How Alcohol Can Affect Your Body Composition

How Alcohol Can Affect Your Body Composition

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on September 10, 2018 for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on July 26, 2017

If you begin a conversation about alcohol, you’re likely to get a chorus of varied opinions.

Your one friend swears that her daily glass of red wine will ward off cardiovascular disease, even if it’s at the expense of her six pack abs. Meanwhile, your gym buddy has a zero alcohol consumption policy in an effort to remain as lean as possible and avoid the dreaded “beer belly”.

Is it really possible to enjoy your social drinking and still maintain a healthy body weight and composition?

The answer is somewhat complicated and likely depends on your ultimate goals. Let’s delve a little deeper into the relationship between alcohol and body composition.

How the body metabolizes food

In order to understand how the body metabolizes alcohol, we must first take a look at how the body breaks down different macronutrients. There are three major macronutrients: lipids, carbohydrates, and protein. For example, what happens inside your digestive system when a person consumes a typical mixed meal made up of carbohydrates and fat.

During digestion, carbohydrates are generally metabolized first in what we call the “substrate hierarchy.” As the body breaks down carbohydrates, insulin levels rise and cause fat oxidation to be suppressed.

When insulin levels drop, fat is released from the fat cells for metabolism. Dietary fat is stored temporarily in these fat cells, and fat storage is an ongoing process in the body with fatty acids constantly entering and exiting fat cells through the day.

The temporary delay in fat oxidation is not what causes fat gain; rather, it’s the caloric input and output that determines how many calories will be stored as body fat.

A body composition analysis is essential to completely understanding your health. It breaks down your body into four components: fat, lean body mass, minerals, and body water; and can provide insights into how to change your lifestyle, exercise plan, or healthcare practices.

With a body composition test, we can provide an individualized health plan that best fits your goals and personal needs. Not only will it help you become healthier, but it can reduce the risk of deadly diseases and health issues.


Alcohol is made through the process of fermentation of starch, and traditionally has been classified as having 7.1 calories per gram. But once we take into account its rather high thermogenic effect (the amount of energy it takes to metabolize it), we find that it actually has closer to 5.6 calories per gram. This clocks in at a close second to protein.

However, you’ll often hear that calories from alcohol are defined as “empty”, which mean you do not receive any nutritional value.

Once we add alcohol to our meal, the metabolism of alcohol will take immediate priority. Essentially, fat, carbohydrate and protein oxidation is suppressed.

One study found that when participants were given four meals differing in carbohydrate, fat, protein and alcohol content, the alcohol-rich meal suppressed fat oxidation more than the carbohydrate-rich meal did. There was no difference in hunger or satiety sensations after the test meals.

So why does alcohol metabolism take priority?

The metabolic by-product of alcohol, a process known as microsomal ethanol-oxidizing system, is a compound known as acetate which is toxic to the body, thus your body prioritizes removing these toxins.

Once alcohol is converted into acetate in the liver, it enters circulation and only a very small portion can be converted to fatty acids. Basically, acetate is a poor precursor for fat synthesis. One study attempted to estimate fat synthesis after alcohol consumption and found that only ~3% of alcohol is converted into body fat. In this study what that found was that for every 24 grams of alcohol that was consumed, only 0.8 grams of fat was made in the liver.

It seems that alcohol and carbohydrates both suppress fat oxidation as the body works to first metabolize alcohol and remove it from the body and break down carbohydrate in the presence of elevated insulin. However, while carbohydrates eaten in excess of what the body can store as glycogen can be easily converted into fat, the same cannot be said for alcohol.

While alcohol is a toxin, it doesn’t seem that alcohol calories are converted at a higher rate to body fat than the calories from carbohydrates, fat or protein. Rather, excessive consumption of calories in ANY form is likely to cause fat gain.

Nutritional Differences between Different Types of Alcohol

We discussed the idea that alcohol calories are likely no different than calories from carbohydrates, fat or protein when it comes to weight gain. But what about when we look at different types of adult beverages. Are there nutritional differences between beer, wine, and spirits?

First, we need to take into account caloric content by volume but it’s also important to consider carbohydrate content as this will drastically influence the metabolism of your drink and whether it will be recognized by the body as “alcohol” or “carbohydrate”.


Light beers typically contain ~100 calories and 5 grams of carbs per 12 oz servingRegular beers typically contain ~150 calories and 10.5 grams of carbs per 12 oz servingIPA’s typically contain ~240 calories and 22 grams of carbs per serving


Dry red wines typically contain 150 calories and 4 grams of carbs per servingDry white wines typically contain 125 calories and 3 grams of carbs per servingDry Sparkling wine and champagne typically contains 110 calories and 2 grams of carbsFor sweeter wines, you can assume that the carbohydrate content will be slightly higher.


Spirits such as vodka, gin, whiskey, rum, and tequila will all contain close to 95 calories and 0 grams of carbs per fluid ounce

Keep in mind that when you mix alcohol with high calorie beverages and mixers, the caloric value and carbohydrate content changes. While 1.5 ounces of tequila may contain only 95 calories and 0 grams of carbohydrates, a margarita might contain somewhere closer to 400 calories and 65 grams of carbohydrates.

Aside from the potentially high number of empty calories alcohol can impair judgment and decrease inhibitions when it comes to making good food choices.

Indulging in alcohol prior to a meal (what is known as an aperitif) has been shown to increase caloric consumption. This is likely due to the increased activity in the brain’s pleasure centers, leading the drinker to over-consume appealing food.

Another factor is the restricted ability to monitor food intake and stay on your exercise routine when you have been under the influence the night prior. Calorie counting may very well fly out the window, and waking up with a hangover the day after a night of drinking is not always conducive to getting in an intense workout.

This all makes sense. But what about the drinker who consumes alcohol but does not then consume more calories from food and sticks with their regularly scheduled fitness routine?

One study of 19,220 women found that normal-weight women who consumed a light to moderate amount of alcohol actually gained less weight than non-drinkers and had a lower risk of becoming overweight or obese during 12.9 years of follow-up.

Moderate alcohol consumption can improve insulin sensitivity, although the mechanism behind this is still unclear. This would play a role in the way in which the body breaks down and stores carbohydrates.

Though this isn’t a reason to start drinking if you do not currently, it does seem to support the notion that alcohol calories might not be as bad as we once thought.

Side note: There is no strong research to suggest that excess alcohol is any more likely than excess protein, lipids or carbohydrates to cause weight gain independent of the fact that excessive alcohol consumption might also lead to increased food consumption.

Alcohol and Body Composition

It has been said that alcohol may decrease testosterone levels which may very well affect muscle growth, fitness performance and body composition, but research in this area is also not very strong.

A six-week study found that when men and women consumed 30-40 grams of alcohol per day, there was a mere 6.8% reduction in testosterone levels for the men and no change for the women. This means that even while drinking 3-4 adult beverages per day for three weeks, there was only a very small reduction in testosterone.

Thus, for moderate drinkers, testosterone reduction does not seem to pose a significant threat.

But what about consuming alcohol as a post-workout drink? After all, marathoners have been throwing back a pint or two at the finish line for decades.

One study looked at the hormonal response to alcohol consumption post-workout. Researchers gave participants the equivalent of an alcoholic drink after their resistance exercise and found that despite the significant alcohol consumption, there was no effect on testosterone and only a modest prolonged cortisol effect compared to the exercise-only group.

Another study looked at the effects of alcohol consumption before, during, 24 hours after, and 48 hours after a workout and found no significant changes in muscular performance nor any accelerated muscular damage.

Granted, some studies have found the opposite. For example, one study found that a moderate dose of alcohol may impair normal muscle recovery after exercise. However, this effect was found after very strenuous eccentric exercise that the average gym-goer is less likely to engage in. Another study found that when given very high doses of alcohol (1.5 g/kg of body weight) post-exercise, the ethanol acted as a depressant and was linked with prolonged secretion of testosterone.

In an alcoholic population, research has found that chronic drinkers suffered from reduced rates of muscle protein synthesis but the same cannot be said for a light to moderate drinking population.

So can you enjoy your martini and still reap the benefits of your workout?

The answer is yes!

As long as you keep your drinking to a moderate level which may mean a few times per week for most exercisers. Serious athlete may want to think twice about regular bouts of heavy drinking, as alcohol consumption been linked to higher incidence of sports-related injury and even small drops in testosterone or increases in cortisol  which may pose a threat to their high-level fitness goals.

What’s the bottom line?

Can alcohol be included as part of a healthy diet without considerably deterring the drinker from achieving the body they want and work so hard for?

The answer is yes!

For optimizing weight and body composition, research shows that it is more important and beneficial to keep overall caloric intake under control. When consuming alcohol, try to remember the following:

The metabolism of alcohol DOES affect fat metabolism but likely not more than other macronutrients like carbohydrates. That said, try to avoid consuming excessive calories to avoid fat storage and if drinking regularly, be sure to account for alcohol in your usual caloric intake.If you’re trying to maximize your time spent in the gym and minimize the effects that a six-pack might have on your six pack, you might want to limit sugary mixers and cocktails and when choosing beer, stick to lighter versions.Keep calories in check by opting for these lower calorie spirits but also being sure to consume ample amounts of lean protein to promote satiety (remember, alcohol does not have a satiating effect so to avoid overeating while drinking, fill up on protein!) Stay hydrated and get to sleep on time. This way, you won’t have to skip your workout in the morning!And last but not least, always remember to drink responsibly! Excessive levels of alcohol is never healthy!


Alix Turoff MS, RD, CDN, CPT is a Registered Dietitian and NASM Certified Personal Trainer. She sees patients privately and also works as a freelance consultant and writer.

Why You Need Carbs to Build Muscle

Why You Need Carbs to Build Muscle

When it comes to health and fitness, there is a lot of bad advice out there. There are two common misconceptions about body composition and diet:

  1. Decrease carbohydrates for weight loss
  2. Only increase protein for muscle growth
However, these two rules of thumb are not absolute truths. Carbohydrates and protein are nutrients that both play important roles in body composition, yet they both have stereotypes that aren’t 100% accurate.

If you want to gain muscle mass, then yes, you will need a lot of protein. But you’ll also need a fair amount of carbohydrates, and that shouldn’t be shocking or scary.

Protein automatically gets the credit for building strong muscles, but let’s not forget about your carb intake.

Depending on your body composition goals, you’ll need to adjust the amount and type of carbohydrates you consume.

When someone wants to lose excess weight, the first thing they do—or the first thing they’re told to do by their friend who acts as their personal trainer —is to adopt a low-carb diet. This can definitely lead to fat loss, but cutting carbs shouldn’t be a hard and fast rule in body composition, especially when it comes to gaining muscle.

Carbs usually aren’t restricted if muscle growth is the goal. It seems like weightlifters and athletes know some things about carbohydrates that the general public doesn’t: carbs aren’t the enemy to achieving your body composition goals.

Like a lot of things in life, there are carbs that will help you reach those goals and carbs that will prevent you from reaching those goals. Out of the various types of carbs, complex carbohydrates play a largely important role in building muscle mass.

Carbohydrates and Building Muscle Mass

Think about it: building anything takes a lot of time, energy and resources. Building muscle is no different. The body requires a lot of energy to power through workouts that result in bigger, stronger muscles. Where does the body get most of that energy? Usually from carbs.

Energy from Complex Carbohydrates

Out of all the energy sources for the human body, researchers have found that carbohydrates are the main source of energy in the human diet. This means that carbs aren’t just for athletes. Carbs are a great source of energy for anyone’s daily activities, including exercise.

You can think of carbohydrates as a source of fuel for the body, otherwise known as calories. As we’ve previously learned, there are two types of carbohydrates: simple carbs and complex carbs.  Simple carbs are a quick, sporadic source of energy, while complex carbs are a good source of steady energy. 

If you’ve ever heard of an athlete eat candy before a game or training session, that’s because simple carbs, like white sugar, are one of the fastest ways to spike energy. However, this energy kick cannot be maintained for long. Complex carbs may not be as readily available for immediate energy as simple carbs are, but they’re more efficient and healthier. Complex carbs provide sustainable energy, which means the energy is constant and there’s no “crash” like with simple carbs. 

One of the main reasons why complex carbs sustain energy throughout the day is because they take longer to digest. Simple carbs like fruit are easy for the body to break down and get rapidly digested, so they don’t provide energy for a long period of time. Complex carbs like starches are slow to digest and therefore slowly provide calories, giving you continuous energy for a longer period of time. 

Because of their slow-release properties, complex carbs should be the largest component of daily energy intake.

Isn’t Protein More Important Than Carbs for Building Muscle?

When you think of building muscle, you may think of a high-protein diet. Protein is extremely important in building muscle because the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) help repair and maintain muscle tissue. Essentially, protein helps you recover from workouts because muscles slightly tear during exercise.

If protein is so important, why put an emphasis on carbs? Well, complex carbohydrates don’t get enough credit when it comes to the important roles they play in muscle gains.

Some of the ways that complex carbs help to build muscle include:

1. Carbs help regulate muscle glycogen repletion

You may have heard of glycogen stores before. Glycogen is a form of glucose that is stored for later use. When the body needs energy, glycogen kicks into gear and acts as a ready fuel source. 

Carbohydrates and glycogen go hand in hand because carbs are stored as glycogen.

When carbs are low, glycogen stores are low. When carbs are consumed, glycogen stores are full.

Since glycogen is used for energy, it’s important to replenish those stores. This is why researchers recommend to consume carbohydrates immediately following exercise; it replenishes glycogen stores for future use.

2. Carbs prevent muscle degradation

One concern about low-carb diets is muscle loss.

A Netherlands study compared a low-carb diet to other diets and found that restricting carbs results in protein loss. This is because restricting carbs causes an increase in the amount of nitrogen that get excreted by the body. Nitrogen is a component of amino acids (the stuff that forms muscle proteins), therefore nitrogen loss indicates that the muscles are breaking down.

3. Carbs help muscles recover from exercise

The role that carbs play in recovery goes back to glycogen stores. Immediately after exercise, athletes need to replenish their glycogen stores in order to prevent glycogen depletion.

Glycogen depletion, when glycogen stores have run out, causes gluconeogenesis. This is when the body forms glucose from new sources to compensate for the lack of glucose from carbohydrates. When this happens, the body turns to sources like fat and protein to fill this need. Protein acts as the last line of defense when energy is required, meaning that energy accessibility is running very low. 

When the body breaks down protein to make more glucose, it takes from the muscle, causing them to waste away. 

Gluconeogenesis is more common in carbohydrate-free diets, so be sure to consume healthy carbs to prevent this. 

Replenishing glycogen stores with complex carbs is important to prevent protein breakdown and muscle wasting.

Why Athletes Consume a Lot of Carbs

There are many reasons why athletes don’t adopt low-carb or carb-free diets. They know those good carbs are a necessary nutrient to help them power through training sessions, resulting in muscle maintenance and growth.

Some of the reasons why athletes consume a fair amount of carbs include:

1. Carbs prevent muscle weakness

By now, you understand the importance of glycogen stores. Some glycogen is even stored in our muscles. 

When you use those muscles during exercise, you tap into the glycogen stores in that particular muscle. When you lift weights with your arms, for example, you’re accessing the glycogen in your biceps.

Some athletes take advantage of glycogen by loading up on carbohydrates (by consuming carbs a day or more before a workout) to maximize the muscle glycogen stores. This can delay fatigue and even improve athletic performance, making for a better workout and stronger muscles.

2. Carbs improve athletic performance

Out of the three macronutrients, carbs are the most efficiently metabolized

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports all share the position that high carbohydrate availability is associated with improving performance during high-intensity exercise

Why? Because carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that can be broken down quickly enough to provide sustained energy during high-intensity training. 

Both carbohydrates and protein will both provide 4 calories per gram. But it is much easier for your body to digest and use the calories from a gram of carbohydrate than it is a gram of protein. 

Research has shown the link between nutrition and athletic performance is greater than initially believed.

3. Carbs repair muscles

During exercise, muscles slightly tear. Muscles feel sore after intense exercise because of this minor damage that allowed the muscles to exert more force than during regular activity.

After exercise or during rest, the muscles need to be repaired and rebuilt. Just like for building muscle, protein and glycogen is needed for that muscle repair

The importance of glycogen for muscles can’t be over-emphasized, and in order to maintain glycogen stores, carbohydrates are needed.

What Happens to Muscle When Carbs are Low

With the popularity of low-carb diets, it’s important to discuss the major concern that muscle mass is at risk of deterioration when carbs are low. 

Now that we know how important carbs are to build muscle, let’s discuss some of the possibilities when carbs are restricted.

Muscle is Broken Down For Fuel

The body looks to complex carbs as its main energy source. When carbs aren’t available, the body breaks down protein, i.e muscle, for fuel. 

Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen, which is a readily available source of energy for when it’s needed. Dietary protein, however, isn’t really meant to be stored in the body specifically as an energy source.

When the body breaks down muscle tissue for energy, it does so to access the amino acids (the building blocks of protein). The amino acids are then broken down into glucose and used for energy.

Carbs help to prevent this process encouraging protein sparing, which means they conserve muscle tissue by providing energy instead. When carbs are present, the body will use carbs first and foremost for energy. When carbs aren’t available, muscle gains that you have worked so hard to achieve can be lost.

Replenishing glycogen stores by consuming complex carbs prevents this muscle loss.

Decreased Athletic Performance

Decreased energy due to low-carb consumption may affect athletic performance. When glycogen stores are low, athletic performance is decreased.

Muscle strength can be compromised and fatigue increases when glycogen stores are low.

It’s widely accepted that athletic performance is somewhat dependent on carbohydrate consumption. Therefore, consuming carbs before the workout for energy and after to replenish glycogen stores are important contributors to improved exercise performance.

Complex Carbs for Muscle Gains

Everyone knows that protein is important for building muscle, but without carbs, the gains just aren’t the same. Complex carbs are vital for sustained energy, athletic performance, and overall muscle building.

However, the type of carbs and when they’re consumed are also vital to experience these benefits.

When to Consume Complex Carbs for Muscle Building

The time of carb consumption also impacts athletic performance and muscle building. 

It’s important to consume complex carbs before an intense workout so that glycogen stores are full enough to fuel the training. Consuming complex carbs immediately before a workout could lead to digestive distress, so try to limit complex carb consumption to up to a few hours before an intense workout. If you’re short for energy before an event, lean towards simple carbs.

After exercise, it’s important to consume complex carbs to replenish those glycogen stores for later use.

Balancing Carb Consumption

The amount of complex carbs you eat depends on your body composition goals. Generally, very low carb consumption (<5%) is used for weight loss, while adequate carb consumption (55-60%) is used for muscle gain. 

Athletes may pile on the carbs as they are required to train day-in and day-out. So it makes sense that they should consume a higher carb diet than the average person because they have higher energy needs. For non-athletes, it’s generally suggested to adopt a more balanced diet. Even if you’re mostly sedentary, you should still consume some carbs to fuel your daily activities. 

If the goal is to build muscle, we now know to eat all three macronutrients, including a fair amount of carbs.

Take Away

Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for humans. The body uses this nutrient for energy and stores them as glycogen for later use.Athletes rely on carbs for sustained energy, preventing fatigue, and enhancing athletic performance.Carbs are important for muscle building because they’re protein sparing, which means the body looks to glycogen for energy instead of breaking down muscle tissue for energy.Consuming carbs post-workout can prevent muscle loss and help repair muscles.

The moral of this story is that carbs, just like every other macronutrient, have a place in improving your body composition. In the end, it takes a well-rounded diet and a smart routine to build muscle.


Lacey Bourassa is a health and wellness writer in Southern California. Her areas of expertise include weight loss, nutrition, and skin health. She attributes her passion for healthy living to her plant-based diet. You can find out more about Lacey at

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