By Richard Bell
Note: The following is a significantly simplified version of very complex topics. I have done this deliberately for the sake of brevity and comprehension. My apologies for over-simplifications to those who are well read; it is not from ignorance, but the intention of reaching a broad audience.
A considerable amount of people consume alcohol as a casual, social activity. I myself am a lover of great scotch; however, as delicious as it is, I monitor my alcohol intake for the sake of my fitness and health. Most people know of the caloric excesses of simple sugars present in many beverages. But there are additional effects that alcohol itself has on your body, and these can be especially problematic for models.
Before discussing the effects of alcohol, let’s take a moment to talk about estrogen, a hormone present in both men and women. For men, estrogen is the balancing hormone to testosterone. Men have significantly lower levels of estrogen than testosterone and it is expressed in their physical features: facial and body hair, a deeper voice (maturation of a section of the neck), higher muscle production availability, etc. For women, the primary sex hormone is estrogen and thus they have lower balancing levels of testosterone, so the presence of estrogen will cause female characteristics to arise: breast development, minimal body hair, bone development for childbearing purposes, etc.
That being said, estrogen is a good thing in normal life. Estrogen has a normal homeostatic balance with respect to your own body; meaning, your body will go along producing it as it sees fit and necessary.
How are alcohol and estrogen related? Consuming large quantities of alcohol can spike estrogen levels. This pushes estrogen levels higher than their normal homeostatic balance. As a result, you'll find that over time you may continue to develop these female characteristics that estrogen is associated with, which can alter your measurements - particularly at the chest. And such a scenario could be harmful to your career.
Consuming large quantities of alcohol also halts protein synthesis for up to 72 hours. Protein synthesis is what builds muscularity in both men and women. Gratuitous consumption of alcohol will, as a result, make your efforts in your diet and exercise relatively pointless. Synthesizing protein also takes energy and increases your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories your body burns when at rest), so impeding this process will hurt your ability to keep fat off. Additionally, every kilo of muscle that you have on your body will inherently consume energy to keep you alive and well (which will help take fat off your body) so delaying development of muscle tissue will compound this effect.
Unless a person has a unique metabolism, excessive drinking will negate results from eating healthily and exercising regularly. When alcohol is in your system, your body gives it metabolic priority and uses it (and only it) as your primary fuel source. Having alcohol as your energy source means that if you have food in your stomach, all of that energy is being stored for later use. Your fat resources (known formally as adipose tissue) will also not be breaking down any of their energy at the same time as well. This is why drinking excessively and binging on foods that are carbohydrate or fat dense puts weight on people in a hurry – all of the food they're eating gets stored because of this metabolic prioritization of alcohol.
For those calorie counters out there, a gram of fat has ~9 calories to it, whereas alcohol has ~7 calories per gram. I discourage calorie counting, but the one thing to take away from these values is that you aren't "burning" that alcohol quickly. Alcohol is also one of the only drugs (yes, it’s a drug) that expresses first order kinetics – meaning, you can’t do a damn thing to speed up or slow down its breakdown.
Drinking excessive alcohol also causes dehydration. While dehydration temporarily drops water weight and accentuates muscular striation in those with low body fat percentages, it's not favourable to an overall healthy appearance. Maintaining hydration is essential to keeping your skin, eyes and hair looking their best over a long period of time.
If you do drink the night before, you may experience a hangover in the morning. A hangover is your body still trying to metabolize alcohol and there's a backup of a metabolic intermediate that limits the rate of the breakdown. That metabolite makes you feel nauseous, have a headache, and puts you in a generally sad state of affairs. At this point, your body hasn't been using any other energy since the time you started drinking.
How much is too much? If you’re drunk to the point where you’re having a hard time walking, that’s too much. If you do decide to drink, the best thing to do is to get to the point where you experience a slight buzz and stop there. The amount that's considered “too much” varies between people based on the amount of alcohol dehydrogenaze (an enzyme in your liver) that you have. Although more of this enzyme breaks alcohol down faster, you still have to deal with the energy you’re putting into your body. Therefore, consuming vast quantities of alcohol is still ill advised – even if you consider yourself, “good at it”.
From my personal point of view, it's best to stop at 4oz (ounces) of real alcohol. 1oz of real alcohol is 1oz of a spirit, 5oz of wine, or 16oz of beer. Keep in mind that beer and wine have additional sugar content from incomplete fermentation, so it can be a bit tricky to calculate. But by keeping track of your alcohol consumption, you get to have your cake and eat it too – if cake was alcohol.
Richard Bell writes this health column and is the Health and Fitness Consultant for The Business Model. He is a model represented by Lang Models in Toronto and has worked in Singapore, Tokyo, and Milan. He is also the co-owner of CrossFit Leviathan, a gym in downtown Toronto. He has a BSc (Honors) in Kinesiology and Biomechanics from Dalhousie University and has played rugby at the university and provincial levels.