A: This is a classic nutrition question that I often hear, especially from college athletes: Will their Friday (and Saturday) nights out will negate their training efforts? While the consequences may not be as dire as you imagine, there are two main points to keep in mind when it comes to alcohol’s effects on your body composition and muscle recovery.
1. Calories Matter
If you are looking to lose fat or maintain weight, calories matter—and going out drinking can lead to the ultimate empty-calorie fest. My general rule with clients is to keep alcohol consumption at or below four to five drinks a week and then decrease it from there depending on how their fat loss is progressing. At this level, alcohol has a health benefit of increasing your HDL (good) cholesterol, but beyond this level, the positive effects on HDL don’t seem to increase too much, and you may start consuming too many extra calories.
Also keep in mind that not all drinks are created equal. Mixers like soda and juices are essentially pure sugar, and if you add them, next thing you know you’ve had 400-plus calories from sugar in one evening. Choose drinks like vodka and club soda with a lime, which tastes great without the empty calories.
2. Eat Protein Post-Workout
A recent study published in PLoS ONE looked at the impact of drinking after exercise on muscle protein synthesis (i.e. muscle building and recovery from exercise). In the study, athletes did an intense training session followed by drinking six very strong screwdrivers (vodka and orange juice) over a three-hour period. When they did this, protein synthesis decreased by 37 percent.
The researchers took it one step further to see if a whey protein recovery drink (something that has been shown time and time again to increase protein synthesis after exercise) could save the day and negate the detrimental effects that post-workout alcohol has on your muscle’s ability to rebuild and repair themselves. When the athletes had the shake right after exercising but before they started slamming screwdrivers like Truman Capote, the amino acids in the whey were able to attenuate the negative effects of the alcohol, and protein synthesis only dropped 24 percent.
While that still may seem like a lot, once a week it isn’t that big of a deal. Alcohol consumption aside, if you did something that decreased protein synthesis even three times a week, the effects wouldn’t be that big. Plus the athletes in the study were drinking a lot of alcohol—just under 120 grams of alcohol (about eight vodka shots) in three hours. If you are going out and having one or two drinks, the detrimental effects on protein synthesis will most likely be even less.
So next time you plan a night out with your friends post-gym, make sure to have a whey protein shake (or chocolate milk) right after your workout, and you won’t have to worry about your hard work going to waste.