You don’t understand why you can’t lose weight or have difficulties controlling your cravings? The reason might be behind your favorite guilty pleasures: a glass of wine after work, a pint of beer with your buddies, or a happy hour at your favorite bar. Alcohol can drastically affect your health and weight, especially if you’re a binge drinker and not a moderate consumer.
Find out more about how alcohol affects your body and brain, see the list of “safe” alcoholic drinks, and check out what changes I’ve noticed after six months of sobriety.
The primary direct influence of alcohol on your weight is explained by its calorie density. One gram of alcohol contains seven calories which is almost twice as much as you will find in proteins or carbs. These calories are more hazardous(1) than those in solid foods because you consume them not when you’re hungry and need energy but when you want a glass of good mood or a shot of a socializing facilitator.
Calories you get from alcohol are considered “empty calories” as they rarely contain vitamins or minerals. Your body can get up to 800 calories(2) from half-liter of sangria or seven Strawberry Daiquiris but still lack essential nutrients, proteins, and fats. Unfortunately, calorie density is not the only reason why alcohol can sabotage your weight loss. Even though some studies(3) state that moderate alcohol consumption can decrease the number of calories a person gets from food, there is no solid scientific evidence to prove this thesis.
Three unique features(4) of the main compound of alcohol, ethanol, are that it is a toxin, it has a psycho-stimulant effect, and it cannot be stored in the body as fat. The latter means that ethanol will be used as a primer source of energy(5) by your body whenever you consume it, which will slow down fats oxidation and weight loss.
The “beer belly” is not a myth, however, it forms not only because of beer. Binge drinkers can increase(6) their midsection due to all ethanol-containing liquids. The particular reason why alcohol increases fat storage in the belly area is not yet known. However, studies(7) show that this phenomenon is connected to how alcohol affects hormone synthesis. Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to alcoholic liver disease(8) and visceral obesity(9), affecting the waist circumference, not to mention the subjects’ overall health.
Scientists have proven that alcohol consumption affects your sleep, being inversely related to sleep duration. Other research(10) published in Nutrition and Diabetes has shown the direct link between sleep deprivation and an increase in calorie intake. The study has demonstrated that the 30 minutes deficit of sleep per day converts into 83 additional calories the person would consume the next day.
Even if a glass of gin-tonic after dinner makes you fast asleep, it doesn’t mean that it improves the quality of your rest. Ethanol increases your wakefulness in the second half of the night and makes you feel fatigued the following day.
What’s more, too much alcohol can lead to hangovers and sleepiness(11) during the next day, making you less productive and significantly decreases your chances of getting to the gym.
Ethanol surely increases your overall calorie intake, which was proven by several studies. In one research(12), the subjects were given soft drinks, beer, or wine with no limitation. It turned out that even if we subtract the number of calories from drinks themselves, the amount of food consumed by wine drinkers was higher than for those who’ve chosen beer, or non-alcoholic beverages.
Some studies(13) state that alcohol-induced overeating can be explained by neuron activity, meaning that the hangover overeating is not a matter of willpower but something unavoidable, attributed to our brain.
According to clinical and experimental research(14) in alcoholism, ethanol can block ketosis for a particular time as it is metabolized(15) in the liver and stops the use of fat as an energy source by your body. Along with this, the low-carb ketogenic diet can help with suppressing alcohol withdrawal symptoms and can be potentially beneficial to treat alcoholism. All in all, the keto diet allows small portions of low-carb alcoholic drinks like vodka or gin.
As alcohol causes hormone alteration(16), it also affects muscle hypertrophy and can reduce protein synthesis. According to thorough research, ethanol can inhibit testosterone production, which can cause reduced muscle hypertrophy. Alcohol is also known to increase cortisol levels that don’t make your weight loss or muscle gain easier.
Another reason why athletes, bodybuilders, and those striving for body recomposition should avoid alcohol is that it suppresses(17) skeletal muscle recovery and can alter your productivity in the gym.
There is strong scientific evidence(18) that your cardiovascular system and overall health can benefit from red wine, rich in resveratrol and polyphenols. Moreover, its moderate consumption is even recommended by the Mediterranean diet named the best diet four years in a row by the U.S. News. However, this only concerns dry wine with minimal sugar content.
If your primary goal is to lose weight, you can opt for the lowest-calorie alcoholic drinks. If you choose strong spirits, avoid adding syrups, sugar, and juices to them. Diet coke, sparkling water with no additives, or a slice of lemon might help you prepare a cocktail full of flavor but low in calories. Here are some low-calorie options(19) for your night out:
Cocktails with multiple ingredients, sweet wines, craft beers, and sugary liqueurs are not your choices if you want to lose weight. Alcohol already affects your hormones, sleep pattern and increases your cravings; there is no need to make the situation even more complicated by adding calories to your drink. These are the most calorie-dense cocktails and drinks you should refrain from while on a diet:
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans(20), provided by the USDA, you should limit your alcohol intake to one drink per day if you’re a woman or to two drinks if you’re a man. One drink equals a 12 oz can of beer, 5 oz of wine, or 45 ml of distilled spirits like gin or vodka.
The Mediterranean diet allows you to get up to 10% of your daily calories from wine. If you’re a woman of about 130 pounds, that will equal 150-200 ml of dry wine.
Abstaining from booze for almost 200 days had quite apparent positive effects. When I gave up drinking, I became more productive at work; I was able to work out five to six times a week; I’ve lost six pounds as counting calories and keeping to the meal plan was easier without alcohol. I liked the feeling of sobriety, and I’ve noticed a decrease in my anxiety level. The quality of my skin improved, and I had fewer headaches.
There were only two downfalls. Parties were not that fun, as alcohol was always a kind of social facilitator for me, and the taste of some foods was not that good as it could be with specific alcohol. For example, during these six months, I had visions of perfect combinations: gorgonzola cheese with pears and brut champagne, medium-raw steak with rosemary and red wine, cabbage stew with sausages and porter beer… I knew that these combos were superb, and replacing nice alcoholic beverages with diet coke or sparkling water just didn’t give the same pleasure to my tastebuds.
Abstaining from alcohol is a great experience if you need to make sure that you’re not addicted and can give up drinking anytime you want. It’s also a great way to improve your efficiency and health and double-check if you really like people around you even when you’re sober.
If you want to give up drinking, you can be 100% sure that it will bring plenty of benefits; however, you might find alcoholic parties a bit harder to handle.
Alcorexia, also referred to as drunkorexia(21), is a psychological condition that has not been yet certified as a type of eating disorder. It is characterized by abstinence from food to “save” calories for further binge drinking without gaining weight. That is a hazardous condition as, along with starving themselves of nutrients, people fill their bodies with toxic ethanol. If you ever catch yourself thinking of skipping meals to leave more calories for your after-dinner booze, immediately make an appointment with your health provider!
Moderate alcohol consumption is considered acceptable by balanced diets and the USDA. Studies show that you can still lose weight while drinking if you stay in a calorie deficit. However, you should remember that alcohol is not only about calories: It metabolizes differently in your body, can invoke overeating, and slow down your weight-loss progress.
The worst part about drinking is that a significant amount of the population is prone to binge drinking when they can’t control how much they drink and what they eat afterward. If this kind of behavior looks like you or if you try to minimize your food intake to allow yourself to drink more in the evening, you should see a doctor. Remember that avoiding alcohol is possible and will only bring benefits to your health and physique.