After a week of strict dieting and workouts, a drink on the weekend can seem like a harmless way to let loose. But alcohol, like anything else we put in our bodies, carries its own calories and long term effects we should be aware of. Sobriety isn’t for everyone, but moderation can’t hurt when you are chasing a physical goal. And even though the alcohol itself can’t be considered healthy, there are healthier choices you can make to stay on track.

Alcoholic beverages are generally made from fermented grains, fruits and sugarcane, according to the Economic Times. The most active ingredient is ethanol, which the liver has to process. But because of the concentration of ethanol in just one drink, the liver’s ability to do this is slowed way down and this allows ethanol to travel to other places. The first victim- your brain and central nervous system. 

Little instructions from our brain are able to communicate with the rest of the body because of neurons. Neurons communicate through tiny gaps called synapses that are responsible for the signals and impulses behind our behaviors and actions. Ethanol gets into these synapses and forces them into a kind of slow-mo until your liver is able to completely filter it out of your blood. That’s why one of the signs of being drunk is slurred speak or stumbling. Your neurons are trying and failing to connect properly, while you’re trying and failing to walk in a straight line. 

Alcohol is called a depressant, not because it makes you depressed, but because it literally depresses your bodily functions and acts as a sedative, according to the Guardian. Emotionally it does the opposite, stimulating the reward center of the brain and producing a sense of euphoria with every sip. 

I’m not going to beat the dead horse of “alcohol is bad for you”. We all know it’s not the secret ingredient to a six pack or a very long life, but what isn’t as commonly known is how alcohol works with muscle growth and physical fitness. The main concerns are with brain function, protein synthesis, performance, hydration and recovery. 

Your brain may start to sober up a few hours after your last drink, but it’s still not functioning at full capacity. The booze continue to affect hormones in the brain for a while afterwards and those little chemicals that control physical movement are still a bit off track. Your coordination and ability to concentrate will continue playing catch up for up to 48 hours. And working out without proper coordination can be a struggle and in severe cases, dangerous. Besides being sidelined from the gym, your brain is also feeling sluggish because it’s not getting the same amount of energy from the food your eating.

That’s where the next problem comes into play. Alcohol gets in the way of nutrient absorption, meaning you can eat all the protein you want, but it’s not going to your muscles. Protein can’t be synthesized for the creation of new muscle tissue or the repair of old muscle tissue. You can make recovery a priority, taking a rest day from the gym and getting plenty of sleep, but if there’s alcohol in your system, all it’s recovering from is your last night out. 

It’s difficult for your body to stay hydrated when your in the habit of drinking because it steals away all your stored water. Water is directed to the kidneys to try to balance all the booze and you don’t have sufficient water to go anywhere else, according to BodyBuilding.com. That’s also why you have to pee more often when you drink. Just as your body uses food for energy during workouts, water is the other key component. Water helps make muscle contractions possible and plays a huge role in your overall performance. A dehydrated body isn’t nearly as efficient and can’t strive towards progress the way it wants to. And we all know this dehydration can carry into the following day, culminating into the always-exciting hangover. 

Performance also relies heavily on your hearts ability to pump blood into the muscles as you exercise. Alcohol thins your blood, which isn’t always a bad thing. Actually, that’s why some doctors don’t have a problem with a glass of wine a day, just to keep your heart healthy. But decreased cardiovascular activity is definitely a negative at the gym. Without blood circulation, you can pretty much forget lifting weights. 

Many of these concerns only apply on the day that you drink and the days afterwards. Long term, heavy drinking, as we all know, has pretty much fatal effects and a connection to all kinds of organ damage. No matter the pretty brand names or how well it mixes with orange juice, ethanol is most commonly used as motor fuel. It is a toxin and should be treated as such.

On the other hand, alcohol does have an interesting role to play in the lean look of our muscles and vascularity of our appearance. A prime example of this phenomenon is the infamous night before professional bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman was crowned Mr. Olympia for the first of his eight year reign. He was going up against the best of the best including Kevin Levrone, and the two spent the night before finals taking shots of vodka. Ask any fan of the bodybuilding world and they’ll tell you Ronnie stepped on stage a new man. The liquor had dehydrated his body just enough to set him apart from his competition. Now that doesn’t go to say that vodka is the secret ingredient to stage prep, it’s usually completely off limits to competitors for months at a time. But it’s clear that alcohol has a noticeable effect on the look and feel of our bodies, for better or for worse.

It’s easy to forget that we gain weight just as much from what we drink as what we eat. There’s no free calories just because it’s a liquid. With sugar additives and the proof of the liquor, the numbers can add up fast. But like all your favorite junk food snacks, there are lower calorie alternatives out there. 

It may not be the tastiest option, but 80 proof liquor is usually your best bet. Whether it’s vodka, rum, gin or whiskey, it’ll ring in around 75-100 calories an ounce, according to LiveStrong. The mixer is up to you, but it’s safe to say pouring in a can of Coke kind of defeats your purpose. Seltzer water, lime, club soda or just good old water are the most diet friendly of the bunch. 

The “beer belly” phenomenon is no coincidence. The concentration of calories combined with beer’s tendency to store fat in your midsection can really wreck your figure overtime. While liquor’s ingredients are pretty straight forward, beer is packed with all kinds of things, most of which are dense carbs. A small can is a minimum of 150 calories and with the average amount of drinks for most people being way more than one, you can see where the problem starts. Shape Magazine recommends pretty much any bottle labeled “lite” like Bud Light or Millerlite, Michelob Ultra, and Guinness Draught. 

When it comes to wine, sugar is the Achilles heel. Even in 5 ounce servings, some sweet dessert wines can get up to 300 calories or more. Both white and red wines have their own advantages. White wine is typically lower in calories, but red wine is packed full of way more natural vitamins and minerals. A good rule of thumb with any glass is the dryer the better.

If you want to stay in the moderate range, studies show that’s around 14 drinks a week for men, 7 for women. That sounds like a lot from my perspective, but I guess you could do worse. 

All this research isn’t intended to be an anti-drinking PSA, on the contrary, it should be a lesson in balance. We all love our junk food, but when we’re trying to lose weight or shape up, we set limits for ourselves. We eat healthy as best we can and indulge when we’ve earned it. Complete restriction isn’t necessary so long as you balance your nutrition and calorie intake. The same concept applies to our drinking habits. A night of letting loose doesn’t mean you have to get completely out of touch with all you’ve accomplished. So check the label, make healthy swaps and relax without falling behind. 

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Take it from me

Personally, I’ve been sober for a little over four years now. It’s a personal choice and something I’ve seen a lot of success from, but it’s not for everyone. I find a lot of power in being 100% in the driver’s seat every minute of every day. I’m present, I’m aware, and I’m myself through every moment. For me, letting loose is having my favorite cheat meal or spending the day by the pool. I don’t need to get away from my reality because I love my life. Mentally, it’s been a gift. But in today’s world, I know it’s not exactly realistic. 

I know plenty of people with much more advanced physiques than me that love the bar scene. They spend the week tracking their meals, attacking their workouts, and chasing their goals so that they can spend the weekend like laid back human beings. It can be done, so long as you remain in control of your choices. 

It’s easy to give yourself the excuse of getting crazy with your friends until you wake up the next morning with a headache and a bloated stomach. Keeping an eye on your drinking goes behind late weekend nights. It’s a practice that can help you be more mindful of your food and exercise too. It’s teaching your brain how to navigate the chaos and maintain a routine that culminates success