IT’S NOT AS SIMPLE AS THE CALORIES IN YOUR COCKTAIL - WHEN IT COMES TO THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN BOOZE AND WEIGHT GAIN, IT’S COMPLICATED. HERE’S THE REAL REASON WHY DRINKING ALCOHOL CAN MAKE IT HARD TO LOSE THOSE EXTRA POUNDS.
When you drink alcohol, particularly large amounts or excessively, it can affect many parts of your body and your life. One area of concern that people frequently wonder about is weight gain related to alcohol use. Does alcohol cause weight gain or is this a myth?
Here’s what you should know about how alcohol can affect you, and more specifically, what to know about alcohol-related weight gain.
Article at a Glance:
Yes, alcohol can cause or contribute to weight gain. There are several links between alcohol and weight gain including:
- alcohol is packed with sugar, carbs and empty calories
- you’re also likely to eat more unhealthy foods than you would if you weren’t drinking.
Weight gain is just one of the many health considerations to keep in mind when it comes to your alcohol use and limiting how much you drink.
Is Alcohol Intake Linked Weight Gain?
There are a few reasons why alcohol and weight gain are linked, some of which are direct and others are indirect.
First, alcohol can cause weight gain simply because it has calories. Not only does the actual alcohol have calories, but additives and mixers that are included with many alcoholic beverages can be packed with calories as well as sugar. The calories that come from alcohol are considered empty, meaning they have no nutritional value.
Alcohol is an appetite stimulant, so you may be more likely to eat more and also make poorer food choices. Not only are you likely to feel hungrier if you’re drinking, but your inhibitions will be lowered, so you’re not going to be thinking about choosing healthy foods.
Research suggests heavy episodic drinking is associated with a 41% higher risk of transitioning from normal weight to overweight, a 36% higher risk of transitioning from overweight to obese, and a 35% higher risk of maintaining obesity compared to those who aren’t heavy drinkers.
Finally, another way alcohol and weight gain are linked is alcohol suppresses the central nervous system which ultimately just slows all the functions of your body down. This likely only has a significant effect on chronic drinkers.
What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body?
Drinking in moderation is usually considered okay from a health perspective, but it’s important to have a full grasp of what “in moderation” means because drinking excessively can contribute to a range of health problems, many of which are serious.
Drinking in moderation means having no more than one drink a day if you’re a woman and no more than two a day for men. If you’re drinking more than this, it could be considered problematic, and if you drink more than five drinks a day as a man or four as a woman, that’s considered binge drinking.
The immediate effects of alcohol can include impaired coordination and judgment, memory problems and slow reflexes. Even if you just have a single drink, these things can occur and the more you drink, the more profound and apparent these symptoms can become.
When you drink, a significant portion of the alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream, and then it is distributed through most tissues in your body.
Here are just some of the effects of alcohol on the body:
- When you drink, it affects your brain significantly, including altering levels of GABA and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters that are part of the brain’s reward system. If you have changes in either of these neurotransmitters, it can lead to multiple effects, including increased heart rate, aggression, and depression.
- Your liver is one part of the body that is most significantly impacted by drinking. Your liver processes and metabolizes alcohol. When you drink excessively, it causes your liver to accumulate fat, which can lead to a serious condition called fatty liver disease. This can ultimately lead to cirrhosis.
- Drinking raises estrogen levels and this has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.
- When you drink, it causes your stomach to make an excessive amount of acid, which can contribute to a variety of conditions like irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining.
These aren’t even all the ways alcohol can affect your body—there are many more.
Alcohol and weight loss: What to know
No matter what diet plan you might choose to follow in the hope of losing weight, there’s a universal rule that they all agree on: cutting down on alcohol is crucial. Your choice of poison is irrelevant, too; whether you have a soft spot for wine or are tackling a slight beer belly after indulging in a few too many pints, reducing your alcohol intake is considered a no-brainer for any health kick (and the increasingly popular Dry January is proof of the many other benefits of going teetotal).
However, while it seems obvious that regularly drinking sugar-laden cocktails and calorific wine would cause weight gain, it’s not just what you drink - or even how much - that leaves you looking at a higher figure on the scales; it’s how the alcohol affects your body once you’ve had it. Forget figuring out how many calories are in your glass (because once you’ve had a couple, who's counting?). Here are the real reasons that booze can make you put on weight…
YOUR BODY PUTS ALCOHOLIC CALORIES FIRST
Of course, any extra calories over the RDA won’t help matters if you’re trying to slim down, but that’s just the start of it, as nutritional expert and author of The Diet Fix Dr Zoe Harcombe explains. “Calories in alcohol per se are not the issue. The body cannot store alcohol or turn alcohol calories into fat.” Dr Harcombe points out in her recent newsletter.
However, the calorie content of your bar beverage of choice can still pose a problem for your waistline - because of whatever else you’re consuming alongside it. “While the calories in alcohol can’t be stored, the calories in alcohol will be preferentially burned by the body,” continues Dr Harcombe. “This means that, if you consume 100 calories of alcohol and 100 calories of pasta, the body will burn the alcohol calories before the pasta calories. This makes the pasta calories more likely to be stored, rather than used up.”
Just one gram of alcohol contains around seven calories, so it soon adds up. There goes our whole ‘glass of wine with dinner’ theory…
IT GIVES YOU A 'WINE WAIST' AS YOU GET OLDER
It’s all due to the enzyme Aldh1a1, which is responsible for converting alcohol to fat around the middle. The effects of this enzyme are suppressed by the female hormone oestrogen, says Dr Sarah Brewer, Medical Director of Healthspan. “The enzyme causes visceral fat to build up around your internal organs. After middle age, as the menopause approaches, oestrogen levels fall and so alcohol starts to pile on weight around the waist.”
It's the reason why men get beer bellies at any age, because their oestrogen levels are much lower.
IT PRESSES PAUSE ON FAT-BURNING
Essentially, if your body’s too busy processing those 2-4-1 happy hour cocktails, it doesn’t have time to burn fat, as Dr Harcombe explains: “Alcohol impairs the working of glucagon – the hormone that works to naturally elevate blood glucose levels and to break down body fat (i.e. weight loss). The body registers alcohol as a poison; and so the liver prioritises getting rid of the substance before doing the many other jobs that it has to do. This means that maintaining blood glucose levels, by accessing glucose or breaking down body fat, becomes less of a priority.”
Given that it takes around an hour for our liver to process just one unit of alcohol, that’s a lot of fat burning time that’s getting wasted while we are.
…AND MAKES YOU WANT TO EAT EVERYTHING IN SIGHT
You know how you suddenly feel ravenous after a couple of glasses of Pinot? While your liver is hard at work processing the booze, it’s not looking out for those blood glucose levels - and when they fall, we get hungry. So when suddenly every carb and kebab looks delicious and we find ourselves mainlining the garlic bread, it’s all down to our hormones. “This is why some alcoholic drinks are called an aperitif,” Dr Zoe tells us. “They are intended to stimulate the appetite before a meal.” Drink less, and you’ll probably eat less too.
YOU MIGHT BE OVERDOING THE 'ALCOHOL CARBS'
And we’re not talking about the chips you grab on the way home. Your alcoholic drink of choice not only has calories because of the alcohol content - it’s the other ingredients that make weight gain even more likely. “Don’t go near beer or lager if you’re trying to lose weight,” warns Dr Zoe in The Diet Myth. “These are more carbs and grains than alcohol and they really won’t help. Similarly, spirits are mostly grain-based and they tend to come with mixers containing sugars or sweeteners. A standard glass of wine, in contrast, has fewer than 4g of carbohydrate.”
YOU CAN DRINK AND DIET - IT JUST TAKES LONGER
We’re not judging; all of us are familiar with that G&T craving come Friday night (or even Tuesday…). If you’re hoping to lose weight but still want to enjoy your favourite tipple, it’s just a case of cutting down - and accepting that it will just take a little longer to shed those pounds. “Cutting out alcohol is one of the quickest ways to lose weight,” says Dr Brewer. If you've been using alcohol to relax, she recommends CBD oil.
She also advises drinking from a smaller glass. "Large wine glasses are fashionable but researchers from Cambridge University have found that drinking wine from a large glass increases the overall amount that you drink as they trick your brain into thinking there is more to drink so you drink more quickly. If you’re trying to cut back on the amount of alcohol you are drinking on a diet, swap to using a smaller sized glass!"
If you’re not up for going sober, the expert recommends limiting yourself to one or two drinks on the weekend - but there are plenty of ways to reduce your intake without overthinking it. “Mix chilled white or red wine with equal quantities of sparkling mineral water to make a refreshing spritzer - this instantly cuts the calorie count of an alcoholic drink in half,” advises Dr Sarah. The hangover might not be so painful, either…