Alcohol is a staple in many people’s lives. Some find it an enjoyable way to relax while socializing with friends, or it may be a tradition at Christmas or other family gatherings. But if you’re trying to lose weight or be healthier, you might be wondering if alcohol is going to sabotage your efforts.
Alcohol can cause weight gain in multiple ways — It turns off fat burning, adds empty calories, increases hunger, and affects your hormones.
Alcohol can also lead to making poor food choices.
Drinking alcohol has other health risks beyond potential weight gain.
Drinking in moderation or not at all is best for your health and waistline.
Unfortunately, the answer is maybe. It depends on various factors, including what you’re drinking, how much, how often, what you eat while drinking, and your biology.
Here’s a closer look at how alcohol could affect your weight and what you can do to limit the impact.
1. Alcohol is high in calories
The first way alcohol can lead to weight gain is simply because it’s high in calories. Here are the calories counts of some standard drinks:
Regular beer (12 ounces) — 150 calories.
- Liquor such as rum or vodka (1.5 oz) — 100 calories.
- Red or white wine (5 oz) — 125 calories.
Calorie-dense mixers such as sugary sodas and fruit juices can add even more calories to your drink. For example, a Mai Tai (5 oz) made with rum, orange juice, lime juice, and liquor can have over 300 calories in just one drink. That’s as much as a candy bar or small burger!
These ‘empty’ calories provide no nutritional value and can quickly add up, leading to gradual weight gain. Another issue is that most people wouldn’t eat multiple candy bars or burgers in one sitting, but they may drink multiple alcoholic beverages without thinking twice.
If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s important to be aware of the calorie content of alcoholic drinks and account for them in your daily calorie budget. But even if it isn’t a concern, it’s still worth considering how many extra calories you consume from alcohol. You’ll gain weight if you regularly consume more calories than you burn.
2. Alcohol stops your body from burning fat
Another way alcohol can lead to weight gain is by impacting the way your body metabolizes fat.
Normally, when you eat food, your body breaks down the carbohydrates into glucose, which it then uses for energy or stores in your liver and muscles as glycogen. Any extra glucose is converted to triglycerides and stored as fat.
Whenever you need energy, your body first uses glycogen stores, then triglycerides. So fat burning usually only kicks in when there isn’t enough glucose or glycogen available.
However, alcohol can interfere with this process. When you drink, your liver starts working to metabolize the alcohol instead of the fat. That’s because alcohol is a toxin, and your body wants to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Therefore, eliminating alcohol becomes a priority ahead of other nutrients, and your body effectively turns off fat-burning processes.
If you’re trying to lose weight, this is an issue as it means your body is less efficient at burning fat stores. So, even if you’re eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, you may find it harder to lose weight if you also drink alcohol frequently.
3. Alcohol increases hunger
Alcohol makes you hungry! After a few drinks, you may feel peckish even if you’ve already eaten. And alcohol lowers your dietary inhibitions, so you’re more likely to make poor food choices. As a result, you may reach for chips, fries, or fast food instead of preparing a balanced meal.
So why do you experience hunger pangs when drinking? Firstly, alcohol can cause blood sugar levels to dip, triggering hunger cues and cravings for carbs. If you have diabetes, you should be extremely cautious, as drinking alcohol when taking diabetes medications can cause hypoglycemia or low blood sugar.
Furthermore, alcohol affects the hypothalamus — an area of the brain involved in hunger. So when you drink, it has the same effects as starvation, and your body sends out hunger-stimulating signals. As a result, you feel ravenous.
4. Alcohol disrupts your hormones
Hormones are chemical messengers that play a role in regulating many bodily processes, including hunger, metabolism, and fat storage.
Alcohol affects levels of reproductive hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, which play a role in fat metabolism and body composition.
Furthermore, drinking alcohol impacts cortisol levels, a stress hormone released in response to real or perceived threats. When cortisol levels are elevated, it can stimulate hunger and lead to weight gain, especially around the belly.
Alcohol also affects your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s natural way of regulating the sleep-wake cycle. As a result, you may find it harder to fall asleep and end up feeling tired and lacking energy the day after drinking. You may be less inclined to exercise and more likely to make food choices that don’t align with weight loss goals.
How to enjoy alcohol in moderation
Weight gain from alcohol is a real possibility, but it doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite drinks altogether.
If you enjoy the occasional glass of wine or beer, there are a few things you can do to minimize the risk of weight gain:
Moderation is key. Limit yourself to one or two drinks per day to reduce the impact on your weight.
Choose lower-calorie options. Opt for light beers instead of regular beers, or swap sugary mixers for calorie-free options like seltzer water.
Pace yourself. Have a glass of water between alcoholic drinks to stay hydrated and slow your alcohol consumption.
Eat before you drink. If you drink on an empty stomach, you’re more likely to make poor food choices or overeat later.
Drinking alcohol can lead to weight gain in several ways. It can increase hunger, add empty calories, and disrupt hormones that regulate metabolism and hunger.
If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to enjoy alcohol in moderation or avoid it altogether. But, if you do want to drink, there are some things you can do to minimize the impact on your waistline — choose lower-calorie options, pace yourself, and eat before you drink.