Most of us all have a desire to lose weight at some point in our lives. We might spend hours slugging it out on the treadmill, avoiding high-calorie meals, and drinking smoothies the colour of Shrek to help us shed the kilos throughout the week. It is also very common for people to eat and exercise perfectly in accordance with their goals throughout the week, then Friday night arrives and the goals are forgotten and the alcohol is consumed in copious amounts. This begs the question, is it possible to achieve your weight loss goals whilst still drinking alcohol regularly? As with most complicated topics, the answer is “well, it depends…”.
As a general rule, weight-loss usually boils down to energy expenditure vs energy input. In other words, if you want to lose weight you will need to burn more calories than you consume. Our resting metabolic rate (the calories we naturally burn when our body is at rest), combined with the energy we burn during exercise, determines our overall calorie expenditure. If we want to lose weight, we need to ensure the amount of energy/calories we consume, is less than the calories we burn at rest and during exercise. So, if we naturally burn 1600 calories throughout the day with no exercise, but we burn 400 calories going for a run, this means we have burnt 2000 calories overall, and will need to eat less than this to lose weight.
It is important to note that this is an extremely simplistic view of weight-loss, and there are various other confounding factors that contribute to a persons weight. As a general guide, however, calorie input vs calorie output is the basis of all fitness challenges, diets and weight-loss programs so it’s efficacy as an overarching principle for weight loss is arguably valid despite some flaws. Most good fitness programs out there advise eating 300-500 calories less per day than the amount of calories you burn. This often isn’t too restrictive for most people and can lead to sustained weight loss. However, caution should be heeded in circumstances where you become too invested in tracking calories, because an obsessive mindset can lead to dangerous patterns of behaviour and cognitions. Moreover, it’s often very difficult to ascertain exactly how many calories you burn during a particular exercise due to the individualised nature of the exercise process, as well as the significant inaccuracy of trackers such as fitbits and apple watches. Despite these inherent problems though, thousands of people have succeeded in losing weight by loosely tracking their calories and it can certainly be an effective means to lose weight.
So, what does all this have to do with alcohol and weight-loss? The reason calorie input/output is important in relation to alcohol and losing weight is because alcohol is quite calorie dense, and does not offer the same nutrients that the usual chicken and broccoli usually prescribed on standard meal plans does. If you are consistently tracking your calories throughout the week and you have alcohol, you will notice very quickly how easy it is to consume more calories than you are burning if you are drinking regularly. Furthermore, if you are “wasting” calories on alcohol as opposed to high-protein and fulfilling foods, then you will most likely be incredibly hungry all the time and will find it extremely difficult to stick to any meal plan. Your results also probably won’t be as efficient or as satisfactory as you’d expect, especially if you are not eating enough protein because you are “using” those calories on alcohol.
That isn’t to say that you cannot combine weight-loss with alcohol. If you can drink alcohol whilst still being in a calorie deficit, theoretically it is perfectly fine for you to combine alcohol consumption with your fat-loss goals. There are many low-calorie alcohol beverages available, such as seltzers, vodka coke-zeroes (pepsi max for me thank you) and gin and soda water that will allow you to consume alcohol and potentially stick to your calorie consumption goals. Even if you do consume a little bit more alcohol on the weekend than intended, what matters for weight-loss is really about what you do consistently, so a few slip-ups here or there really shouldn’t be a significant impediment on your fat loss. Ultimately, life is there to be enjoyed and lived, and if alcohol aligns with your values and goals then arguably it can be woven into any meal plan, particularly if slow but sustainable progress is the goal.
Although it is possible to consume alcohol and lose weight, this type of mindset fails to take into account the overall picture of a person’s health. It’s perfectly normal, in fact extremely common, for us to want to lose weight. In my view, however, it is even more important to feel good, to promote body positivity, to live in a way where healthy habits are ingrained, and to be compassionate to ourselves and others. To give alcohol the green light with weight-loss simply because you’re counting calories and only have a slice of toast all day but can have 8 vodka shots, isn’t ideal and isn’t treating your body with the love and nourishment it deserves. Moreover, the negative side-effects of drinking alcohol, like the horrible hangovers, disrupted sleep, poor decision-making and negative mood all combine to lower your chances of achieving your weight loss goals. We are far more likely to make poor nutritious decisions when we are under the influence of alcohol, or when we are dealing with the horrendous hangover the next morning. Never in my life have I felt like eating chicken and salad after a huge night of partying. You might think you have all the willpower in the world, but when you are in that position you will more often than not choose the unhealthy and high-calorie option, which can lead to feelings of disappointment and failure.
One of the key areas of health that alcohol negatively impacts upon is sleep. Many people believe that because alcohol might help them fall asleep quicker, that this must mean alcohol improves your sleep. Contrary to this belief, studies indicate that sleep quality can be significantly diminished by alcohol due to the disruption it has on our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. It is during REM sleep where our dreams occur and interruptions in this phase of sleep can lead to lack of concentration and drowsiness throughout the day. A good night sleep is imperative to your health, and poor sleep patterns are associated with a vast array of health-problems. Reduced or disrupted sleep can also affect the quality of your training sessions and can decrease motivation, tolerance and willpower. So whilst you might have good intentions to count calories and weave alcohol into your meal plan, realistically speaking there are far more factors to consider than a simple equation of calories in versus calories burnt.
Generally speaking, alcohol can be combined with any weight-loss program if you are tracking calories and ensuring that the majority of the time you are consuming less calories than you are burning. I would argue, however, that this is an overly-simplistic view on health and weight-loss generally, and fails to take into account the flow-on effects of drinking alcohol. After a night out, most people experience poor sleep, feelings of sluggishness and lethargy, and are less likely to eat foods in accordance with their weight-loss goals. Your desire to eat healthy and feel great is often overpowered by a terrible hangover and a genuine need for fatty, sodium-rich foods that provided momentary comfort. In my opinion, what it all comes down to is maintaining a profound awareness of what your values are, how alcohol makes you feel physically and psychologically, and being honest with yourself of whether its impacts are largely positive overall. Being mindful of how we feel before, during and after drinking alcohol can guide you to making the decision about how much alcohol you should consume when you’re on a weight-loss program. Ultimately, recognising the impact that your behaviours have on your feelings and overall health is key to losing weight and achieving your goals. So, my answer of whether drinking alcohol and losing weight is compatible is that only you, personally can answer that.