Alcohol & Weight Loss: What You Need to Know

Melissa Bennett-Heinz
LCSW, LICSW, Gestalt Psychotherapist

Health and Self Help

While alcohol itself does not contain fat, it does contain calories. When consuming alcohol, your body prioritizes metabolizing it over other nutrient like carbohydrates or fats. Alcohol does stimulate appetite and can cause you to consume more calories. Regular consumption of alcohol over time can lead to weight gain if the overall calorie intake exceeds expended energy.  

Does Alcohol Make You Gain Weight?  The answer to this question is not a simple yes or no, rather, it depends. Alcohol can lead to weight gain for even moderate drinkers, not just someone with alcohol use disorder. Alcohol contains calories that don’t cause you to feel full or satiated, so consuming two glasses of wine with dinner adds over 300 calories to your full meal. Alcoholic beverages often contain additional ingredients like sugar or mixers - cocktails, sweet wines, and beer can be higher in calories than spirits or dry wine. 

While the relationship between alcohol consumption and weight gain is not completely clear, alcohol may play a role: alcohol stops your body from using fat for energy, it is high in calories, it leads to feeling hunger and less satiety (the feeling of being full), and it can lead to cravings for salty and greasy foods. Drinking at a bar, you may be more likely to dip your hand into the nuts on the bartop or order wings and other high-calorie, salty, and fattier foods than you would normally consume. 

Whether or not you gain weight from drinking alcohol depends on many factors. These include what you drink, how often you drink, how much you drink, and what you eat when you drink. Some factors relate to your unique body and lifestyle such as overall diet, genetics, gender, level of physical activity, age, and health your health -- for example the presence of other risk factors such as obesity and diabetes. 

There are many reasons why consuming alcohol makes it harder to lose weight. Alcohol contains calories and these can add up quickly. For example, a standard 12-ounce beer has about 150 calories, a 5-ounce glass of wine has around 130 calories, and a shot of distilled spirits can have around 100 calories. Consuming multiple drinks in a sitting or regularly contributes to increased calorie intake potentially exceeding your body's daily calorie requirements. In addition to the calories, there is also a lack of nutrient value and it provides little to no nutritional value. Your body prioritizes breaking alcohol down over utilizing nutrients from food which can lead to a slower metabolism and reduction in fat burning. 

Alcohol is an appetite stimulant. Increased appetite coupled with impaired judgment can lead to overeating or poor food choices. Additionally, alcohol lowers inhibition making it easier to give in to cravings and consume more high-calorie snacks or meals. And while alcohol stimulates your appetite, it temporarily disrupts your body’s metabolic processes. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver; while it does so, the metabolism of other nutrients, such as carbohydrates and fat, is placed on hold. This process can lead to reduced fat burning and increased fat storage. Alcohol also affects your quality of sleep and can lead to disruption of sleep patterns. Lack of sleep has been linked with weight gain and increased appetite. 

Calories represent the ability of food to be converted by the body into energy. All food contains calories, and we need a certain amount each day. But some foods provide not only calories but also other ingredients that are critically important, such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and others. When a food provides primarily calories, and little else of value to our health, we say that food has "empty calories." 

When we say that alcohol has empty calories, this is what we are talking about. Alcohol contains calories but that’s all it contains. Empty calories are easily digested. They don't make you feel full for longer periods. As a result, you may eat more calories than usual just to satisfy your hunger. The unused calories will be converted into fats. This can lead to weight gain.

Alcohol is used before fat stores. Alcohol is metabolized by several processes or pathways. The most common of these pathways involves two enzymes—alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). These enzymes help break apart the alcohol molecule, making it possible to eliminate it from the body. Most of the alcohol in the body is broken down in the liver. Your body prioritizes breaking this down as it is a poison/toxin that can potentially be deadly. During this process, the metabolism of food and carbohydrates is greatly slowed. 

Essentially, alcohol distracts your metabolism and makes it less efficient. While your body is hard at work breaking down the alcohol, other chemical reactions take a back seat and slow down. Approximately half of your body’s energy goes into eliminating the alcohol instead of doing other things. In particular, the body slows down the chemical reactions that break down or burn fat. 

Alcohol has an effect on almost the entire system in our body. One of the organs that are impacted by the effects of alcohol is the brain.  Alcohol slows down the chemicals and pathways your brain uses to control your body, altering mood, slowing down reflexes, and affecting balance. It also can contribute to learning, memory, and sleep problems. Next, the heart is affected as alcohol increases your heart rate and expands your blood vessels, making more blood flow to the skin (which causes you to feel warm), however, this heat passes out through the skin, causing body temperature to fall after it has risen. Third, the digestive tract is affected by alcohol. Alcohol is first broken down in the stomach, promoting an increase in digestive juices. Alcohol also irritates the small intestine and colon where it is further broken down and absorbed, and it also can affect the normal speed at which food moves through them, which may result in abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Fourth, alcohol dehydrates the body, which can affect the kidneys and the body’s ability to regulate fluid and electrolytes. It also disrupts hormones that affect kidney function. And, lastly, is the liver.  Alcohol—most of it is metabolized in the liver, which filters circulating blood and removes and destroys toxic substances, including alcohol. The liver can handle a certain amount of alcohol, but as a person continues to drink, it can become stressed to the point of causing permanent damage.

Excessive alcohol consumption does contribute to abdominal fat. This is because the body uses alcohol as an energy source, which results in calories being stored as fat rather than being used for other bodily functions. Alcohol also interferes with hormones that regulate metabolism and hunger, leading to an increased appetite and higher calorie intake. Furthermore, alcohol has a diuretic effect on the body, meaning that more water is lost from the body due to dehydration which can lead to bloat and a bulging stomach area.

Alcohol is also known to impair judgment and lead people to indulge in unhealthy food choices or high-fat snacks such as chips or fried foods. Additionally, it can reduce motivation for regular exercise or physical activity which are otherwise essential for maintaining healthy levels of fat in the abdominal area. 

Alcohol affects your judgment. It affects your judgment about food choices as it affects your decision-making abilities, increasing the likelihood of making impulsive or careless choices when it comes to what and how much you eat. How judgment is affected is multifaceted. 

First, alcohol stimulates appetite leading to increased hunger and a stronger desire for calorie-dense foods. This may cause you to make less healthy food choices, opting for high-fat, sugary, or processed foods. Alcohol can also impair your ability to judge portion sizes accurately which may lead you to consuming larger portions than you intended or reaching for extra servings without realizing it. Third, alcohol lowers inhibitions making you less likely to stick to dietary restrictions or make more disciplined food decisions. This can lead to indulging in unhealthy foods that you would typically avoid. Overall, alcohol decreases self-control making it more challenging to resist the temptation of unhealthy foods. This can be particularly true when you are in social settings where snacks and treats are more accessible.  

Alcohol affects sex hormones.  Hormones act as chemical messengers to control and coordinate the functions of the body's tissues and organs. When the hormone system works properly, the exact amount of hormone is released at the right time, and the body's tissues respond to those messages effectively and accurately. Alcohol consumption can impair the functioning of the glands that release hormones and the functions of the tissues targeted by the hormones, which can result in medical issues. When alcohol impairs the hormone system's ability to work properly, it can disrupt these major bodily functions including sex hormones. 

Many hormones in the body regulate the reproductive system. The two main hormones - testosterone and estrogens - are synthesized and affect various reproductive functions. In men, they are responsible for sperm development and fertility, sexual maturation, and aspects of male sexual behavior. In females, they are responsible for the development of secondary sexual characteristics, distribution of body hair, help in maintaining pregnancy, and regulating the menstrual cycle. Chronic drinking can interfere with all of these reproductive functions. Alcohol can impair the adequate functioning of the testes and ovaries and result in hormonal deficiencies, sexual dysfunction, and infertility.

Alcohol can negatively affect your sleep. The sedative effects of alcohol can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, but the consumption of alcohol - especially in excess - is linked to poor sleep quality and duration of sleep. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that causes brain activity to slow down and also reduces REM sleep and causes sleep disruptions. People with alcohol use disorders commonly experience insomnia symptoms. 

Drinking alcohol in moderation is generally considered safe but every individual reacts differently to alcohol. As a result, alcohol’s impact on sleep largely depends on the person.  The relationship between alcohol and sleep has been studied since the 1930s, yet many aspects of this relationship are still unknown. In general, we know that low amounts of alcohol negatively impact sleep. Two servings (or less) of alcohol per day for men or one serving per day for women decreased sleep quality by 9.3%. Moderate amounts of alcohol increase the negative impact on sleep by more than double for men and women. Lastly, higher amounts of alcohol continued to show the same negative impact on a greater scale - men consuming more than two servings of alcohol per day and women consuming one serving per day decreased sleep quality by 39.2%.

Alcohol affects digestion and nutrient absorption. Alcohol can have significant effects on digestion and nutrient absorption in the body. There are only a few research studies that focus on long-term moderate alcohol consumption and its effect on intestinal nutrient absorption. Also understudied are the potential differences in the effects of different types of alcohol, varying from liquor to wine on nutrient absorption.

Alcohol irritates the digestive tract by irritating the lining of the stomach, esophagus, and small intestine, leading to inflammation and damage. This irritation can disrupt the normal functioning of the digestive system and affect nutrient absorption. Alcohol interferes with the absorption of essential nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and proteins. Over time, this can lead to deficiencies and malnutrition. Alcohol also can suppress the secretion of digestive enzymes in the pancreas that helps break down and facilitate nutrient absorption. This imbalance can negatively impact digestion and the absorption of nutrients, as gut bacteria play a crucial role in these processes. 

Alcohol can reduce interest in exercise. Alcohol can indeed reduce interest in exercise in various ways. It can impact your motivation physically as well as affect other systems in the body that may reduce interest in exercise. 

Alcohol affects cognitive function and can lead to impaired decision making thus reducing motivation. This makes it challenging to generate enthusiasm and determination essential for consistent exercise. Alcohol can also decrease energy levels as it contributes to dehydration and disrupts normal sleep patterns, leading to fatigue and decreased energy. When feeling tired or drained, the desire to engage in exercise diminishes. Alcohol contributes to disrupted sleep patterns affecting the amount and quality of sleep. Poor sleep affects overall energy levels, motivation, and willingness to engage in exercise. Alcohol is often associated with sedentary activities such as lounging, socializing, or leisure activities that mostly involve sitting. Engaging in sedentary activities reduces the opportunity for physical activity and contributes to an overall decline in interest in exercise. 

Tips to Minimize Alcohol Affecting Weight Loss 

It is possible to lose weight and not have to completely give up consuming alcoholic beverages. If you’re concerned about your weight but don’t want to abstain completely, there are strategies you can employ that will be helpful. Think of alcohol as a treat just as you would a dessert or special food that you enjoy. When trying to lose weight, you would likely not be consuming cake or ice cream every single day. 

The usual advice is to drink in moderation. Moderation is defined as consuming up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. But if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s a good idea to limit your drinking even more, because drinking less is always healthier than drinking more. 

Ways to limit weight gain while drinking include:

  1. Limit how frequently you consume alcohol - this will decrease the amount of calories you are consuming as taking in more calories than you burn will lead to weight gain. 
  2. Limit the quantity of alcohol consumed - drinking less will have less of a toxic effect on your system and shorter recovery time, decreasing fatigue and also decreasing your intake of calories. 
  3. Limit the type of drink/alcohol you consume - mixed drinks (think White Russian or Daquiri) contain high amounts of sugar and fat while spirits or dry wines have significantly fewer calories and no fat.  
  4. Increase your exercise routine - a little more movement during the week can counteract the increase in calories from consuming alcohol. 
  5. Cut out other sweets/treats - this will compensate for alcohol consumption. 
  6. Plan what you’re going to eat while consuming alcohol - judgment is limited under the influence of alcohol and bar food tends to be fried and high in fat and calories. By knowing beforehand what you’re going to eat and sticking to it, you will be less likely to reach for the free chips and salsa or partake in the platter of wings.  
  7. Know Your Lower-Calorie Drink Options - Tequila, rum, whiskey, and vodka all have about 100 calories per serving. If you're mixing, consider the mixers you're adding. Soda water, vegetable juice, or lightly flavored sparkling water are all great low-calorie options, wine contains about 125 calories per serving, champagne is about 95 calories per 4-ounce glass, and light beer is another good option typically ranging from 60-100 calories per serving. 
  8. Don’t Drink on an Empty Stomach -  If you have a few drinks on an empty stomach, your liver can be blocked from releasing stored glucose into the bloodstream, which can lead to low blood sugar and cause you to feel hungry causing you to overeat or eat unhealthy foods in greater quantities.
  9. Alternate alcoholic beverages with water or unsweetened iced tea - this trick slows your drinking and keeps you hydrated. Try sipping soda water — the bubbles may help you to feel fuller longer and ultimately help you drink less.
  10. Choose a stronger drink to sip - When you consume a drink that "goes down easy," that likely means it'll go down quickly, too. When that happens, especially if you're out with friends, you might be looking for a second or third drink. Instead, choose a drink that's meant to be sipped slowly. This will slow down your drinking and allow you to enjoy your drink without overdoing it.

Tools to Help Cut Back on Drinking

If you want to cut back on drinking, the first important thing to know is if you’re not alone. We live in a society where alcohol is readily available and consumed in so many aspects of our social lives. You may not be able to be very successful going at it alone and the good news is, you don’t have to. Whether you have a substance abuse problem or just have a daily habit that’s hard to break, there are a lot of resources available. You may have a health condition such as diabetes where consuming alcohol is harmful and even dangerous for healthy management of the disease. Being overweight and having diabetes can be life-threatening and it may be necessary for you to reduce greatly or eliminate your intake of alcohol. 

If you need assistance, here are a few suggestions that may be beneficial. Apps like Reframe or Workit Health can help someone cut back on drinking. These apps help you to track your drinking habits while allowing you to monitor the amount of alcohol you consume, set goals, and provide insights into your drinking patterns. There are community supports you can join, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which offers a supportive community of individuals going through similar experiences that can offer support, encouragement,  guidance, and helpful strategies to reduce drinking. Additionally, online forums dedicated to the discussion of alcohol reduction can be beneficial. Practicing mindfulness such as deep breathing and meditation that promote relaxation can reduce stress which may help decrease the need to rely on alcohol. 

When to Seek Professional Help 

It’s difficult to know when to seek support for alcohol use issues. Generally speaking, the person with the problem is in denial and won’t be able to have a perspective that there is a problem. This also makes it difficult for someone else to bring it up and be heard. A really good place to start is by talking with a professional such as a doctor, therapist, or nurse. Alcoholics Anonymous is also a great resource. There are meetings both online and in person that are classified as “open,” meaning anyone can attend, you don’t need to identify as dependent on drugs or alcohol. This resource is free AND anonymous which makes it very appealing for many people. Seeing a doctor, called a psychiatrist, or nurse practitioner who specializes in in treatment of addiction, can make medication recommendations and provide prescription medication management.  

In my experience and from all my research, there are no health benefits to be gained from consuming alcohol. None whatsoever. However, I am aware that the majority of people are going to choose to consume alcohol for various reasons. If you want/need to lose what, it is best to avoid alcohol. However, it is possible to enjoy an alcoholic beverage and continue to have success in weight loss. It is important to choose wisely what you drink and limit how many drinks you have. It is best to always consult your physician before beginning any weight loss program. It is helpful for some to consult a dietician who can guide you through the process. Additional support from groups or an accountability partner can help you keep your commitment to yourself. Healthy weight loss will contain a program you can maintain and adhere to once the achieved weight is met. Anything too extreme or limiting any one food group entirely is not going to be sustainable. Set yourself up for success by learning to utilize portion control, understanding proper nutrition, and incorporating alcohol into this program, if you so desire. Long-term lifestyle changes will be important to maintain weight loss in the long run - many people can lose weight, but it’s keeping it off that’s hard to do.