Everything You (Didn’t) Want to Know About Alcohol & Weight Loss

Jennifer Duran, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Arivale Coach
Jennifer Duran
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Arivale Coach

An after-work cocktail, weekend beers at the local brewery, or a glass of wine with dinner. For many of us, enjoying a drink is a cherished part of our weekly routine … and I bet many of you are already worried about where this blog is going.

While heavy alcohol consumption can lead to adverse health affects like anxiety1 and some types of cancer2, that doesn’t apply to most of us. However, a recent study showed even moderate drinking – up to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men3 – may shorten our lives by hurting our cardiovascular health.

Moderate drinking may also be having an impact on another aspect of our health that’s at the forefront of many people’s minds: our weight.

Alcohol and Weight Loss

That barrel-aged Manhattan or locally brewed IPA may be stopping you from reaching your goal weight. And, there are three main reasons why that is.

First, and perhaps unsurprisingly, alcohol is the source of a lot of empty calories.

Second, drinking alcohol lowers our inhibitions. That means less will power to stop us from eating unhealthy foods (looking at you, happy hour fries). And, as our inhibitions are lowered, we’re less likely to listen to our body’s fullness cues (that’s how you finish a container of hummus with crackers before dinner).

Finally, when you drink alcohol, your body prioritizes getting rid of the toxins produced by the alcohol rather than burning fat4,5,6,7. In fact, some studies show alcohol specifically suppresses the body’s ability to burn fat calories. So when you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, your body is focused on metabolizing the wine, not the meal. This means you’re more likely to store the food you’re eating (like those happy hour fries) as fat.

There are multiple contributors to weight gain, but if you’re struggling to reach your goal weight despite a balanced diet and regular physical activity, alcohol may be the best place to look.

What You Can Do

Going alcohol-free for a period of time can make a difference in reaching your goal weight – if you’re up for the challenge. Remember, it doesn’t have to be forever and can really help, especially if you’re struggling with weight loss or experiencing a weight-loss plateau.

If a dry month or two doesn’t sound appealing, here are a few tried-and-true strategies for cutting back on alcohol and keeping your body at its fat-burning best.

At Home:

Can you ease back on drinking at home? Replace your pre-dinner glass of wine with sparkling water on ice with a twist of lime or splash of cranberry juice, shrub, or alcohol-free bitters.

At the Brewery:

Breweries can be tricky. A light beer is your best bet, as a pint will have around 120 calories (a microbrew can come in at 300 to 400). That said, light beers may not be your preference, especially at a brewery. Our advice: choose your favorite beer, keep it to one pint, drink slowly, and enjoy.

At Happy Hour:

Set your intention before arriving – “I will have one drink” – then stick to it. Your best choices are a light beer, an unsweet wine, or a spirit on ice mixed with soda water or a splash of juice. But if you’re really excited about a specific cocktail on the menu, order it! Drink slowly, enjoy it, and stop at one. Still at happy hour for a second round? Order a soda water on ice with lime or ask the bartender if they can turn your cocktail into a mocktail.

At a Party:

When you’re at a party – and aren’t sticking to one drink – make sure you’re going ounce-for-ounce with water. Use the same glass for both water and alcohol, start with it full of water, and alternate throughout the party. It will keep you hydrated, your hands occupied, and your alcohol intake slower.

 

References

  1. Bellos, Stefanos, et al. “Longitudinal association between different levels of alcohol consumption and a new onset of depression and generalized anxiety disorder: Results from an international study in primary care.” Psychiatry Research 243 (2016): 30-34.
  2. Bagnardi, Vincenzo, et al. “Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose–response meta-analysis.” British Journal of Cancer 112.3 (2015): 580-593.
  3. US Department of Health and Human Services. “2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” (2015).
  4. Suter PM. “Is alcohol consumption a risk factor for weight gain and obesity?” Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2005;42(3):197-227.
  5. Raben A, Agerholm-Larsen L, Flint A, Holst JJ, Astrup A. “Meals with similar energy densities but rich in protein, fat, carbohydrate, or alcohol have different effects on energy expenditure and substrate metabolism but not on appetite and energy intake.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77(1):91-100.
  6. Murgatroyd PR, Van De Ven ML, Goldberg GR, Prentice AM. “Alcohol and the regulation of energy balance: overnight effects on diet-induced thermogenesis and fuel storage.” Br J Nutr. 1996 Jan;75(1):33-45.
  7. Shelmet JJ, Reichard GA, Skutches CL, Hoeldtke RD, Owen OE, Boden G. “Ethanol causes acute inhibition of carbohydrate, fat, and protein oxidation and insulin resistance.” J Clin Invest. 1988 Apr;81(4):1137-45.