Every January, millions of people decide that they’re finally going to lose weight. They Google the best diets, join a gym, and declare that this is The Year They Finally Get Their Shit Together. And for too many of those people, a month later, those plans are in ruins.
(Happy February, by the way.)
One form of outdated diet advice that gets regurgitated every New Year: the elusive Miracle of Cutting Out Alcohol. Drop the booze, and the pounds just melt off, right? Sure, it can work, but there’s a much better and far less miserable way to lose a Rex Ryan-sized amount of fat than going cold turkey.
If you’re like me, cutting out alcohol sounds like the cruelest form of self-imposed torture imaginable. Trying to fit into smaller pants, or just look like less of a slob? A noble goal, for sure. But give up beer? Sorry, but we’re in the middle of a craft beer revolution.
The logic, of course, is sound. Cutting calories, in any way, is a foolproof solution for jumpstarting fat loss, and alcohol is the very definition of an empty calorie. But many people find avoiding alcohol entirely to be impossible to stick with for the long term. Whether it’s a major, beer-soaked event—the Super Bowl, for example—or an average weeknight’s “one beer just to relax” that quickly ends in a decimated six-pack, you’re liable to find yourself right back on the Beer Bus, along with any extra pounds you might have lost.
Weight loss doesn’t have to be like this. Here’s how to make it not be like that.
If you’re serious about changing your life, don’t completely deny yourself one of the things you enjoy most in life. The No. 1 mistake I see people make when they’re trudging through a self-imposed nutrition overhaul is that they start off too fast, and try to change too much at once. As a personal trainer with a client list longer than that infamous Browns quarterback jersey, I’ve learned that it’s my job to pull back on the reins a bit, and force them to only change a little bit at a time.
Why? That kind of shit just isn’t sustainable in the long term. Sure, it’s great if you’re trying to white-knuckle your way through a two-week challenge to win the office bet. But entirely removing something that is a true pleasure, assuming you don’t have a serious drinking problem, is a recipe for disaster. Cut yourself off, and all of a sudden that’s all you think about, and it slowly but steadily drains you of willpower (which is a finite source to begin with), and at some point, you crack. This applies to alcohol, sugar, nachos, whatever. The point is the same: Remove something you love, and you’re bound to binge on it later. Cutting down on alcohol is a far different and more manageable beast than cutting it out entirely.
So what do we do instead?
You can still get drunk without packing on the pounds, if you make the right alcohol choices. I’m an avid beer lover, but I’m well aware that tossing back a six-pack can mean an extra 600-1,200 calories, depending on the beer. A Guinness or a Tree House Julius (the top-rated IPA in the U.S.) will run you 200 or more calories a can. (UPDATE: That 200-plus-cal figure is for a pint of Guinness, so if you’re a huge fan and you can keep your portions under control, have at it.)
But that doesn’t mean you’re forced to sacrifice your dignity and drink Michelob Ultra. You just have to be smarter about it. Lower-calorie craft beers are out there: Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyn Pilsner is 155 calories a bottle and packs a punch at 5.1-percent ABV, Hoegaarden is another fine option at 147 calories per bottle, and Founders All Day is a similarly light and Drunkspin-approved session IPA, if you go for that sort of thing.
If you can avoid beer entirely, all the better. Like most liquors, bourbon has a much better alcohol-to-calorie ratio: One shot is typically right around 100 calories and roughly 40 percent alcohol. I personally think vodka is devil juice (long story), but it’s another damn good option if you can keep the mixers under control, too. (No White Russians, maybe.)
No matter how low-calorie a beer or a cocktail might be, you can’t toss back 12 and hope to drop weight. The body doesn’t work that way. Which is why I tell clients that if they know they’re gonna be drinking that night, they need to eat even lighter that day, since they’ll be replacing calories with booze. Fill up on leafy greens and lean proteins throughout the day, and avoid most carbs and heavy fats. If you know you’ll be having a beer or two at dinner, it’s wise not to have a 16-oz steak and loaded baked potato at lunch. Which is no fun, of course, but your reward is coming later.
But even if you’re on point all day, it doesn’t take much to derail fat loss if you’ve been drinking. Much like beer goggles, alcohol kills your inhibitions when it comes to food choices. After a few, those wings and nachos suddenly sound like a damn good idea.
This is why setting a limit beforehand is important. Before you ever start drinking, make sure you know exactly how many you’re going to have, and plan out the dinner they’ll complement. If you walk into a drinking situation without a plan, it will almost certainly spell dietary doom. But with a little forethought, you can still get a good buzz going without regretting it in the morning. Or regretting the caloric part, anyway.
Lead art by Sam Woolley