Could Cocktails be Drowning Your Progress?

by Elizabeth Millard
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Could Cocktails be Drowning Your Progress?

Barbecues, happy hours, weddings, birthdays, the upcoming holidays — occasions for drinking never seem to end. While alcohol in moderation seems to be OK, there’s a point when it could be getting in the way of results — and that point is likely more subtle than you think. Obviously, too many drinks — in a too-short timeframe — can have detrimental effects like nasty hangovers and poor sleep quality, but what about moderate drinking? How much is too much?

The answer to that question depends on several factors, such as how often you drink, your weight and height, even your gender. There’s also the question of what you consider a “drink.” Many people underestimate how much they’re drinking because the amount of alcohol varies according to what you’re imbibing — for example, some craft beers can have 8% alcohol, compared to more mass-produced choices, which usually have 5%.


Also, what constitutes a standard drink may be smaller than you think. According to the National Institutes of health, a “drink” is 12 ounces of regular beer (not a pint), 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. Measure out 5 ounces of wine sometime — it seems like a pretty stingy pour. Cocktails can easily represent multiple servings. For example, a Long Island Iced Tea is often about 4–5 servings of alcohol.

Even if you’re sticking to the usual definition of moderation — which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sets as one drink per day for women and two per day for men — there still may be some negative consequences when it comes to your fitness goals.

Here are three potential impacts to keep in mind:


Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes the kidneys to produce more urine. If you’re not replacing those fluids with water, it can lead to dehydration, especially if you exercise within a few hours of having a drink.

That dehydration can lower your athletic performance in several ways, according to Greg Whyte, PhD, an expert in exercise physiology. Hydration allows you to maintain the flow of blood through the body, which circulates nutrients and oxygen to your muscles. It also controls your body temperature.

“You’re more likely to overheat if you’ve been drinking alcohol,” notes Whyte. He adds that even if you’re exercising the day after drinking, you may still be battling dehydration if you haven’t made a concerted effort to get more hydration and electrolytes back into your system.


Alcohol is notorious for increasing calorie consumption — as any owner of a late-night pizza place, food truck or taco bar can attest — and drinks themselves can be high in calories.

But alcohol can also lower the amount of calories you burn through exercise, Whyte says. This is because your body is designed to shuttle alcohol out of your system as soon as it can, and that can impede other processes, such as burning fat, he notes.

Some of that alcohol gets stored, as well, and since it’s not a nutrient, the body turns it into fat instead. They don’t call it a “beer belly” for nothing.


As the liver deals with alcohol, it tends to cause a shortage of oxygen. While that’s a temporary process, one study notes that it does interfere with the production of adenosine triphosphate synthesis (ATP), which is considered an energy source for muscles. Inadequate ATP also impairs a cell’s ability to perform crucial functions, like repairing damage.

With effects like these, does it mean you have to choose between drinking and fitness? In many cases, probably not, according to trainer Zack Barangan, CPT, NCSF. Chronic ingestion of alcohol leads to plenty of problems, such as digestive issues, liver difficulties and impaired protein synthesis, he notes. But moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to improve your immune response and heart health.

“All in all, alcohol is harmful when overdone,” Barangan notes. “But if done within moderation and with clear judgment, it can be beneficial. And, of course, a ton of fun.”

That means if you still want to have a post-run beer with your squad or a glass of wine with meals occasionally, that probably won’t erase all your exercise and strength gains. But it may be helpful to keep in mind the possibility that the more you drink, the more you risk wiping out some of the positive benefits of your fitness mix.


  • Wade

    I love wine. Having said that, I don’t like being overweight MORE than I like wine. So in March, I quit drinking, because I wasn’t losing weight and a good friend questioned whether I had an “issue” with alcohol.

    I’ve lost 30 pounds in 5 months, with no other changes. I have verified that I have stayed eating the same amount of food calories. I estimate that I was consuming about 3,500 calories per week in alcohol. A big problem with that is they are empty, devoid of nutrients, and not satiating. The good news is I really didn’t feel deprived when I cut them out.

    Now I feel awesome. I’m 58 years old, don’t have to take any meds anymore since being able to ditch the blood pressure medication, and I’m very active. I eat a plant based diet, my total cholesterol is 129, my resting heart rate is 39 BPM.

    Going forward, I may drink a few times per year on special occasions, but that’s about it. At least that’s my goal.

    • Dee Nettles

      Congratulations Wade. That is awesome news. I am 40, I also love wine and am on a plant based diet. I’m pretty slim for the most part. I just can’t get rid of my belly. I’ve even been asked if I’m pregnant (plenty of times). I’m wondering if I stop drinking, the weight will come off??

      • Wade

        Hopefully it will, if you are sure not to replace the calories that you will reduce by not drinking alcohol.

  • James

    Good morning, thanks for the information, I am trying to lose weight and I drink often, wine , beer, probably too often. Dropped 5 lbs so far, it does help, my cholesterol is around 240, I have to get that down as well, any input would be appreciated, James

  • giles fisher

    Great work Wade. I’ve just finished reading this naked mind approach to alcohol control. It’s a very interesting (if a bit extreme) read. Bottom line, although I eat a veg diet too, I do drink a few times a week as I love the taste of wine. However, my weight stays pretty stable (still higher than I’d like), despite me cycling around 120 miles each week. i’m coming to the realisation that if I want to re-start actual weight loss, i will need to ditch the booze altogether. I have pretty good will power on most things, but it is not good after a drink.

  • Deana Reynolds

    I am also a wine drinker, and I’ve found that as long as I actually measure the 5 ounces and account for it in my daily calorie intake, I can still totally have my glass of wine after work.