Tracking Macros & Drinking Alcohol with IIFYM
Being in recovery for 19+ years I never really have to worry about the answer to this question, but of the 200+ emails, I get every day, 2 of them are about drinking.
It is for this reason that IIFYM.com has teamed up with the amazing contest prep coach, Paul Revelia of Pro Physiques to finally put the question to rest, with an answer that is easy to understand.
The following is what Paul has to say on the subject of drinking alcohol while tracking macros:
For most people, the social experience of life is a key ingredient to happiness. The inclusion of alcohol is common during such social situations and for many who are looking to lose body fat the simple idea that they can’t consume alcohol is reason enough to avoid the process.
So we ask the question, is it possible to lose body fat and still drink? Does tracking macros and drinking beer mix? What about shots? Can we live a normal social life which involves drinking while still hitting our macros and reaching our fat loss goals?
The answer is yes, but how we get there takes a bit of math. The simple fact is that alcohol is one of the four macronutrients. Yes, there are four macro-nutrients; carbs, protein, fat, and alcohol, which contains calories, just like the other three macros in all of the foods we eat.
Tracking our macros and by default, our caloric intake allows us to manage those numbers to ensure we create a deficit by eating less food than our body needs to start the fat loss process. Things get a bit more complicated when we examine the effects on body fat loss when we drink alcohol. For now, let’s start by discussing the idea of flexible dieting, or macronutrient tracking to see how alcohol would fit into daily goals when burning fat is at the top of our list.
If we consume an alcoholic beverage which contains 80 calories that would mean reducing our carbohydrate intake by 20 grams for the day. Simple, right?
For the purpose of rapid fat loss, a balanced diet should consist of sufficient protein, fat, and carbohydrates (without neglecting our fiber needs). There are varying theories on the specifics of those ratios which this article is not going to discuss so we will stick to the facts. (If you want to figure out your specific cutting macros you can use the Macro Calculator).
First the math. Protein and Carbohydrates are roughly 4 calories per gram, while fat is 9 calories per gram. Alcohol doesn’t fit into these macronutrient groups and is a bit different, it contains 7 calories per gram. For the purposes of exchanging some of your daily macronutrients for alcohol, the math is not difficult at all.
The most flexible macronutrient when it comes to a fat loss diet is the carbohydrate class. This is because both fat and protein are essential to our diet, while carbs are not required for us to survive. Knowing this, it only makes sense that we manipulate carbs rather than the fats or protein.
Exchanging Alcohol For Carbs and Fat
So let’s look at how we could replace an alcohol drink with carbs. Since every gram of carbs has roughly 4 calories if we consume an alcoholic beverage which contains 80 calories that would mean reducing our carbohydrate intake by 20 grams for the day. Simple, right? For a person that has their fat loss macros set at 200 grams per day, reducing them to 180 grams would create the caloric balance we are after.
Alternatively, if you happen to have a good deal of fat in your diet, you could subtract the alcohol calories from your daily fat intake instead. The same equation for an 80 calorie beverage would mean we reduce daily fat intake by 9 grams (since fat has 9 calories per gram we divide 80 by 9 to yield 8.88, and round up to 9 for simplicity).
So if your fat is set to 70 grams for the day, and you would simply lower your fat intake to 61 grams to make up for the 80-calorie alcoholic beverage you drank.
To make it easier, check out this infographic we created to show you how to exchange alcohol for fat and carbs:
If you really know what you are doing, you could also trade alcohol for a combination of carbs and fat rather than just one of them, which actually might be required if you are going all out for a night of shenanigans.
Athletes who are training during an intense phase and are in a constant state of recovery need to consider that “acute alcohol consumption, at the levels often consumed by athletes, may negatively alter normal immunoendocrine function, blood flow, and protein synthesis so that recovery from skeletal muscle injury may be impaired.”(Barnes) When recovery is impaired the successive training sessions may also be of lower quality.
An athlete who is interested in being in optimal condition as well as being able to perform at peak levels should certainly take this into consideration. For someone who is a part of the general population and is more interested in a sustainable fat loss diet, having alcohol may help make the process easier as it’s more socially acceptable to have a few drinks with friends than it is to avoid gatherings.
How Alcohol Consumption Affects Recovery
Recovery from training is a very important part of the process for improvement. The adaptations that occur as a result of training are the reason our body’s change for the better. The explanation for why our bodies do not recover as quickly due to alcohol consumption can be explained by the fact that protein synthesis is blunted as the body deals with processing alcohol.
Allowing the body to rebuild is a necessary part of the fat loss process and “Alcohol (EtOH) decreases protein synthesis and mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR)-mediated signaling and blunts the anabolic response to growth factors in skeletal muscle.”(Steiner) For someone to consistently consume alcoholic beverages this process would be blunted repeatedly and interfere with performance and recovery.
“A successful fat loss program is going to require discipline in many situations and avoiding alcohol might just be one of the sacrafices you have to make to achieve your fat loss goals.”
Depending on your level of athletics this may nor not be a deal breaker. For someone who is interested in being active, enjoying the gym and social situations with friends there is certainly a very easy way to keep balance.
Plan ahead for times when you might want to consume some alcohol, adjust your daily macronutrient and caloric goals to allow for it and move forward. Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that when alcohol is consumed our decision-making process is changed which could potentially lead to some off plan eating or drinking.
A successful fat loss program is going to require discipline in many situations and avoiding alcohol might just be one of the sacrifices you have to make to achieve your fat loss goals. Know thyself when it comes to these situations so you can avoid a misstep.
For high-level athletes who are stressing their bodies daily to a high level, the decision becomes a bit more important. At this level of competition, the minor day to day decisions can have a large impact.
This type of individual will often have a no alcohol policy in place to ensure adherence and a clear conscience on the day of competition. For those at the highest levels the thinking is often will this benefit me, and if the answer is no, then it’s best to be avoided. Alcohol often fits this description.
Regardless of your goal, information is important in the decision-making process. Remember that alcohol can be exchanged for a combination of carbohydrates and fats in the diet. Using zero calorie mixers also helps to keep the macro’s lower. Plan ahead by looking at your daily goals and finding areas where you can exchange some calories and keep making progress while enjoying life.