Alcohol is a big part of so many people's social lives and lifestyles, and many turn to their nightcap as a way to unwind. So much so that it's often a reason people use for why they "can't" start living a healthier lifestyle.
We hear things like "I can't give up drinking," "What if I want to crack a cold one with the boys?" or "How will I enjoy a night out with my friends?" I've heard all of these, and it's important to acknowledge that some people may not be ready or willing to give up alcohol forever, even on their fitness journey. And that's okay! Alcohol can be part of a healthy lifestyle in moderation.
So how do we incorporate alcohol into our plan without ruining our results and continuing to see progress? This blog is about tracking alcohol, especially for those who follow a macros-based diet (or IIFYM). I'll explain how you can include alcohol in your healthy lifestyle (always in moderation). I won't be discussing all the more detailed scientific information on how alcohol affects your fitness today. I'll save that for a future blog. Today we're going to keep it light.
Living a healthy and balanced, sustainable lifestyle looks different for everyone. So if your lifestyle includes indulging in an alcoholic beverage here and there, I'll show you some simple pieces of knowledge on how to fit that into your plan while staying on track toward your long-term goals.
How Alcohol Fits In The Plan
We all know every gram of protein, fat, and carbs has calories. But alcohol tends to be overlooked as the fourth macronutrient. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, to be exact.
Let's review the calories per gram of macros:
• Protein: 4 calories per gram
• Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram
• Fat: 9 calories per gram
• Alcohol: 7 calories per gram
So if you follow a set calorie/macro goal, you might wonder how you track alcohol. Unfortunately, most diet tracking apps like MyFitnessPal or MM+ don't even have an entry slot for alcohol. So we need to go back to our goals. Whether trying to gain or lose weight, most of us track our overall calories (since macros make up calories). But you still want to ensure these calories from alcohol aren't putting you over your calorie goal. Obligatory reminder that our daily protein intake is crucial to getting the results we want and the physique we desire while ensuring our body is operating efficiently.
So, we now have two factors to keep in mind: our daily calorie goal and protein goal. We need to make sure alcohol doesn't make us exceed our calorie goal but also make sure that we're able to hit our protein goal. To do this, add the total calories in the drinks we consume, then subtract that from our total calories for the day. And assuming you've hit your protein goal, those calories must come from somewhere… Should they come from fats? Carbs? Maybe both?
It's really up to your personal preference. Based on your goals, lifestyle, nutrition, and how you feel that different macros affect you, you'll be the best judge for what works best for you. That said, here are 3 equations that are the simplest ways to figure out how many of those calories will subtract.
Tracking Alcohol As Carbs:
Total Alcohol Calories ÷ 4 (since carbs have 4 calories per gram)
Tracking Alcohol As Fats:
Total Alcohol Calories ÷ 9 (since fat has 9 calories per gram)
Tracking Alcohol As Both:
Take the desired percentage (maybe 50%) of Total Alcohol Calories ÷ 4, then divide the remaining calories by 9.
I usually calculate alcohol as carbs because I'm not going to be training super hard on a day I plan on drinking, and I find that fats help me feel fuller and allow my brain to stay focused.
Pro-tip: Track your estimated drinks for that day AHEAD OF TIME. This way, you can eat around them throughout the day and stay more in control once you start drinking.
Keep in mind that alcohol rarely has a nutrition label. This is because the FDA does not regulate them; instead, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau does, which doesn't require nutrition labels, which means that any labeling is left to the company's discretion. So you may notice that most hard liquors, beers, or mixed drinks don't have a nutrition label at all, but you might see one on a company that advertises how "low calorie" they are.
A product with a nutrition label will usually show you the calories, fats, carbs, and protein. But if you do the math, you'll find that many calories are unaccounted for. These usually come from the grams of alcohol (which aren't required on the label). This is why converting alcohol calories into trackable macros is essential.
So a lot of times, finding the calories in your drinks requires a little bit of leg work. Some calorie/diet tracking apps might have different alcohol brands in their database. Still, if not, you can always search online for the type you're drinking (I usually use nutritionix.com to search for the calories in alcohol or anything without a label).
Pitfalls Of Drinking And Tracking
There are two common themes I see when people try to incorporate drinking into their plans:
1. Drinking more than they planned. For example, if you made room in your calories for 3 shots, stay disciplined and only have 3 shots. However, if you don't stay with your plan, you" end up consuming more calories than anticipated, which will slow down your progress.
2. Eating. Most of us aren't exactly craving rabbit food after having a couple of drinks and instead may have incredible cravings for comfort food or junk food (nachos are my personal vice).
So if you're out celebrating with friends, the temptation of food and additional drinks can be overwhelming (especially after you've already had a couple of drinks). This is why it's so important to plan ahead and have the discipline and willpower to say no to anything that wasn't in your original plan.
And don't forget, you can certainly celebrate, attend social gatherings, and go out with friends without drinking alcohol. Living a healthy and balanced lifestyle looks different for everyone and can evolve. So no matter what a healthy, balanced lifestyle looks like for you, make sure your actions align with your goals and the lifestyle you want to have. If that means drinking occasionally, cool! If that means abstaining entirely, cool!
And if you choose to drink alcohol, drink water between drinks and at the end of the night. Since alcohol dehydrates you, it's important to stay hydrated so that you can feel your best, not to mention how important hydration plays in your results.