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ALCOHOL: THE LOW-DOWN

As the holiday season is upon us and we are all taking part of Christmas parties with friends, family and colleagues, we are more than likely to overindulge on food and drinks. And if you’ve been “nice” all year then why not let your hair down? I have compiled a list of information for you to help better informed decisions over dinner and drinks when out celebrating this festive season.

WHAT IS ALCOHOL?

Alcohol is a compound made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. It is produced when yeast ferments sugars. The amount of alcoholic content in a drink is determined by the amount of yeast and the length of fermentation. Wine and cider are made from fruit, while rye and barley form the basis of beers and spirits. Alcohol affects our body and mind immediately it is consumed. Some of its effects can be short-lasting but others can stay a lot longer or become permanent.

 

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DRINK?

 It has never been about the sugar alcohol contains – it’s another myth. The real problem is with alcohol being the “worst offender” when it comes to any food or drink that enters your body. The moment you start drinking, fat burning stops and your digestion slows. Therefore, drinking with our meals could potentially be the worst decision as the more we drink the longer it takes to burn off the alcohol. Normally your body would use the energy from protein, carbs and fat to help build muscle and ensure you have healthy skin, nails and hair; to send into the bloodstream for use as immediate energy and the remains get stored as bodyfat. The more we drink, the longer the food “sits there” and the higher the chances of all this energy being stored as fat. To avoid accumulation of alcohol over a short space of time, we should drink slowly and enjoy a glass of water between each glass of alcohol.

 

HOW DO WE KEEP TRACK?

Alcohol is measured in units. 1 unit of alcohol is either 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. 1 gram of pure alcohol is 7kcal. 1 unit = 56kcal.  The liver’s average alcohol clearance rate is 1 unit per hour from the moment we start our first alcoholic drink.

This means our bodies can burn off alcohol at a rate of 56kcal/hour. Your liver can’t process alcohol faster than that and accumulation of alcohol puts a strain on the liver. Having increased muscle mass helps your body burn alcohol off quicker as does an intense gym session prior to a big evening, so I highly recommend training on the day. My preference is a relatively heavy lower body resistance session. The best approach for the day after is to do some light cardio to get a good sweat on and drink lots of water to detox and rehydrate.

 

SAFE LIMITS? 

The new government guidelines were set in 2016 and state a maximum of 14 units per week (for both men and women) spread over at least three days. It is more harmful to one’s health in the long term to have binge drinking weekends where all the week’s “allowance” is consumed in one go. If one likes to have alcohol daily to relax and unwind then a good idea is to have no more than 2 units per day.

 

CALORIES?

A couple of glasses of wine can have the calories of a slice of cake and a whole bottle of wine has the calories of a meal or takeaway.

With a bottle of wine being around 10 units, you can have just under 1 ½ bottles of wine a week. Drink a whole bottle, it’s about 600kcal and it will take 10 hours to clear. Bear in mind that many restaurants now serve large glasses of wine as their standard serving, in which case the kcal content could be double or treble.

Prosecco is about 8 units per bottle, meaning you can consume about a bottle and ¾ a week. A bottle of prosecco is around 500kcal and takes around 8 hours to clear.

*The reason you might still feel a bit shaky and unwell the next day is because your body might still be processing the alcohol.

 

HEALTH RISKS?

Long term excessive alcohol use (constantly exceeding safe limits and binge drinking weekly) can result in cancer, liver disease, hypotension, reduced bone density, fertility problems, strokes, mental health problems, dementia, coronary heart disease and drinking when pregnant can result in retarded foetal development.

 

HOW TO CUT DOWN?

If alcohol is being drunk socially and the consumption is likely to be high, it’s wise to choose lower strength drinks. If alcohol is drunk to simply relax or get merry, a single stiff drinks might do the trick – a shot of rum, vodka, tequila is 1 unit but can be made to last over the hour with a low-calorie mixer or as part of a cocktail and then followed up by a glass of water. My clients who enjoy gin, have a method of “tricking” their brain into believing they’re having a G&T by pouring a glass of tonic water and then running a finger dipped in gin around the rim of the glass.

Other ways to cut down are: setting a budget, reducing daily intake, having smaller drinks, taking breaks to avoid drinking daily and ensuring you drink plenty of water between drinks. Cardiovascular exercise and drinking water can help you sweat out the toxins the next day. A swim, run or a cycling session would work great.

READ MORE:

https://www.nhs.uk/news/food-and-diet/new-alcohol-advice-issued/ for more advice on drinking for different age groups and pregnant women;

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calculating-alcohol-units/ for help on how to determine the amount of pure alcohol and units in your drink.

 

As always, I really hope you have found this post useful and that it will help you make more informed choices at your events. If I didn’t cover a certain aspect on alcohol that you might have had a question about, please do get in touch. I have also filmed a video on this same topic so if you would rather watch than read, do head over to my Instagram or YouTube and watch the 6 minute video there. You’ll find me under @raheltheamazon.

 

Rahel x

No gym? No problem! Pt. 1: How taking a break from training affects your muscle mass, weight and eating habits.

Coinciding with my break from social media, I also decided to rest from training. In the last 6 weeks I have trained 6 times: 3 dance classes, 2 short gym sessions and 1 session in Primrose Hill, which was 2 weeks ago. I have been asked several times: “How do you feel?” I feel great! (More on my own personal experience in the second part of this post.)

I wasn’t always as calm and confident when away from the gym or classes (as an LM instructor you must participate in all classes, therefore back in 2012-2014 I would exercise up to 4 times a day). Well before I became a PT and Nutritionist, my understanding of what happens to our bodies when we train and eat (or don’t) was close to non-existent. Since I knew very little myself, I read magazines and was misinformed about what actually allows a person to get and stay fit and what diet should one eat for the best body composition. I’m sure we can all relate? When we lack the understanding of how something works, we’re likely to opt for extreme approaches as the results are guaranteed, correct? We all know at least one person who has done a “juice detox” or a “soup diet” or gone to the gym for 3 hours every day, lost a lot of weight then stopped and put it back on again. These are desperate measures that don’t actually teach us anything and the extreme approaches in this industry (exercising all the time and eating very little) can be detrimental not only to our physical but also mental health. So I want to help bust some myths!

What are the most feared consequences of taking a break from training?

  • gaining weight;
  • losing muscle;
  • extreme changes in body composition.

Other things we worry about:

  • becoming weaker;
  • being less fit.

What really happens? While keeping science and research in mind, I will try to explain it all as simply as I can in this blog post.

Starting with: We cannot lose muscle in as little as one-two weeks unless we are bedbound or hospitalised and completely unable to move parts or the whole body.

“Then how come my muscles look smaller after a couple of weeks of not training?”

When we train (especially with resistance training), our muscle glycogen stores become depleted and with the consumption of carbs, these levels can be restored. Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is something that happens in your muscles after training when your body starts to repair and rebuild. MPS is highest up to 2-6 hours post training, during which your body requires fast acting protein and carbs for optimal muscle growth. Let’s clarify one thing: to build lean muscle, we simply need protein; to add size and boost performance (become stronger), we add carbs to the equation. With every gram of carbs (glycogen) our bodies store 3g of water, so a trained muscle will absorb plenty of water from your skin and body to look more pronounced and defined. This is why a high carbohydrate intake is encouraged after big training sessions to optimise muscle growth and minimise bodyfat gain and water retention.

When we do not train, muscle “bellies” remain full and glycogen stores won’t require replenishing as often. When muscles don’t take in glycogen, they also won’t take in as much water. The result is a smaller or “deflated” looking muscle, which leaves us to believe that we have lost muscle whereas it’s only water weight we have dropped. Meanwhile, if your carbohydrate intake is higher than required by your body, first you will experience more bloating than normal and will likely feel the water weight around your midsection (re 3g water per 1g of carbs). This in turn can lead to us believing we have gained weight. If your bloating always comes with abdominal discomfort, gas or cramping, I encourage you to reduce your carbohydrate intake. If this is something that occurs often regardless of the amount of carbs consumed, perhaps tests would be a good idea to ensure you are not sensitive or intolerant to gluten.

 

Now, here are some facts about fitness. Cardiovascular endurance can drop in as little as 1-2 weeks and I’m sure we have all felt that fresh out of breath feeling upon returning to our favourite cardio class after a little break. The good news is that CV endurance can be restored just as fast as it was lost. It’s all to do with the decrease and increase in lung capacity and VO2Max, so don’t be scared and head back to training. Yes, the first session might feel like a bit of a struggle, just remember to take deep breaths, drink plenty of water and take breaks when you need to.

Although you can’t lose muscle mass overnight, muscular strength and size can reduce significantly over time, on average in 3-4 months of no training you can lose about 33% of “gains”. As mentioned before, exceptions to the rule are hospitalised/immobile people who have lost function of their limbs. Even having one leg or arm in a cast can quickly result in muscle catabolism. Athletes are encouraged to reintroduce varied training as soon as possible after injury/surgery. They never really stop and neither should we. This is why rehab/corrective exercise is so popular – even when a certain muscle has been pulled or a joint injured, there is always another area to be trained or an alternative exercise to be performed. Jorn Trommelen proved that with as little as 1 training session per week, one can maintain their muscle mass acquired at least over a 16 week period. (If you would like to read his work, please leave a comment or send me a message on here or Instagram as at the time of writing this post I was unable to find the URL for this study.)

 

What else happens in our bodies? When we’re not training, our carbohydrate requirements won’t be as high but it doesn’t mean we cannot or shouldn’t eat carbs at all. Carbohydrates are still required by your brain so at least keeping your liver glycogen levels up is a smart idea. Failure to do so may result in brain fog, feeling lethargic and demotivated.

It is important to know that your body utilises carbs in 3 ways: 1) stored in muscles (helps shape muscle and provides energy when training to feel stronger); 2) released into the blood stream to be used as immediately available energy; 3) stored as bodyfat for later use. As long as you remember to reduce your carbohydrate intake accordingly and replace it with healthy fats and protein (and don’t forget the veg!), your body will have a healthy ratio of macronutrients that help you maintain optimal body composition even in the absence of exercise.

Last but not least, let’s talk about the general fear of gaining weight. First of all, we don’t just get fat when we don’t train. But, indeed, weight can be gained slowly over time if the energy balance is off. This is why establishing a healthy relationship with eating is so important. If you train solely to justify a high food intake then the absence of exercise is going to make you feel anxious. However, if your food intake is optimised to boost performance and varies depending on the intensity of your training (or whether you’re training or not), you won’t be caught off guard even if you have to skip a session due to sudden change of plans in your day.

Athletes whose eating habits are ingrained after years of training can struggle with this. A rugby player who may have consumed around 6000 calories daily, could find himself in a pickle once he quits the sport or retires. If his eating has been more mindless than intuitive, he might struggle matching his food intake to the new, lower, energy requirements. I have heard stories of retired sportsmen who have gained weight rapidly after stopping their training. This can affect the person’s mental health and lead to anxiety and depression plus further issues with eating since a healthy routine hasn’t been established. So what can be done? Dropping to 2300kcal overnight from 6000kcal is going to feel highly restrictive like a dreadful diet. The change has to be gradual, allowing for small adjustments to be made weekly to encourage new eating habits to match their new lifestyle. It’s not impossible but can be challenging and the person in question has to want to make these changes.

This is why I always discuss intuitive eating with my clients. To regain control over your eating habits, it is important to establish some sort of order as soon as possible to start to guide your body in the direction you need it to go. First, replace the high calories by consuming high amounts of healthy, highly nutritious food, which will fill you up quicker than highly palatable foods. Then, your body will start to adapt to the lower caloric intake (they say it takes 3 weeks to break a habit), your appetite starts to change, you’ll eat less and your stomach lining starts to shrink – all this makes for a lovely virtuous cycle. You will fill up on less food with no unhealthy restrictions. The more you restrict the more you crave; the less you restrict the less you crave. Remember: everything in moderation!

 

I’ll leave you with this cornucopia of information for the weekend and will share Pt. 2 with you in the new week.

 

Rahel x