What you need to know about Alcohol
I think it’s time to discuss the big elephant in the room- Alcohol or Ethyl Alcohol for the science nerds out there. When people come to me to discuss their nutrition intake and how they can make their lifestyle ‘healthier,’ the one food item that doesn’t often readily surface is alcohol. Now, the majority of us have first-hand experiences of the effects of alcohol. For some, it may have ended with you wrapped around that porcelain throne at the end of the night. The thing is, we really need to talk about it! Especially if you are putting in the hard work in the gym and in other areas of your life in the pursuit of increasing your fitness. So let’s dive right in and talk about what exactly it is, how’s it’s metabolised in the body, its effect on your performance, and where it fits in the diet.
With the ‘counting macros’ fad recently being popular, most people can name the 3 macro-nutrients that primarily comprise a person’s diet (protein, carbohydrates and fat). The other ‘macro’ (I say this hesitantly because there is no nutritious value) is alcohol. Alcohol is unique in that it is absorbed very quickly in the blood stream no matter what it is mixed with. It is metabolised by the liver along with an antioxidant glutathione to help make it less toxic to the body. It goes through a few conversions to ultimately result in acetyl-CoA or the first step in the Kreb cycle. This cycle will allow the alcohol to be stored as fat or used to make energy depending on what it needs at the time.
This multi-step process is prioritised over metabolising carbs, fat or protein. So think of it as a queue. Carbs will usually be burned the quickest, and fat will be burned the slowest. (Protein isn’t meant to be used as a fuel source, but has other roles like in DNA replication, maintaining hair, nails and muscle mass.) When alcohol enters the blood stream, it jumps the queue and is metabolised first as it technically is a poison. So essentially, the take-away from all this science talk, is that alcohol 1) prioritises metabolism over other nutrients due to its toxicity to the body, 2) contributes to either fat stores or energy production depending on what the body needs most, at that particular time and 3) alcohol isn’t actually a carb, but a separate food item contributing to a particular number of calories per gram, just like carbs, protein, and fat.
How Alcohol is Metabolised
Now, I’m going to complicate things a little more, so bear with me. There are a few b-vitamins that are essential to metabolising alcohol through the multiple stages to ultimately rid body of this toxin. If these vitamins (thiamin and niacin) are not around for this process to happen the microsomal ethanol oxidizing system (MEOS) will metabolise the alcohol instead. The problem with this is that MEOS is also used to metabolise other drugs, so large intakes of alcohol can alter drug responses in unpredictable ways, as well as increasing tolerance level of not only alcohol but all the other drugs that you may be taking. Worse, if the MEOS system is saturated with alcohol, other drugs are not metabolised at the same rate and a drug overdose can occur, putting you in the hospital.
Alcohol & Exercise
Whew, now that we’re over the complicated stuff, let’s talk more about how alcohol effects your performance. It is a myth that alcohol is a carbohydrate, and that having alcohol can be used as a carb loader before or after exercise. Motor function, motor skills, balance and coordination are all affected by alcohol despite the ease of tension, insecurity and discomfort associated with exercise. The other negative consequence is that it can reduce sugar secretion from the liver, which can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and early fatigue during cardio sessions. The other common practice is to have a drink (or 5) after a session or event. This can be dangerous due to alcohol’s diuretic effect, and doesn’t contribute to the goal of replenishing, refueling, and restoring muscle glycogen and fluid. NOT what you want when you’re on the journey to become a fitter, healthier individual.
So, what now?
It’s not all doom and gloom though. After all that, I am not going to tell you, you should avoid alcohol at all costs. I just think it’s important for you to know the risks associated with consuming alcohol in large amounts, frequently, and around exercise. Alcohol is absolutely okay in moderation (1 drink for women and 2 for men a day) and when consumed responsibly. In fact, moderate consumption of wine and beer may be beneficial to bones in men and in postmenopausal women. Yay, some good news! Alcohol is also often associated with social situations and can be beneficial with the production of endorphins and feelings of pleasure, which is all part of maintaining good mental health… which I’m a BIG fan of! So just like all foods, it’s more about the context in which you’re having it than the food itself.