By: Krista Hoose

Every five years an update is made to the dietary guidelines for all Americans by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services. The departments take into consideration recommendations submitted by an appointed Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee prior to publication. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released to the public in late December 2020, after reviewing the report submitted by the Committee in July 2020. Advice was not entirely accepted on the topic of alcoholic beverages and the recommendation for stricter consumption limits. According to the current Dietary Guidelines, “… adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed” (2020, p. 49). The Dietary Guidelines state that “one alcoholic drink equivalent is defined as containing 14 grams (0.6 fl oz) of pure alcohol. The following count as one alcoholic drink equivalent: 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol), 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% alcohol), or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol)” (2020, p. 49). The full guidelines can be found at Whether you are an occasional drinker or enjoy routine happy hour libations, what effect, if any, does that have on weight loss and exercise performance? Will partaking in an alcoholic beverage derail weight loss goals?

In order to examine these questions, it is important to understand what happens when alcohol enters the body. After consumption, alcohol reaches the stomach, is absorbed into the bloodstream, and is distributed throughout the body. Due to dual blood supply to the liver, it receives a high concentration of alcohol. Alcohol is very poorly absorbed into fat tissue, which contributes to higher blood and tissue concentrations of alcohol found in women. The liver is the primary organ involved in alcohol metabolism, responsible for detoxifying the body, and it uses enzymes to break alcohol and its byproducts down, eventually, to acetate (Paton, 2005). Acetate, which is also a product of macronutrient metabolism, may undergo a reaction with a CoA molecule to form acetyl-CoA, which is a precursor to fatty acids, ketones, and cholesterol, or it may be metabolized to carbon dioxide and water depending on the needs of the body (Cederbaum, 2012).

Based on a literature review conducted by Traversy and Chaput, the evidence is inconsistent whether drinking in moderation leads to direct weight gain and obesity. On the other hand, they found a consistent link between weight gain and both heavy drinking and binge drinking (Traversy & Chaput, 2005). Still, there are several reasons why drinking alcohol may make it more difficult to lose weight. Even if the type of beverage contains zero carbs and fat and is between 100-150 calories, they are empty calories that provide no nutritional value. Add in a mixer, which usually is high in sugar, and the calories can really add up. Alcohol itself has 7 calories per gram, so the alcohol content should be taken into consideration in addition to the volume. Alcoholic beverages are often consumed in addition


to daily nutrition and not factored into daily calories and macros. Drinking alcohol often leads to lowered inhibitions, which often means less healthy food choices (Dresden, 2020). Furthermore, it may interfere with the signalling of some neurotransmitters and hormones, resulting in an increase in appetite (Traversy & Chaput, 2005). If the liver is busy breaking down alcohol and its waste products to detox the body, it is not using that energy to break down fat. Drinking may also cause some to be disinterested in exercise (Dresden, 2020). Evidence is more consistent that in moderate drinkers, weight gain is likely to be multifactorial, with the type of alcoholic beverage, genetics, sleep habits, and exercise status having roles.

Why does the type of alcoholic beverage make a difference? As discussed, many beverages are high in carbohydrates or are mixed with other beverages that have a lot of carbs. Your body has to do something with those carbohydrates–either use them as energy or store them as glycogen, fat, or protein, and your liver prioritizes alcohol metabolism over its routine functions. Choosing a beverage lower in carbs, and ideally sugar, may be the better option, should you choose to partake. The nutritional content of specific beverages can be found in the USDA nutritional content database, but nutritionist and CNN contributing writer Lisa Drayer sums it up in her article: wine carbohydrates have some sugar content from the fermentation process, with the exception of dessert wines which are often sweeter; beer is made from grain, a carbohydrate, and generally has more calories than wine; and spirits generally have no carbs or sugar (2018). Then there are the mixers–juice, cola, and syrups that are full of sugar. Nutrition facts are not displayed on the labels of alcoholic beverages, since they are not regulated by the FDA. This may make it difficult to know what is really ingested, and in turn, easier to over-indulge.

Lastly, to answer the question whether alcohol consumption affects exercise performance, some literature suggests that when in moderation, it may not likely have a noticeable impact, while others disagree. One 10-week study of daily alcohol consumption on physical fitness in those participating in HIIT sessions twice weekly found that alcohol did not negate the positive effects of the workouts (Molina-Hidalgo et al., 2020). On the other hand, Registered Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics Claire Siekaniec writes in the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) NSCA Coach that the effects of alcohol on performance are individualized, depending on “factors such as genetics, gender, amount of alcohol ingested, body mass, and nutrition status…” (2017, para. 1). The acute use of alcohol may influence motor skills, hydration status, aerobic performance, and recovery, which may impact athletic training and competitions. Alcohol use over time “can lead to difficulty in managing body composition, nutritional deficiencies, and depressed immune function, resulting in increased risk of injury and prolonged healing and return-to-play” (Siekaniec, 2017, para. 1). What about a post-recovery beer to replace carbohydrates and electrolytes? Siekaniec argues that this is a poor choice in recovery nutrition, because there are not enough carbs and electrolytes to replenish stores after exercise where a large amount of sweat is lost. In addition, beverages that contain 4% alcohol or more may delay rehydration (2017).

One aspect about nutrition that can generally be agreed upon is moderation. Because different alcoholic beverages not only contain varying alcohol content but also different amounts of carbohydrates and sugar, should you choose to drink, it would be wise to read up on what it is you are consuming and think about how it may affect your body and your nutrition and fitness goals. Individuals may be impacted differently by alcohol consumption. Always follow guidelines and laws for safe and responsible drinking, and listen to your body. Think about what your body needs to maintain good health and proper function, and stay educated on the impacts of what is being ingested. As always, consult your medical provider with any questions.