Preventing fat storage from alcohol consumption
Let’s quickly review how nutrients are stored and burned after a mixed meal.
- Carbs and protein suppress fat oxidation via an elevation in insulin. However, these macronutrients do not contribute to fat synthesis in any meaningful way by themselves.
- Since fat oxidation is suppressed, dietary fat is stored in fat cells.
- As the hours go by and insulin drops, fat is released from fat cells. Fat storage is an on-going process and fatty acids are constantly entering and exiting fat cells throughout the day. Net gain or loss is more or less dictated by calorie input and output.
If we throw alcohol into the mix, it gets immediate priority in the substrate hierarchy: alcohol puts the breaks on fat oxidation, but also suppresses carb and protein oxidation.
This makes sense considering that the metabolic by-product of alcohol, acetate, is toxic. Metabolizing it takes precedence over everything else. This quote sums up the metabolic fate of alcohol nicely:
“Ethanol (alcohol) is converted in the liver to acetate; an unknown portion is then activated to acetyl-CoA, but only a small portion is converted to fatty acids.
Most of the acetate is released into the circulation, where it affects peripheral tissue metabolism; adipocyte release of non-esterified fatty acids is decreased and acetate replaces lipid in the fuel mixture.”- Hellerstein MK, et al (1999).
Acetate in itself is an extremely poor precursor for fat synthesis. There’s simply no metabolic pathway that can make fat out of alcohol with any meaningful efficiency. Studies on fat synthesis after substantial alcohol intakes are non-existent in humans, but Hellerstein (from quotation) estimated de novo lipogenesis (conversion of carbs to fat) after alcohol consumption to ~3%. Out of the 24 g alcohol consumed in this study, a measly 0.8 g fat was synthesized in the liver.
The effect of alcohol on fat storage is very similar to that of carbs: by suppressing fat oxidation, it enables dietary fats to be stored with ease. However, while de novo lipogenesis may occur once glycogen stores are saturated, DNL via alcohol consumption seems less likely.
How to lose fat or prevent fat gain when drinking
Now that you understand the effect of alcohol on substrate metabolism, it’s time for me to reveal how you can make alcohol work for fat loss. Alternatively, how you can drink on a regular basis without any fat gain, without having to count calories.
Apply this method exactly as I have laid it out. If you’ve paid attention, you’ll understand the rationale behind it. I’ve tested this on myself and it works pretty well.
The rules are as follows:
For drinking days, restrict your intake of dietary fat to 0.3 g/kg body weight (or as close to this figure as possible).
Limit carbs to 1.5 g/kg body weight. Get most carbs from fibrous veggies (e.g. asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, dark leafy greens etc) and the carbs in some protein sources (e.g. beans, but NOT tinned baked beans). I would also recommend the less starchy root vegetables like squashes, celeriac and turnip. You’ll also want to limit carbohydrate-rich alcohol sources such as drinks made with fruit juices and beer. A 33 cl/12 fl oz of beer contains about 12 g carbs, while a regular Cosmopolitan is about 13 g.
Good choices of alcohol include dry wines (includes most reds), which are very low carb, clocking in at about 0.5-1 g per glass (4 fl oz/115ml). Sweet wines are much higher at 4 to 6 g per glass. Cognac, gin, rum, Scotch, tequila, vodka and whiskey are all basically zero carbs. Dry wines and spirits is what you should be drinking, ideally. Take them straight or mixed with diet soft drinks. No need to be super-neurotic about this stuff; drinks should be enjoyed after all. Just be aware that there are better and worse choices out there.
Eat as much protein as you want. Yes, that’s right. Due to the limit on dietary fat, you need to get your protein from lean sources. Protein sources such as low fat cottage cheese, protein powder (see one of my shake recipes below, which is taken from my new eBook The Fat Loss Puzzle), chicken, turkey, tuna, pork and egg whites are good sources of protein these drink days or any days really. I would go as far as advocating 2 eggs (organic free range) on drinking days, as one whole egg only has about 5g of fat. If using in shakes, use only the yolk (see recipe below). One egg yolk in shakes (for convenience if you don’t have time to cook on those days) would give you 5g of fat since the fat is in the yolk, with about 5g to15g to play with depending on your body weight. It’s not exact, so as long as you are close, it will pay dividends.
If you are short of time or are going out straight after work, you could have another shake beforehand. If you want a food option then use any of the above listed foods with minimal fat e.g. you could have Cajun chicken breast, done in a dry pan for about two and a half minutes each side served with a load of spring greens wilted in a pan with just a small knob of butter or small teaspoon of virgin coconut oil (remember you need some fat for nutrient absorption), mainly the oil soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. You could have the chicken with the greens and some celeriac or squash or turnip mash (the less starchy carbs) with just a small amount of fat (even spot of milk and seasoning) for mashing.
You could have omelette or any type of frittata (low fat ones) remembering to use only a small knob of butter or other fat with any vegetables you like, including greens to accompany your meat, fish or poultry. Wild salmon or smoked mackerel frittata anyone? I have a great recipe in The Fat Loss Puzzle eBook.
Apply the protocol and you will avoid fat gain or even achieve fat loss on a weekly basis as long as your diet is on course for the rest of the week, sprinkled with some exercise and you are not guzzling wine every day. Even alternate days should still keep you at a steady weight, provided you follow the protocol and eat nutritious foods throughout the week. If you use your drinks mainly in place of other treats, this will also help.
Basically, the nutritional strategy I have outlined here is all about focusing on substrates that are least likely to cause net synthesis of fat during hypercaloric conditions. Alcohol and protein, your main macronutrients on drinking days, are extremely poor precursors for de novo lipogenesis (conversion of carbs into fat). Alcohol suppresses fat oxidation, but by depriving yourself of dietary fat during alcohol consumption, you won’t be storing anything. Nor will protein cause any measurable de novo lipogenesis. High protein intake will also compensate for the weak effect of alcohol on satiety (fullness) and make you less likely to blow your diet when you’re drinking.
By the way, a nice bonus after a night of drinking is that it effectively rids you of water retention; you may experience the “whoosh” effect. That in itself can be motivating for folks who’ve been experiencing a plateau in their weight loss.
Always eat before you drink
Research suggests it’s wise to factor in those drinks calories, but it’s actually more important to eat right than to eat less. Skimping on food in order to “make room” for drinks will only backfire and send you straight to the bottom of the nut bowl. Here’s why: most drinks are loaded with simple carbs, so during a night of drinking, people end up with soaring blood sugar, followed by a ‘crash’ that leaves them ravenous.
You can help counteract that effect by having foods as previously described that provide long-lasting energy before you go out. An added benefit of grabbing a bite beforehand is that the Merlot or Chardonnay or other drinks will be absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream, minimising its diet-damaging effects.
In addition to revving your appetite, tippling also makes you lose your eating inhibitions (“I only live once so I’ll have a kebab!”). It temporarily impairs the prefrontal cortex (mimicking brain damage), the smarty-pants part of the brain that allows you to think clearly and rein in impulsivity. So after a certain amount of alcohol (and it’s different for everyone), you’re going to feel yourself not caring and letting it rip with food and probably drinks. A few glasses can also make you forgetful, as in, forgetting that the chocolate fudge cheesecake is not on your eating plan.
The trick is to have an easy-to-follow strategy in place before you take that first sip. Protein, some carbs, some fibre and a little bit of healthy fat to help control blood-sugar levels and improve nutrient absorption making you feel satisfied and less prone to fat storage and hunger pangs.
Know that some drinks make you hungrier than others
So if you’re going to drink, have something straight up and simple like wine or spirits. Wine lovers rejoice!
Beware of that starving feeling the next day
The morning after poses a new diet challenge. As if a hangover weren’t punishment enough, you’re fighting cravings for large amounts of cheesy, greasy fast food. Part of the problem is that you’re dehydrated (don’t forget, alcohol is a diuretic) and that can make you feel even hungrier. But that’s not the only thing at play. The body needs energy to resolve the effects of a big night of drinking, so it wants the richest source of energy it can find, which is fat especially greasy foods, which tend to settle the stomach a bit.
To avoid this, when you’re out, drink a big glass of water for every drink you have. Then, before going to bed, have some more, along with a snack that is mainly protein and/or veggies or if you can’t be bothered take a multivitamin and mineral supplement. You’ll get important nutrients into the body that were lost during alcohol consumption.
Apply this with good judgement and don’t go to extremes. Remember, it doesn’t give you a license to binge every day of the week, but this is as good as it gets if you want to be able to drink freely without significantly impacting fat loss progress or causing unwanted fat gain.
For some other killer strategies to prevent fat storage either in general or with alcohol, read The Fat Loss Puzzle eBook.
Pure Protein Shake (Serves 1)
100ml of full fat organic milk or unsweetened almond milk
1 tbsp of plain full fat, organic Greek bio yogurt (leave out!) or use regular
25g scoop of plain whey protein, unsweetened
½ medium banana
½ tsp of cinnamon
1 organic free range (FRO) raw egg yolk (optional)
Splash of full fat coconut milk (leave out!)
1 tsp of nut or seed butter (e.g. almond, sunflower, tahini), optional (leave out!)
Throw everything in a blender and blend for 20 seconds until everything is blended.
NB Raw egg yolks have a lovely vanilla taste albeit subtle and they are also the most nutritious in the raw state. Also we only use the yolk because raw egg white binds to the B vitamin, Biotin preventing its absorption. This shake is a real hunger killer throughout the day. The cinnamon also regulates blood sugar, allowing a slower insulin response.
To keep our fat to the recommended amounts when drinking alcohol, we need to leave out the nut or seed butter, leave out the Greek yogurt or use regular yogurt (e.g. Yeo Valley organic 4.5g of fat per 100g) and leave out the coconut milk. Add some extra liquid (water) if you like.