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If you’re trying to maintain your weight, you may be wondering if alcohol could sabotage your efforts.
While there’s not a ton of research on alcohol and weight gain, it likely comes down to how much you drink and what types of alcohol and mixers you consume. Keep reading to learn how alcohol can impact your weight and what some low-calorie drink options are for a night out on the town.
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Does alcohol cause weight gain?
Research has shown that light-to-moderate alcohol intake isn’t associated with an increased risk of weight gain or obesity (Traversy, 2015).
However, studies also show that heavy drinking and binge drinking appears to increase the development of excess body fat, among other health problems (Traversy, 2015).
Consuming five or more alcoholic drinks per day was associated with a higher body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference compared to non-drinkers. This can result in a larger waistline, commonly referred to as a “beer belly.”
Drinking is generally categorized based on the number of alcoholic beverages consumed in a specific time frame. Here are the different types (CDC, 2021):
- Light-to-moderate drinking: up to two drinks per day for men and one drink a day for women
- Heavy drinking: about 15 drinks or more each week for men and eight or more for women
- Binge drinking: This category is five or more drinks within a two-hour period for men and four drinks or more within two hours for women.
Examples of a drink include a beer of 12 fluid ounces or a serving of wine (5 fluid ounces).
How alcohol can influence weight gain
Drinking too much alcohol could affect your weight and how your body functions in a few different ways.
But keep in mind that many studies assess the effects of frequent, heavy drinking on the body, so the impact of light-to-moderate drinking is less clear. These studies also don’t take into consideration individual differences. Even when two people of the same weight have a similar diet, adding alcohol to the mix might have different consequences for each person.
Here are some of the ways alcohol may affect your weight.
Alcohol adds extra calories
Alcohol contains seven calories per gram, which is almost as many calories as a gram of fat. Many alcoholic beverages (especially mixed drinks like cocktails) have a higher calorie count from added sugars or fat. So after a few drinks, the calories can add up quickly.
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The calories from alcohol are often called empty calories because they don’t offer much (if any) nutritional value. Here are the calories in one serving of a few popular drinks (USDA, 2019):
- Pina colada: 340 calories
- Margarita: 274 calories
- Daiquiri: 266 calories
- Whiskey and ginger ale: 187 calories
- Rum and coke: 200 calories
- Lager (beer): 170 calories
- Red wine: 123 calories
Alcohol impacts decision making
Drinking is known to impact decision-making and food choices.
Research suggests alcohol increases appetite and enhances satisfaction with meals. Studies also found that dieters and restrained eaters reported more binge drinking than unrestrained eaters. People who dieted also said when they drank, they were more likely to lower inhibition and consume forbidden foods (Caton, 2015).
Alcohol results in poor sleep quality
The quality and amount of sleep you get can affect weight. Research suggests there is a link between sleeping less than seven hours a night and having a higher body weight and increased levels of hunger hormones (Cooper, 2018).
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Watching your weight doesn’t have to mean cutting out alcohol completely. You can still occasionally drink. But if your goal is to lower the total number of calories you consume, consider choosing a lower calorie drink and mixer.
In general, clear liquors like vodka have the fewest calories. Dark beer and mixed drinks tend to have the highest. For example, one 12-ounce pint of a stout beer provides about 220 calories, which is the same as eating a snack with three tablespoons of hummus, ten baby carrots, a stalk of celery, and an apple.
Here are some low-calorie alcohol options (USDA, 2019):
- Vodka: 1 oz of 80-proof vodka has about 64 calories.
- Gin: 1 oz of 90-proof gin contains about 73 calories.
- Tequila: 1 oz of tequila has roughly 65 calories.
- Whiskey: 1 oz of 86-proof whiskey provides 70 calories.
- Brandy: 1 oz of brandy has about 65 calories.
- Red wine: 5 oz of red table wine contains 125 calories.
- White wine: 5 oz of white table wine provides about 121 calories.
While liquor is a lower-calorie option, it really depends on what you drink with it. Mixers can add a lot of extra sugar and fat to the drink, increasing calorie intake.
Here are some options for low-calorie mixers:
- Club soda
- Tonic water
- Flavored sparkling water
- Diet ginger beer
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Alcohol and weight loss
Some tips to consider when drinking alcohol and still aiming to hit your weight loss goals include:
- Choose low-calorie alcohols.
- Opt for low-calorie mixers and sweeteners.
- Try to eat a healthy meal before drinking to curb your hunger and limit snacking while drinking.
- Don’t skip meals to make up for the calories, as you’re more likely to overeat while drinking if you get extremely hungry.
- Drink in moderation.
- Drink a glass of water in between alcoholic beverages.
The bottom line
It’s not necessary to cut out alcohol if you want to drink it. You can also choose to skip it if you don’t want the extra calories.
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If you’re a heavy drinker or binge drink, you may want to consider cutting back on the amount of alcohol you’re consuming. Try switching it up to low-calorie alcoholic beverages or just one higher-calorie drink to satisfy the craving.
Regardless of your weight-loss intentions, keep in mind that healthcare providers recommend that you should enjoy alcohol only in moderation as part of a healthy, well-rounded diet.
- Caton, S. J., Nolan, L. J., & Hetherington, M. M. (2015). Alcohol, appetite and loss of restraint. Current Obesity Reports, 4(1), 99–105. doi:10.1007/s13679-014-0130-y. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26627094/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). Alcohol and public health frequently asked questions. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm
- Cooper, C. B., Neufeld, E. V., Dolezal, B. A., et al. (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://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6196958/
- Patel, R., & Mueller, M. (2022). Alcoholic Liver Disease. StatPearls. Retrieved on Feb. 18, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546632/
- 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://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4338356/
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2019). Food data central. Retrieved from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/index.html
- Zheng, D., Yuan, X., Ma, C., et al. (2021). Alcohol consumption and sleep quality: a community-based study. Public Health Nutrition, 24(15), 4851–4858. doi:10.1017/S1368980020004553. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33183388/