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Last updated: Aug 11, 2022
6 min read

Alcohol and weight loss: what’s the connection?

chimene richaAmelia willson

Medically Reviewed by Chimene Richa, MD

Written by Amelia Willson

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Is alcohol interfering with your weight loss goals? It’s possible. While drinking in moderation is generally considered okay, many people tend to drink more than the recommended amount per day (one drink or fewer for women, two or fewer for men) when they do drink. In general, drinking has been associated with increased calorie intake and, in the case of binge drinking, an increased risk of obesity (DGAC, 2020; Traversy, 2015).

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Does alcohol make you gain weight? 

The short answer is yes; alcohol can make you more likely to gain weight. Alcohol impedes weight loss on multiple fronts. 

People often drink alcohol in addition to whatever they’re already eating. That means they may end up consuming more calories overall, especially when compared with drinking water. Alcoholic drinks are more likely to be high in sugar and empty calories (e.g., calories that don’t offer much in the way of nutrients). Alcohol also affects your digestive system, disrupting your metabolism and tricking your brain into thinking you’re hungrier than you really are (Battista, 2017; Brenes, 2021). 

Speaking of your brain, alcohol lowers your self-control and affects your decision-making, making you more likely to reach for foods you have no problem saying no to when you’re sober. As a result, you may eat more than you otherwise would (Cains, 2017; Brenes, 2021). A study of moderate drinkers suggests that men tend to consume an extra 168 calories when they drink. While the researchers didn’t observe a similar effect in women, they did find that both men and women consumed more fats and made poorer food choices on the days they drank alcohol (Breslow, 2013).

What’s the best alcohol to drink when trying to lose weight?

If you’re not ready to say goodbye to alcohol, don’t worry. There are several lower-calorie liquor options. For example, a 1.5-oz shot of vodka, whiskey, gin, rum, tequila, or brandy only contains 100 calories. If you’re a wine drinker, a 5-oz glass of red wine contains 125 calories, while white wine contains 120. A 4-oz flute of champagne has 85 calories (MedlinePlus, 2020). 

When it comes to beer, the lighter the beer, the better. A 12-oz glass of regular beer contains 145 calories, while craft beer packs in 170 calories or more. Light beer, on the other hand, usually only has about 105 calories (MedlinePlus, 2020).

Here are some more tips for preventing weight gain from alcoholic beverages (DGAC, 2020; MedlinePlus, 2020):

  • Avoid frozen drinks and mixed cocktails. Extra ingredients typically spell extra calories. A 9-oz piña colada contains 490 calories, while a 4-oz margarita contains 170 calories. 
  • Watch out for sweeteners. Instead of a mixed drink, opt for a shot on the rocks. For mixers, try club soda or sparkling water. You can also add fruit to sweeten things, like tequila with lime or olives with gin. 
  • Practice other ways to manage your alcohol consumption. Sip slowly and alternate with water. Practice portion control by using a smaller glass. Limit yourself to two or fewer drinks per day if you’re male and one or fewer if you’re female.

Why does alcohol affect weight? 4 possible reasons

The relationship between alcohol and weight is complex, but there is a link between alcohol and overeating. Alcohol is also considered a risk factor for obesity, but not necessarily for all individuals. For some people, low to moderate alcohol consumption may not lead to weight gain (Traversy, 2015; Cains, 2017). 

Here are some factors that help explain the effects of alcohol on body weight.

1. Alcohol has a lot of calories

Alcohol has a high sugar content, especially craft beers and cocktails mixed with sweeteners and other ingredients. Sugar contains a lot of calories, and those extra calories may turn into fat—think of a “beer belly” (MedlinePlus, 2020; Battista, 2017).

One study measured the calorie counts of men and women on their heaviest drinking day of the week. Calories from alcohol made up 27% and 19%, respectively, of the recommended daily caloric intake for men and women (Shelton, 2014).

2. Alcohol affects your judgment

Alcohol affects your decision-making and lowers your inhibitions. So when you drink, you may find yourself saying yes to eating more or throwing your diet to the wind (Brenes, 2021). 

Part of this overeating may stem from alcohol’s effects on the brain. In one study, researchers gave mice ethanol (alcohol) over three days. All the mice significantly increased their food intake (Cains, 2017).

3. Alcohol slows your metabolism

Not only does alcohol make you want to eat more, but it also disrupts how well your body digests your food. Alcohol can make it tougher for your stomach and intestines to function normally. So, your body may have a harder time moving food through your digestive tract and breaking it down into the nutrients you need (Rocco, 2014; Cederbaum, 2012).

Chronic overdrinking for years can cause you to develop alcoholic liver disease, which affects how your liver metabolizes and stores proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. As a result, losing weight may become more difficult (Rocco, 2014; Cederbaum, 2012).

4. Alcohol affects your hormone levels

Alcohol may also lower testosterone levels (Duca, 2019). While this hormone may be most well-known for its role in sex, it’s also involved in your metabolism and your body’s ability to burn fat. Low testosterone levels may increase your risk of metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions that raise your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels) and type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome, in turn, increases your risk of cardiovascular disease (Rao, 2013).

Finally, while we often think of alcohol as a sedative, because it is, it also disrupts the quality of our sleep (Park, 2015). Lower sleep quality causes sleep deprivation, affecting several bodily functions, including hormone production. Poor quality sleep can wreak havoc on the hormones that regulate your appetite. In particular, sleep deprivation raises levels of ghrelin, the hormone that tells you you’re hungry, and lowers levels of leptin, the hormone that tells you you’re full (Cooper, 2018).

The bottom line on alcohol and weight loss

In general, drinking less is better than drinking more—for your weight loss goals and overall health (Traversy, 2015; DGAC, 2020). However, if you like to have a drink once in a while, that’s okay. Just be mindful about what you’re drinking. Swap the super-sugary cocktail for a shot on the rocks, a light beer, or a glass of wine.

References

  1. Battista, K. & Leatherdale, S. T. (2017). Estimating how extra calories from alcohol consumption are likely an overlooked contributor to youth obesity. Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada: Research, Policy and Practice, 37(6), 194–200. doi:10.24095/hpcdp.37.6.03. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28614047/
  2. Brenes, J. C., Gómez, G., Quesada, D., et al. (2021). Alcohol contribution to total energy intake and its association with nutritional status and diet quality in eight Latin American countries. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(24), 13130. doi:10.3390/ijerph182413130. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34948740/ 
  3. Breslow, R. A., Chen, C. M., Graubard, B. I., et al. (2013). Diets of drinkers on drinking and nondrinking days: NHANES 2003-2008. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 97(5), 1068–1075. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.050161. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23535109/
  4. Cains, S., Blomeley, C., Kollo, M., et al. (2017). Agrp neuron activity is required for alcohol-induced overeating. Nature Communications, 8, 14014. doi:10.1038/ncomms14014. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28072397/
  5. Cederbaum, A. I. (2012). Alcohol metabolism. Clinics in Liver Disease, 16(4), 667–685. doi:10.1016/j.cld.2012.08.002. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23101976/
  6. Cooper, C. B., Neufeld, E. V., Dolezal, B. A., & Martin, J. L. (2018). Sleep deprivation and obesity in adults: a brief narrative review. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 4(1), e000392. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000392. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30364557/
  7. ​​Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). (2020). Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. doi:10.52570/DGAC2020. Retrieved from https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/2020-advisory-committee-report 
  8. Duca, Y., Aversa, A., Condorelli, R. A., et al. (2019). Substance abuse and male hypogonadism. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 8(5), 732. doi:10.3390/jcm8050732. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31121993/
  9. MedlinePlus. (2020). Low-calorie cocktails. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000732.htm
  10. Park, S. Y., Oh, M. K., Lee, B. S., et al. (2015). The effects of alcohol on quality of sleep. Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 36(6), 294–299. doi:10.4082/kjfm.2015.36.6.294. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26634095/
  11. Rao, P. M., Kelly, D. M., & Jones, T. H. (2013). Testosterone and insulin resistance in the metabolic syndrome and T2DM in men. Nature Reviews. Endocrinology, 9(8), 479–493. doi:10.1038/nrendo.2013.122. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23797822/
  12. Rocco, A., Compare, D., Angrisani, D., et al. (2014). Alcoholic disease: liver and beyond. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 20(40), 14652–14659. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i40.14652. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4209531/
  13. Shelton, N. J. & Knott, C. S. (2014). Association between alcohol calorie intake and overweight and obesity in English adults. American Journal of Public Health, 104(4), 629–631. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2013.301643. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24524529/ 
  14. Traversy, G. & Chaput, J. P. (2015). Alcohol consumption and obesity: An update. Current Obesity Reports, 4(1), 122–130. doi:10.1007/s13679-014-0129-4. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25741455/