Intermittent Fasting and Alcohol: Should You Stop Drinking?

Writing about intermittent fasting and alcohol has been difficult because it is a more complex topic than I initially expected. I wrote this post two years ago and unpublished it despite being very popular. Why? Because I wrote the article from a very French perspective, thinking that low to moderate alcohol consumption was safe and even beneficial. However, as I learned about some risks associated with low alcohol consumption, I had to re-evaluate my position.

I sometimes wonder if the I-am-giving-up alcohol craze we see these days in the health world is similar to what we experienced twenty years ago when coffee was the devil and all health experts recommended we give it up. Now, coffee is almost a health drink! I tend to stay away from black-and-white answers. Today’s post is no different. I aim to give you all the information to make informed decisions.

And spoiler alert: Not only does alcohol break a fast, but do not break your fast with alcohol!

Intermittent Fasting for Fat-Burning Benefits

One of the main reasons most people get started with intermittent fasting is fat loss. No wonder intermittent fasting has been shown to enhance fat loss (read about this systematic review of 40 studies). So we will start by discussing intermittent fasting and alcohol from a weight loss perspective before we look at other factors that will influence your choice.

How Does Intermittent Fasting Help With Fat Loss?

The primary mechanism behind intermittent fasting for fat loss is a reduction in your calorie intake. However, there is a little more to it:

  • Fasting long enough takes you into the fat-burning zone, which means your body runs out of glycogen and starts using your fat cells to produce ketones. You feel more energetic and less hungry when your body runs on ketones.
  • Intermittent fasting reduces the need for insulin, a fat-storing hormone. Anytime you eat, your body needs to release insulin to transfer energy to your cells. If you never give your body a break from having to produce insulin, your cells become less responsive to insulin. That’s what we call insulin-resistant. You struggle with cravings, and you can’t lose weight. Lower levels of insulin facilitate fat burning.
  • The stress of fasting itself may improve fat burning. When you fast, your nervous system sends norepinephrine to your fat cells. This process increases your heart rate and helps break down fat.

With time, you will feel more satisfied and free from food’s hold on many of us. I know that’s what happened to me. Very gradually, over time, I stopped struggling with cravings. I also noticed that ensuring I kept fasting 2-3 days a week, even after achieving my weight loss goal, enabled me to keep feeling more energetic and kept my appetite under control. Please learn more in How I Lost Weight After 40: My Success Story.

How Does Alcohol Affect Fat Loss?

Yes, alcohol does affect fat loss. The main issue is that alcohol is a source of calories in and of itself, and it can add up pretty quickly. Alcohol is produced by fermenting natural starch and sugar. Most alcoholic beverages contain many calories (on average, seven per gram). To give you a reference point, fat contains nine calories per gram, while carbs and protein have four calories per gram.

Photo Credit: Live Science

Besides the number of calories in alcohol, many will notice that drinking makes them want to eat more food and crave carbs. That is something to be conscious of as it could compound the issue of consuming too many calories. Moreover, alcohol is a source of energy in and of itself. When you drink alcohol, your body uses energy before accessing your glycogen or fat cells.

Lastly, always avoid moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption as it adversely affects your overall health and your metabolic health.

Poor metabolic health and weight loss are often linked, as metabolic dysfunction can contribute to weight gain and difficulty losing weight.

Metabolic health refers to the body’s ability to regulate its metabolic processes, such as blood sugar control, cholesterol levels, and insulin sensitivity. When metabolic function is impaired, it can lead to a range of health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall metabolic health, as excess body weight can contribute to insulin resistance, inflammation, and other metabolic dysfunction.

Should You Avoid Alcohol Altogether?

Regardless of whether you practice intermittent fasting, you may have heard about some risks associated with moderate alcohol consumption and wonder if you should avoid it altogether.

Aside from some possible health risks like cancer and its effect on the brain, you must consider the issue of dopamine addictions when making this decision. Ultimately, it will be a personal choice, but I will do my best to help you weigh the pros and the cons.

Cancer Risks and Alcohol

There is a well-established connection between alcohol consumption and an increased risk of certain types of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer, including:

  1. Breast cancer: Studies have shown that even moderate alcohol consumption can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.
  2. Colorectal cancer: People who consume more than three alcoholic drinks per day have been found to have an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Moreover, this cohort study found similar results.
  3. Liver cancer: One alcoholic drink per day (~12 g/day) may be associated with a 1.1 times higher liver cancer risk.
  4. Esophageal cancer: Moderate to heavy alcohol consumption significantly increased gastrointestinal cancer risks.
  5. Head and neck cancer (HNC): Alcohol use is a known risk factor for certain types of head and neck cancer, including cancer of the mouth, throat, and larynx. There is a linear relationship with HNC risk in moderate and heavy drinkers.

It is important to note that the risk of developing cancer increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Even moderate alcohol consumption has been found to increase the risk of certain types of cancer.

The Effect of Low to Moderate Alcohol Consumption on Your Brain

Positive Effects:

  1. Reduced risk of cognitive decline: Some studies have found that low to moderate alcohol consumption may reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in older adults. “The data suggest that mild to moderate drinking (equal to or less than two drinks/day in men, or equal to or greater than one drink/day in women) does not increase risk for cognitive decline or dementia, but actually appears to reduce future cognitive impairment, likely due to its reduced cardiovascular morbidity.”
  2. Lower risk of stroke: Moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with a lower risk of ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot in the brain. “Low alcohol intake was not associated with stroke overall, but there were regional differences; low intake was associated with reduced odds of stroke in Western Europe/North America (OR 0.66; 95% CI 0.45–0.96) and increased odds in India (OR 2.18; 95% CI 1.42–3.36) (p-interaction 0.037).
  3. Increased social bonding: Low to moderate alcohol consumption can promote social bonding, positively affecting mental health and well-being. Yes! I have experienced that countless times! What about you?

Negative Effects:

  1. Impaired cognitive function: Even low to moderate alcohol consumption can impair cognitive function, particularly memory, and attention. Of course, we know that’s true in the moment, when one is drinking. However, have fun with the contradictory info: “Besides its role in physical health, low to moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to play a role in the development of cognitive impairment and dementia, conditions that are highly associated with cardiovascular diseases, although the findings are mixed.
  2. Brain shrinkage: Chronic alcohol consumption can lead to brain shrinkage and decreased brain volume, contributing to cognitive decline. “Heavy alcohol use has long been associated with changes in the brain. However, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that even light to moderate drinking — as little as a glass of beer or wine daily — is associated with reduced brain size and structure.
  3. Increased risk of addiction: Even low to moderate alcohol consumption can increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder, adversely affecting the brain and overall health. We will discuss this point further in the next section.

It is important to note that the effects of alcohol on the brain can vary depending on factors such as age, gender, genetics, and overall health. Therefore, it is recommended that individuals consume alcohol in moderation or avoid it altogether to promote brain health and overall well-being.

It is easy to bump from moderate to heavy drinking. Read Would I be healthier if I quit drinking? for more info.

Dopamine Addictions and Alcohol

Alcohol addictions aren’t just about alcohol; they are about dopamine. When you drink alcohol (and as you look forward to your drink), your body produces dopamine.

Dopamine is a neuromodulation that activates the pleasure center of your brain and may contribute to the rewarding effects of alcohol. In fact, it is theorized that the release may be why some people experience a burst of energy when drinking alcohol despite its depressive effect on the body. The issue is that repeated exposure to alcohol dampens dopamine activity, which may lead you to desire to drink again, leading to alcohol addiction.

Moreover, people who struggle with drinking frequency may not always struggle with alcoholism (if they drink only low to moderate amounts) but with dopamine addiction. That is something to consider when deciding whether to avoid alcohol or drink it occasionally.

How to Know If You Have an Addiction

I once heard an excellent definition of addiction that I want to share with you:

An addiction is when you know that the risks associated with your behavior outweigh the benefits, but you can’t stop.

Is Any Amount of Alcohol “Safe”?

According to the new Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health, even a small amount of alcohol can be damaging to your health. The American Cancer Society holds the same position.

On the other hand, low alcohol consumption (2-3 drinks a month) may have some benefits, as we have seen. This decision is then very personal and will depend on your relationship with alcohol and how alcohol makes you feel, whether you can go without it easily, your risk of cancer, etc.

Intermittent Fasting and Alcohol Tolerance

Alcohol tolerance refers to the body’s ability to process and metabolize alcohol. When someone drinks alcohol regularly, their body may become more efficient at breaking down alcohol, increasing alcohol tolerance.

There is some evidence to suggest that intermittent fasting may affect alcohol tolerance. One study (Intermittent Fasting Protects Against Chronic Ethanol-Induced Liver Injury in Mice through Modulation of Gut Microbiota and Metabolites, conducted by Zhu et al. in 2019 and published in the journal Nutrients) found that rats that were subjected to intermittent fasting had lower blood alcohol levels and fewer signs of alcohol-induced liver damage than rats that were not subjected to fasting.

In other words, paring intermittent fasting and drinking alcohol reduces the risks associated with drinking alcohol by improving your gut microbiome and overall metabolic health.

I have noticed that my alcohol tolerance has increased since intermittent fasting, which is why I am considering quitting. I need to drink more than before to enjoy the benefits of social bonding and relaxation. This increased consumption makes me feel poorly the next day, making the risks outweigh the benefits.

How to Mix Intermittent Fasting and Alcohol

As with many other things, when it comes to intermittent fasting and alcohol, moderation is key. Remember that alcohol will inhibit ketone production and autophagy.

What Alcohol Can You Drink When Intermittent Fasting?

When practicing intermittent fasting, it is generally recommended to avoid or limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol can interfere with the fasting state, and excess consumption can have negative effects on overall health.

However, if you do choose to drink alcohol during your eating window, some options may be better than others.

Hard liquor like vodka, gin, and whiskey generally have fewer calories and carbohydrates compared to beer and wine. For example, a standard shot (1.5 ounces) of 80-proof liquor contains about 97 calories and no carbohydrates. In contrast, a 5-ounce glass of wine contains about 120-150 calories and 4-5 grams of carbohydrates, and a 12-ounce beer contains about 150-200 calories and 10-15 grams of carbohydrates.

Additionally, it’s important to avoid sweetened or mixed alcoholic drinks, which can contain a lot of sugar and calories. Stick to plain liquor with a low-calorie mixer like soda water or sugar-free tonic water, and avoid drinks with added syrups, fruit juice, or soda.

It’s also important to stay hydrated and to consume alcohol in moderation, as excess alcohol consumption can have negative effects on overall health and interfere with weight loss goals.

The bottom line: drink alcohol in its purest form (like vodka and sparkling water, for example) instead of mixed drinks. Or drink wine as it may offer metabolic benefits.

Wine and Metabolic Health

Moderate wine consumption has been associated with some potential metabolic health benefits.

Several studies have shown that moderate wine consumption may positively affect cardiovascular health, including reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. This is likely due to the polyphenols and antioxidants found in wine, particularly red wine, which can help to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and improve the function of the endothelium (the inner lining of blood vessels).

There is also some evidence to suggest that moderate wine consumption may benefit blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity. However, the evidence is not as strong as for cardiovascular health. Some studies have suggested that wine’s polyphenols may help improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, although the mechanisms are not yet fully understood.

However, it’s important to note that excessive alcohol consumption, including wine consumption, can adversely affect metabolic health. Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to weight gain, liver disease, and an increased risk of several types of cancer, among other health issues (as we discussed already).

Therefore, it’s important to consume wine in moderation, which generally means no more than one glass per day for women and two glasses per day for men, and to incorporate it as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

How Much and How Often to Drink

If you decide to drink occasionally, it’s apparent that you shouldn’t binge. Keep your drinking down to a moderate amount and increase your protein intake when you drink, as alcohol can attenuate some of the muscle mass preserving benefits of intermittent fasting. Furthermore, drinking further from your fasting period is preferable as alcohol tends to mitigate some of your fasting benefits, like autophagy, ketone production, and decreased inflammation.

Can You Drink Alcohol When Intermittent Fasting AND Keto?

You can drink alcohol if you are on intermittent fasting and keto, but you must be even more careful with your choice of alcohol. You must stick to pure spirits like whiskey and vodka or keto-friendly wines.

How to Find Keto Wines

All dry wines contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per glass, so you should be able to consume a glass of wine with your meal reasonably regularly. For more information on finding keto-friendly wines in-store and online, read The Ultimate Guide to Buying Keto Wines in Canada.

Breaking Your Fast With Alcohol?

When breaking a fast, it’s crucial to prioritize nutrient-dense foods that provide the body with essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. Good options include fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods can help to stabilize blood sugar levels, provide energy, and support overall health and well-being. Please read What to Eat to Break a Fast (Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff) and 15 Best Foods to Break a Fast That Are Simple and Delicious for more info.

It’s also important to stay hydrated and to reintroduce food slowly rather than overloading the body with a heavy meal. A good practice is to break the fast with a small meal or snack and then wait for 30-60 minutes before consuming a larger meal. This can help prevent digestive discomfort and support the body’s natural digestion and nutrient absorption processes.

In summary, breaking your fast with alcohol is not recommended. Instead, prioritize nutrient-dense foods and reintroduce food slowly to support overall health and well-being. Furthermore, if possible, you should only drink on days you are not fasting.

intermittent Fasting and Alcohol Video

In Summary

In conclusion, intermittent fasting and alcohol can be a tricky combination. While occasional, moderate alcohol consumption may not significantly impact the benefits of intermittent fasting, excessive drinking can interfere with the fasting state and have negative effects on metabolic health. If you do choose to drink alcohol during your eating window, it’s essential to choose low-calorie and sugar options and avoid sweetened or mixed drinks. It’s also important to stay hydrated and consume alcohol in moderation and prioritize a healthy, balanced diet to support overall health and weight loss goals.