenty…

    Reply
  20. Ray Scott

    I am ok with my weight and fitness level. I will not give up drinking alcohol for weight loss even though I agree with this analysis. I live at the Beach and enjoy Happy Hours with friends watching the sun set over the ocean while sipping a brew or two at our favorite beach bar.

    Reply
    • Mark

      See the paragraph headed “Alcohol Has Zero Benefit for Performance” The resveratrol and other polyphenols in red wine do not cancel the effect of alcohol consumption.

      Reply
  21. Jodie

    You are right, Chris. But life’s too short! 🙂

    Reply
  22. Rickey Wray

    Very logical, completely correct, and something I don’t want to hear. I know it works though absolutely, have proved it to myself time after time, yet, that glass (or two, or more) of fine red wine tastes so pleasant befored and during a meal. Just isn’t fair!

    Reply
  23. Neil Ducoff

    I know. I know. I know.
    Thank you Chris for the smack-in-the-head.
    Neil

    Reply
  24. Dennis

    great review of complex subject…

    Thnx …

    Reply
  25. Jon

    in the interest of moderation, how long after a hard ride or workout should one wait before having an IPA two?

    Reply
    • Cary

      I say you should wait until you reach your resting HR. Though that might depend on whether it is a double IPA or not.

      Reply

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