Is it Possible to Drink and Still be Healthy?

Oftentimes, when I’m at a Nerd Fitness meetup, a rebel will ask me, “Do you mind if I have a beer?”

I usually laugh and say, “Nope! Will you get me one too?”

Yeah, I run a fitness website, but as you’ve hopefully been able to tell up to this point, it’s not normal.  I write about Optimus Prime, Office Space, and the Legend of Zelda.  I generally do my workouts on a playground and run around the world for fun.

I happen to also enjoy the occasional adult beverage.

I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately from people with questions like, “I want to try the Paleo diet, but I love beer. What can I do?”

I hear ya, friend.

Let’s take a look at alcohol, its effect on the body, and see if it can be consumed while still living a healthy life.

[side note: if you aren’t 21 or of legal drinking age in your particular country, this article isn’t for you.  Instead, look at these baby sloths getting a bath!

Also, I’m not a dietitian, doctor, or anybody with any sort of important sounding credentials.  I’m not an expert of any kind.  I’m probably not even wearing pants right now.  I’m merely a nerd who likes to dig into these things and present my results.]  

How does Alcohol Work?

german lego beer man

I could dig REALLY deep into the science of how alcohol works, but that sounds more like a boring term paper and less like a fun Nerd Fitness article, so I’ll keep this section brief.  

When you consume an alcoholic beverage, the alcohol (ethanol) makes its way to your stomach where around 20-25% of it gets absorbed into your blood stream immediately. The rest of it continues to your small intestine where it is absorbed by the blood stream. Once it’s in your blood stream, the alcohol slowly heads toward to your liver where it is metabolized (broken down).

As the all-powerful Wikipedia tells us, “Alcohol is metabolized by a normal liver at the rate of about one ounce (one shot, a normal beer, a regular sized glass of wine) every 90 minutes.”  Many different factors affect this rate – like body fat percentage (lower the body fat, lower the blood alcohol level) and gender (women typically process alcohol slower than men).

Any amount consumed over that doesn’t get processed immediately, and instead saturates your blood until your liver can process the excess alcohol.

Think of it like a trip to the DMV or Post Office.  There are 47 of you in line, but only two people working the counter, which means you’re going to be waiting for hours until you can finally get outta there.

Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, the first drink or two can help loosen you up or relax.  As the amount of alcohol in your blood increases, the effects become more and more pronounced.

We call this “drunk.”

The Effects of Alcohol

clones beercaps

“Steve, I know what drunk is.  Just tell me if I should drink or not!”

All right, all right!  Let’s get to the good stuff! 

…Actually, let’s get all of the BAD stuff out of the way first, and then move onto the good stuff.

First and foremost: Beer is not paleo. Sorry.  Neither is liquor.  Some consider wine paleo as it’s made out of grapes, and Tequila because it’s made from agave, but technically speaking…none of it is considered paleo.

Alcohol is pretty much void of any nutrients – its calories, although plentiful, are empty.

It’s the first fuel to be burned as energy in your system, which will lead the rest of the calories in your system (mostly the carbs) to get stored as fat as they’re going unused rather than being burned as fuel.

Alcohol stimulates insulin production when consumed.  Just like with grains and other sugars, this can lead to increased fat storage.

It has a dehydrating effect on your body, which can cause all sorts of health issues if you don’t keep an eye on it.  Essentially, it makes you urinate out way more fluid than you’re taking in, which leads to dehydration. If you have ever gone out drinking one night and woken up a few pounds lighter than you were the day before – this is why.

Alcohol impairs your body’s hormone regulation, which is a big factor when it comes to building muscle or losing weight.

There are also studies that show that the congeners (byproducts of fermentation) in alcoholic beverages have an estrogenic effect.

It can wreak havoc on your sleep patterns.  When you drink 30-60 minutes before bedtime, you’re probably going to screw up your sleep schedule, whether you realize it or not.  The effects kick in once all of the alcohol has been metabolized, so although you might fall asleep (pass out) right away thanks to consumption of alcohol before bed, it’s going to cause issues with your body and your sleep patterns throughout the night.

Beyond that, alcohol generally contains a lot of liquid calories that can be consumed in large quantities without realizing it.  If you’re a bigger dude, it make take you 6, 10, 12+ beers to get drunk… which you’ll do and combine with your normal dinner.  With each beer being 100+ calories, that’s 1200+ calories consumed not including food.  This doesn’t even included mixed drinks (which I’ll get to below) that bring in tons of calories and sugar on top of the alcohol – double whammy.

The real issue I’ve found with drinking is the lack of rational decision making after too many beverages.  All of a sudden, every possible terrible food sounds like a great idea – 4AM Taco Bell, six slices of pizza, a mountain of Chinese food, and everything in between.  Even if you’re consuming alcohol responsibly, it’s oftentimes served with smothered wings, chips, pizza, piles of french fries, and more.  It’s easy to get sucked into a night full of calorie consumption that would make Kobayashi blush.

But it’s not ALL bad!

vader and santa

There are SOME beneficial effects of MODERATE alcohol consumption.  

First and foremost, alcohol consumed in moderation can make you feel good.  Stress is a huge factor when it comes to weight gain and health issues – if a beer at the end of the day helps you relax and unwind, I’d say its positive effects outweigh its negatives.  Notice I said A beer…if you’re pounding beers every weekend to forget how miserable your week was, it’s time to reevaluate.

Every health-conscious drinker will tell you this one – red wine actually has quite a few healthy antioxidants in it, and can be healthy for a number of reasons  (like these 8 reasons, for example).

And from my favorite healthy living site on the net:

“Alcohol as a blood thinner enhances vascular health, and the phenolic content (potent antioxidants) can pack a healthy punch. Research has compared alcohol abstention with moderate and “heavy” drinking. Moderate alcohol consumption appears to lower the incidence of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, total and ischaemic stroke, as well as result in an overall reduction in mortality…Moderate drinking in those over 65 with superior cognitive and memory function. It has also been linked to higher bone density in postmenopausal women.”

The Nerd Fitness Philosophy on Drinking

businessman lego drinking

Here’s the Nerd Fitness philosophy on drinking in one sentence:

Do the best you can, be smart, and have some fun.

Long story short, drinking isn’t healthy for you… but neither is staying up too late, spending too much time on a computer, not spending enough time in the sunlight, spending too much time in the sunlight, playing videogames for too long, etc.

And yet we all do lots of these things, either because we have to or because we want to.  My goal with this site isn’t to make you into the perfect model human being (which is impossible), but rather removing any barriers you have toward living a healthy lifestyle while still letting you live the life you want.

As stated in the Rules of the Rebellion:  Your exercise and diet can become part of what you are, but not at the expense of who you are.

I believe drinking can be done occasionally, in moderation, and a desirable healthy lifestyle can still be achieved.  

If you decide that you want to drink, good for you.  If you decide that you don’t want to drink, that’s fine too.  I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, and vice versa.  You know yourself best; you know what you can handle and what you can’t; you know what your goals are and how your body reacts to certain things.  Be smart.

So, rather than tell you to give up drinking, let’s find a way to fit in into your schedule so that it allows you to be happy WITHOUT derailing your  efforts toward weight loss, muscle gain, and a healthier life.

Determine your goals

scubadiver lego in beer

If you’re trying to figure out if you can drink or not, start by determining your goals:

  • Do you want to build lots of muscle quickly?
  • Do you need to lose a lot of weight quickly?
  • Are you trying to get to a sub 10% body fat percentage?
  • Or are you just trying to lose weight and feel better about yourself?
  • Can you ONLY drink one or two?  Or does one or two always lead to six or seven or fifteen?

My advice to you on drinking will be very different depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.

If your goal is elite performance, rapid weight loss, or rapid muscle gain:  abstain from drinking as much as possible.  If you need to lose a lot of weight very quickly (maybe you have a wedding coming up, a weight loss competition at work, or a vacation and you want to get a slim as possible), cut out the drinking completely.  It messes with your sleep and your hormones, two crucial aspects of weight loss and muscle building.  “But, Steve, I want to still drink!” Okay then! Readjust your goals and don’t expect elite results.

If you are trying to just look better and feel better: make yourself into an experiment.  Drink your glass of red wine or have your after-work beer along with healthy eating and healthy living, and see if your body is progressing in the right way.  As long as you are feeling better and looking better, keep doing what you’re doing.  If you are stalling or plateauing, consider not drinking for a while and see if it makes a difference.

If you know one or two usually turns into six or seven: it’s probably best if you stay away from drinking, especially if there’s any sort of alcohol abuse in your family.  You can also volunteer to be the designated driver, provided you take that responsibility of safely getting your friends home safe VERY SERIOUSLY.  You have to stop after one or two drinks for the night to keep everybody safe – it takes the pressure off of you to make that decision to drink more.

Best to Worst Options

Before I tell you WHAT to drink, let’s give a quick education on what is considered a “drink” and how the liquor measurement system works.

  • 100 proof liquor contains 50% alcohol
  • 80 proof liquor contains 40% alcohol
  • 40 proof liquor contains 20% alcohol

Traditional wine has approximately 8-14% alcohol, while regular beer has 4-6% alcohol.  Generally this means that you’ll need a lot more beers to reach your desired level of inebriation compared to a liquor drink or wine.  More beers = more carbs and more calories = worse off for you.

The goal when drinking is to consume as few calories and carbs as possible while still providing you with the “benefits” (I’ll leave how much you’re looking for up to you) of that alcoholic beverage.

In this Nerd’s humble opinion (with an assist from MDA, here’s how it all breaks down.   Your mileage may vary.  Just because something is in the FAIL category doesn’t mean you can’t ever have one again, just save them for special occasions, or drink in extreme moderation.  

Epic Win

  • Red Wine  (organic if possible) - ~130 calories and ~5-6g carbs.  Full of the healthy stuff previously listed.
  • NorCal Margarita - (Robb Wolfe’s drink of choice) tequila, club soda, and lime juice – ~150 calories and ~5g carbs
  • Whiskey/Brandy/Scotch/Cognac  - Full of healthy antioxidants as well. 64 calories and zero carbs.
  • Vodka/soda or Vodka/rocks with lime (my drink of choice) – >2g carbs, 66 calories + lime juice (>10 calories)
  • Bacardi and Diet - (Staci‘s drink of choice). 2g carbs, 66 calories. I know, I know, fake sugar and chemicals, but we’re already drinking, right?

Meh

  • White wine - ~130 calories and ~5-6g carbs. Not a terrible option, but not nearly as many of the healthy benefits you get with red.
  • Light beer -  ~100 calories and ~3-5g carbs.  This varies on the type and brand of beer.  Yes, lower in calories and lower in carbs, but beer is created from a grain and it’s easy to consume LOTS of these very quickly.

Fail

  • Regular beer – ~150 calories and 10-14g of carbs.  Made of grain, easy to consume half a dozen of them without batting an eye, and full of calories and carbs.  If you’re a real beer drinker (I am), do so in moderation.  I’ll refer you back to the “what are your goals” section to determine what “moderation” is for you.
  • ___________ and coke/sprite/orange juice/cranberry juice.  Sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, calories, sugar.  The innocent cranberry juice you added to your vodka? 120 calories and 30 grams of sugar.
  • ___________ and Red Bull – Although I love Red Bull’s marketing, I hate their drink.  Both alcohol and caffeine are diuretics which will dehydrate you very quickly.  On top of that, the alcohol tries to slow you down, the caffeine tries to speed you up – your body has no effing clue what to do.
  • Pretty much anything frozen –  Sugary margaritas, daiquiris, pina coladas, hurricanes, vodka Red Bull slushies (yes these exist, stay far far away).  There’s enough sugar in these drinks to make Def Leppard think ‘that’s a bit much’.
  • Sangria –  Think of it like wine but with 20 packets of sugar added in.

Tips and Tricks for “Healthy” Drinking

stormtroopers_becks

Okay, so you’ve decided that you’re okay with drinking. How do you put it into practice?

Identify the days you’ll be drinking.  My guess is that it will be Friday and Saturday.  During the Summer, it might be Sunday afternoons.  Whatever your decision is, decide which days you’ll be drinking and how much you’re like to be drinking.  That’s up to you – if you can manage with just one drink to nurse throughout the night, good for you.  If you need more than that, I’d make sure those dates are spread further apart.

If you have a party to go to next weekend, for example, spend your entire week being incredibly diligent with your diet and choices.  Be more strict on your meals, stick to only water, and work from there.

Make sure you eat BEFORE you go out – you need that food in your system before the alcohol if it’s going to help you at all later on.

When you get to the party or wherever you’re going, alternate alcohol with ice/soda water.  Now, if your goal is to get as intoxicated as possible, there’s not much I can do for you other than feel sorry for your body and brain the next morning.  But, that is your decision to make, and I won’t hold it against you – we’ve all been there :) In fact, I’ll even tell you what to do in the next section for the day after.

Don’t mix and match.  Don’t switch from beers, to shots, to liquor, to margaritas, to jagerbombs, to whatever.  Bad idea.  Don’t start with beer and then switch to hard liquor either.  You’re already drunk so you won’t be able to tell how much liquor you’re consuming, which is when things go downhill quickly.  Pick something and stick with it.

Stop drinking at least an hour before you’re going to go to bed.  If you’ve been drinking a lot, CHUG WATER LIKE A MOFO.  Yup, it’s going to make you want to pee.  Yes, you’ll have to get up to pee during the night.  Yes, you’ll wake up feeling like an overfilled water balloon.  Because you’re dehydrated and your body can only retain so much water, you’ll require a lot of it to get back to level.

Avoid mixers that are high in sugar like a stage-5 clinger - vodka and cranberry, rum and coke, Red Bull and vodka, pretty much any________ and _________ is probably loaded with calories and sugar.  A Long Island Ice tea has 700+ calories.  A pina colada has 600+ calories.  Same goes for a margarita.  Drink it on the rocks with a bunch of fruit.

Scared about not being able to restrain yourself?  Worried about your friends poking fun at your slow drinking?  Volunteer to be the designated driver.  That way, your friends will love you and OWE you as they don’t need to pay for a cab, and you have a built in excuse why you’re not drinking.  I didn’t drink through most of college, so I was the DD a lot – it was kind of nice having everybody owing me favors all of the time!

Um, I was overserved and now I’m hungover. Help?

We’ve all been there.

Some of us more than others…

Your best friends are in town for one night, or your out at a bachelor party/friend’s wedding/watching a big sporting event…or it was Tuesday and you had nothing better to do. You were accidentally overserved, clearly through no fault of your own, and now it’s the next morning and you feel like Stu in the Hangover.

On to the hangover cures!

In case you’re curious WHY your body hates you right now, read this.

You are SEVERELY dehydrated, so it’s important to get fluids back in your system - you’ve lost a lot of essential electrolytes and water from the night before, so get it back into your system.  Funnily enough, this is the only time I’ll recommend drinking a sports drink like Gatorade - because you’re dehydrated, the Gatorade can help you get re-hydrated more quickly than just water.  Juice is another good option to get you started.  Just remember that you’re pumping your body full of sugary liquid calories, so make your adjustments later on.

No Gatorade?  Eat a banana!  Your body is potassium deficient.  Feel free to throw banana peel in the street and watch hilarious go-kart spin outs.

Take a shower.  Drag your butt off the couch/bed/park bench that you woke up on, stumble to the shower, and take a nice, long hot shower.  Or, if you need a slap in the face, try cold showers! Alternatively, you could ask your friend to slap you in the face (not recommended).

Pounding headache?   You’re severely dehydrated so lots of strenuous activity is NOT a great idea…but some quick light activity could wake you up!  Try doing some push ups or jumping jacks and get the blood flowing out of your brain and into the rest of your body.

Don’t take acetaminophen (Tylenol).  From Ask Men –  “The reason is that when your liver is busy metabolizing alcohol, it processes the painkiller differently than it otherwise would, resulting in toxic compounds that can cause liver inflammation and even permanent damage.”

If you NEED to, take Ibuprofen.  If you can tough it out without the drugs, do so…but take ibuprofen if you have to.

What say you?

clones and brandy

Hopefully that was everything you wanted to know, and a lot of what you didn’t, about drinking.

Have you been able to lose weight and maintain a healthy social life with/without drinking?

Do you have any healthy hangover cures to pass along?

Anything I didn’t address that you’d like me to add?

So, if you meet up with me at a bar, yes I’d love a beer.  

Just one though.

-Steve

###

photo sources: lego beers, german lego beer, clones and beercaps, businessman lego, becks and stormtroopers, scubadiver lego, astronaut_beer_lego, darth vader lego, clones and booze, vader and cork, jester lego

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  • bella h.

    I used to drink… heavily. I’m a petite girl to begin with but I would at times drink over a case of beer per week and my tolerance was through the roof due to this behavior. That was before I discovered paleo and now I limit myself to a few drinks a week- if I even feel like it. I love pinot noir or a good tequila on the rocks with a lime. I’ll even admit I’m guilty of falling for Angry Orchard Cinnful Red (200 calories, 22 g. sugar). Though I find that two of those is my limit because two and a half starts to feel like a bad decision. I lost 8 lb. in 3 months which may not seem like much, but I had not lost or gained weight in about 10 years prior to changing to a paleo lifestyle. I immediately begin losing my waist when I gave up beer- so much so that I gave it up forever. I don’t even like the taste of it now. The beauty of cutting back on alcohol (but not giving it up completely among many other obvious reasons and health benefits) is that I lowered my tolerance and can now catch that happy buzz on one drink. Crazy, huh?

  • Nathan Messer

    A few things on hangovers:
    Some of the headache and crappy feeling of a hangover is alcohol withdrawal. You can carefully manage that with a half or single drink the next morning (the tried and true Bloody Mary, for instance). Just don’t keep drinking, and be careful with the coffee.

    Instead of Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen for a hangover headache, try Naproxen (Aleve). It has fewer bad liver or gut side effects when combined with alcohol.

    Also, Gatorade is too much of an electrolyte with way too much sugar. Cut it in half with water, or use a powder mix like Electro-Mix by Alacer, the same company that makes Emergen-C.

    Lastly, recent studies seem to indicate that abruptly stopping drinking after a binge could be bad for neurons. If you drink a ton on Saturday night, say, then taper off over Sunday and Monday.

  • http://www.resendez.org.mx Eleazar Reséndez

    i’ll only drink this Vodka/rocks with lime (my drink of choice) – >2g carbs, 66 calories + lime juice (>10 calories) and moderate

  • http://www.thebeginnersbrew.com/ thebeginnersbrew

    As a beer brewer, I often struggle to maintain the moderation especially when it comes to my hobby. I’ve learned to give away many of the beers to friends as this helps. Your article is simple but it hits the main point: moderation is key. So Simple, but so hard to do.
    cheers,

  • John_R

    Does good old fashioned Alabama moonshine count as whiskey, or vodka?

  • MNice

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  • zlycher

    LOL, I polished off a 6 pack of Mikes in one night a few weeks ago and my hangover was LEGENDARY. I really learned my lesson about watching sugar in drinks that next morning.

  • http://www.themindofsteel.com/ Mind Of Steel

    This was the most complete (and most fun) article on drinking-workout balance I’ve found on the internet. Thanks for sharing (and skipping the boring science term paper stuff).

  • http://twitter.com/xjki Jurgis Kirsakmens

    There is handy app in AppStore DrinkControl (http://drinkcontrolapp.com) that accounts for “empty”(i.e. calories without any nutritional value, just energy) alcohol calories in the alcoholic drinks you take.

  • thornz

    bacardi === white rum

  • vicci

    thank you for this! i didn’t realise how many calories was in alcohol, and how it can affect my fitness, Lots of people drink at the age of 15 here, I’m 17 and found this post helpful. I liked the way you set it up and it was easy to understand also interesting, It would be coo, to see the effects on older people compared to younger people.

  • holly chavez

    I love the advice about not taking Tylenol with alcohol because it can damage your liver. Also, some heavy drinkers take piracetam because it helps repair the damage done to brain tissue when alcohol abuse has taken its toll.

    Piracetam (if you aren’t familiar with it) is a safe nootropic , but it can’t be combined with alcohol, either, or they interact with one another.

    .

  • Elle

    I love this article. It helped a lot with my presentation.