By: Dick Talens
Credit: iStock/Jennifer Bui
Starks or Lannisters? Boxers or briefs? Life is full of so many painful choices, and for many, “stay skinny or drink beer” is one of them.
But that’s not a choice you necessarily have to make – enjoying beer doesn’t require a beer belly. I would know. Drinking does make things more challenging, but not because of anything inherently fattening about alcohol. All you need to do is follow the three rules below.
Rule #1: When drinking, swap protein for fat
To explain this rule, let’s start off with a primer on macronutrients. Every food that you consume is made up of one or more of the following macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. These macronutrients have specific properties, such as the number of calories they contain, their impact on your levels of hunger and fullness, and so on, and the only other substance that provides calories is alcohol.
Of these four, fat is probably the most misunderstood. There’s a misconception that dietary fat (fat that you consume) makes you fat, but that’s not necessarily the case. If you’re expending more calories than you consume, then dietary fat is readily used by your body, even if you consume a diet high in fat. However, drinking alcohol confounds this process somewhat.
Alcohol is toxic and cannot be stored by your body. Because of this, Mother Nature has thankfully blessed us (and other animals) with the ability to prioritize alcohol as a source of energy over all other macronutrients. This means that your wild buzzed dancing and subsequent poor decisions are, quite literally, fueled by alcohol. But this also means that your body’s ability to utilize fat as fuel (also known as fat oxidation) takes a back seat. As a consequence, any fat that you consumed earlier is readily stored as adipose tissue.
To counteract this, opt for low-fat foods on days you know you’ll be drinking. Additionally, consume a copious amount of lean protein. While your body might not be able to use all the fat you eat that day, the protein will keep you fuller for longer, so you’re less likely to undo your work with a late-night IHOP session… which brings us to our next rule.
Rule #2: Avoid binge food
When it comes to gaining weight, alcohol gets a worse rap than it deserves. Nutrition researcher Alan Aragon who, despite looking like the lovechild of Bruce Lee and The Hulk, has been known to kick back a beer (or four), took a look at the evidence to see how alcohol contributes to weight gain.
“One study found that men consuming an average of 56 grams of ethanol per day (four beers) took in 16 percent more total calories than a matched group of non-drinkers. The two groups – drinkers and non-drinkers – had identical amounts of physical activity. So, logically, you’d think that the drinkers packed on some pounds. They didn’t. Both groups had the same body-mass index, despite all those excess calories for the drinkers.”
As it turns out, the reason that alcohol seems to make people fat is the good ol’ phenomenon of correlation-not-causation. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and many people simply blame alcohol for any weight gain. But they’re probably forgetting the late-night kebabs and burger runs that came with the booze. And those are the real culprit.
Let’s say that you need 10 shots to get you through a Saturday night, which, whoa, but no judgment. That’s less than 1,000 calories, much of which you’ll probably expend thanks to the aforementioned questionable dancing. In contrast, the double quarter pounder meal that you consume afterwards might contain somewhere around 1,600 calories.
Realistically, even the most committed can (and probably will) make this mistake. You’ll probably be out with friends, and despite bragging about your bench press and your “nearly there” abs, you might be peer pressured into a late-night feed. And just like that, a minor case of the munchies sabotages your quest for a six-pack.
I handle this common scenario using two two practical tips. First, steer your posse towards a diner. Diners are a great option, because while others can indulge in greasy, fatty food, there will always be a relatively lean, high-protein option – chicken breast and fish, for example, are fair game.
Second, while you’re still sober, write future-you a note telling you exactly what you’re going to do at the end of the night: “We’re going to go to Denny’s and get the grilled chicken breast with a side salad instead of mashed potatoes.” Yes, this might seem silly, but it works; reading this message will remind you of your overall goals when you’re more prone to making bad decisions.
Rule #3: Pick drinks with a higher alcohol-to-calorie ratio
Sticking to our 10-drink example, you can probably see how certain kinds of beverages would rack up the calories to absurd levels pretty quickly. Ten whiskeys will be less than 1,000 calories, whereas the equivalent in piña coladas may be three times that amount due to all the sugar and coconut milk mixed in.
Which drinks contain the highest alcohol-to-calorie ratio? You can’t go wrong if you choose from the following: liquor, red or white wine (the drier the better), Champagne, or light beer.
Anything with a B- rating or higher from this incredibly helpful list should get you where you need to go without doing excessive damage to your waistband.
But if you really, really want that strawberry daiquiri, order it at the start of the night when you’re likely to be present enough to enjoy it most, then switch to drinks that are more fitness-friendly.
Sticking to the rules above might be challenging at first. You will mess up, but you’ll get better with practice. Don’t focus on being perfect when it comes to adherence. Instead, focus on adhering as best as you can and improving a little bit more each time. Look on the bright side: when else can you use the words “practice” and “drinking” together in a sentence that’s related to self-improvement?
More from Thrillist: