By Shelby Stoner, MS, PHASE IV Exercise Physiologist, Nutrition Specialist
Alcohol consumption’s effect on weight loss has been a long-debated topic in the world of health and fitness. Drinking alcohol is very common in our culture for social gatherings including parties, sporting events, and pairing with meals such as dinner. After the winter holidays, we often hear people blame weight gain on excess eating and drinking which typically go hand-in-hand. The purpose of this article is to provide an understanding of how alcohol affects metabolism and the common reasons why alcohol consumption is associated with weight gain.
What is Alcohol?
Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is the intoxicating ingredient found in wine, beer, and liquors. This is produced through the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches. People react to alcohol in different ways, due to differences in age, sex, race or ethnicity, family history, and weight to name a few. A standard drink in the United States is equal to 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol, which is roughly converted to:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof liquor
How Alcohol Affects the Metabolism
Unlike other fuel sources, alcohol can only be metabolized by the liver. When alcohol is consumed, it’s burned first as a “fuel source” before your body uses anything else, including carbohydrates and fat. Alcohol can also cross the biological membranes through diffusion (i.e. how it enters the bloodstream). Therefore, the more alcohol you consume, the greater the concentration gradient, and the more rapid is the absorption. The liver is only able to clear alcohol at a rate of around one ounce of liquor per hour, which is why consuming more than this can leave some people feeling tipsy.
How Alcohol Affects Weight Loss
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that alcohol is often referred to as “empty calories.” Similar to chips, crackers, soda or cookies, alcoholic drinks provide your metabolism with calories, but very little nutrients. As previously mentioned, when your body is using alcohol as a primary fuel source it is not breaking down other sources like fat for energy. This causes the body to store other calories like excess glucose (simple carbohydrates) as fat until it can be shuttled back through the metabolism as energy, therefore delaying weight loss efforts. In more extreme cases, alcohol can damage the liver which is the body’s primary filter for any foreign substance. This affects the way your body metabolizes and stores carbohydrates and fat, making it even more difficult to lose excess weight. Another important aspect to consider is the decisions made under the influence of alcohol – especially those related to food. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and therefore leads to poor decision making when it comes to your food choices. Not only does alcohol inhibit good decision making, but it also inhibits the proper function of the digestive system. It causes strain on the stomach and intestines which leads to decreased secretion of digestive enzymes and movement of food through the digestive tract. Alcohol intake of ALL levels can lead to impaired digestion and absorption of important nutrients and greatly affect your metabolism specific to weight management.
Alcohol has also been known to affect hormone levels, especially testosterone. Testosterone plays an important role in multiple metabolic processes, including fat burning capabilities and muscle regeneration. Studies have found that low testosterone levels can predict the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in men, which is characterized by dyslipidemia, hypertension, diabetes, and increased BMI.
Tips for Avoiding Alcohol-Related Weight Gain
- Have something to eat beforehand. Drinking on an empty stomach will increase the rate of alcohol entering your bloodstream, and make you feel tipsy quicker. Having food beforehand will help your stomach absorb the alcohol more slowly and help you make better choices.
- Drink slowly. Just like eating quickly can lead to overeating, throwing back drinks can cause you to drink more than you intended. Instead, sip your drink slowly, and put it down in between sips.
- Drink water! Match each drink you have with a glass of water. Not only are you helping keep yourself hydrated, but you’d also be surprised how much less alcohol you have to drink too.
- Come up with a game plan. The best way to control how many calories come from alcohol is to set a drink limit for yourself and stick to it.
Common Calorie References
- 5 ounces of red or white wine = 125 Calories
- 12 ounces of light beer = 100 Calories
- 5 ounces of champagne = 100 Calories
- 1.5 ounces of vodka, whiskey, rum or gin = 96 Calories
Take Away Message
Everyone is different. Even if two people weigh the exact same, are the same sex and age and eat, drink, and exercise exactly the same amount, adding alcohol to the mix can have different outcomes. While you may not have to cut out all alcohol to lose weight, you may need to make some changes. Keep an eye on the number of drinks you consume, the type, and what goes into the drink too. Many mixed drinks include juices or simple syrups that add extra calories. The key is to self-monitor – if you’re a moderate drinker and find yourself gradually putting on weight or have a hard time taking it off, try cutting down on the alcohol and see how you feel and how your body responds.
Remember, each individual’s dietary needs are unique to the individual.