We are always being asked which alcoholic drink it’s best to consume. Which drink has the least number of calories, which ones will cause the least amount of stomach discomfort and which ones will give us the smallest headache the next morning! The truth is that, while there may be some smarter choices around drinks with fewer calories or those that will cause less ‘bloating’ or likelihood of a hangover the truth is that the body treats all alcohol the same when it comes to energy systems and it’s this factor that is the key when considering alcohol consumption and fat loss.
To explain what we mean we need to explain a little bit about how the body uses energy. First of all, the body is always ‘burning’ a mixture of carbohydrate, fat and protein and depending on activity levels and nutritional status, it will burn a higher proportion of one of these over the other. When people talk about the ‘fat burning zone (that’s a blog post in itself!) what they mean is that the body is using a proportionally higher amount of fats over carbs and protein.
The body is very happy to use fats as an energy source while exercise intensity is low. The reason for this is that fat requires oxygen in order to be used as an energy source, and while oxygen is available (such as during low intensity exercise) fat can be used. Carbohydrate is more readily used for energy during slightly higher intensity exercise as it doesn’t require oxygen to be used and it doesnt take many chemical reactions to convert it to energy, while protein is the last on the list as it requires quite a lot of chemical changes to be broken down and used for energy.
So where does alcohol fit into all of this? Alcohol is very easily converted into a substance that can be converted to energy and it is for this reason that when alcohol is available it will be preferentially used as an energy source over carbs, fats and protein. The real issue is that, following a ‘big’ Friday night out there will be alcohol available in the tissues of the body for up to 4 days. This means that alcohol will seriously inhibit fat burning for this period of time while the body uses the alcohol as an energy source.
Hopefully it is now clear that the question shouldn’t be ‘which drink?’ but ‘how much?’ when it comes to preventing alcohol inhibiting your fat loss goals. Of course, there is a whole other side to this story with the choices that are made around food while people drink alcohol and, again, quantity of alcohol drunk will probably have a bearing on subsequent food choices!