You don’t have to pump iron and guzzle vodka like a Jersey Shore cast member to wonder: Will drinking booze undo the benefits of a recent workout?
The effects of alcohol on the body post-exercise are complex, varying widely on how much one drinks and when. But research suggests well-timed protein plus moderation can ensure those Negronis don’t negate your long hours at the gym.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Alcohol involves calories. Empty, worthless calories.
“A glass of wine is about 90 calories. A beer is 220 calories. A margarita is 350 calories,” said Dr. David Heber, founder of UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition. And then there’s the ubiquitous bar snacks, which prey on drinkers’ lowered inhibitions.
“All the sudden you’re faced with a bowl of peanuts, a bag of chips — something that’s got 200 calories every two ounces,” Heber said. “That’s where the problem comes in.”
Any extra calories make it tougher to burn more than you take in, the basic formula for weight loss.
So drinks add empty calories — got it. But if your goal in exercising is to lose weight efficiently, you’re not just trying to burn calories via cardio. You’re trying to build muscle, and alcohol can stymie that process.
A 2014 study in the journal PLOS One examined how multiple drinks affect muscle recovery after a workout. Researchers at Australia's RMIT University rounded up a group of athletes and had them pound six vodka-and-orange-juice cocktails — yes, six — over three hours after a workout.
The results weren’t pretty: The booze caused a 37% drop in the athletes’ rates of protein synthesis, the process that grows muscle. However, downing whey protein shakes after working out caused protein synthesis to dip just 24%.
That’s not insignificant, but these athletes were drinking roughly 112 grams of alcohol — an amount based on athletes’ self-reported binge drinking practices, the study said. As nutrition consultant Mike Roussell said of the study in Shape, “If you are going out and having one or two drinks, the detrimental effects on protein synthesis will most likely be even less.”
He's probably right: According to 2014 research from New Zealand’s Massey University, drinking about 1 gram of alcohol for every 4.5 pounds of body weight is an amount “unlikely to impact most aspects of recovery.” That's about two shots or beers for a person weighing 150 pounds.
So go ahead, enjoy a couple of drinks after a workout. Just make that first drink a protein shake as you leave the gym.