Drinking alcohol is an integral part of our society’s norms. While we don’t have data to cite for 2020 just yet, based on previous responses to large scale societal stressors, it is likely that rates of alcohol consumption have only increased in the past year due to the current global crisis related to the Covid-19 pandemic (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)). Alcohol is used to celebrate milestones, big events, and even the end of the workday. It’s also often used as a means to handle uncomfortable experiences such as anxiety, depression, and stress. Alcohol is one of the most commonly used drugs in the world with surveys from 2019 showing that over 85% of people in the United States over 18 years old have consumed alcohol at some point in their lives and over 25% engaged in binge drinking (defined as 4 or more drinks in one sitting for women and 5 or more drinks for a man) over the previous month (NIAAA). Overall, drinking alcohol is common and it’s here to stay.
With alcohol tightly woven within our society, as individuals with health, weight, body composition, and performance goals, it’s important that we understand the impact that alcohol can have on those goals. You will see in the paragraphs to come that it can be included, in moderation, with limited overall impact, however, it certainly does not aid your progress, especially if your goal is weight loss.
Consuming alcohol can impact weight loss in a variety of ways and we are going to examine three of the most impactful; 1. alcohol’s impact on overall energy balance, 2. alcohol’s influence on appetite and food choice, and 3. alcohol’s impact on how we metabolize nutrients.
Impact of alcohol on energy balance
Likely, the largest influence that drinking alcohol has on body weight is through its impact on overall energy balance. Energy balance is the comparison between the average amount of energy (calories) you consume and the amount of energy that you burn. The balance of these two factors, on average over time, is the biggest determinant of whether someone gains weight (this happens when the average amount of calories consumed are greater than the average amount of calories burned over time), losses weight (calories consumed are less then calories burned) or weights stays the same (on average, the two are balanced over time).
The reality is that alcohol has calories and these calories count towards the energy you are consuming in the energy balance equation. For every gram of alcohol you consume, it provides your body with ~7 calories. A standard drink in the United States (other countries use different but similar definitions) is considered to contain 14 grams of alcohol (NIAA – What Is A Standard Drink?). This is the equivalent of a 5oz. glass of wine, 12oz. of beer or 1.5 oz. of liquor.
That means that you are getting about 100 calories from the alcohol alone in each of these drinks. Unless you are drinking straight liquor, most drinks have additional calories from other sources as well. The average glass of wine has 120-150 calories, average light beer has 100 -120 calories and average heavy/craft beer has 150-250 calories. Mixed drinks vary quite a bit more because they have 100 calories from liquor plus all the calories from anything that you mix in with it. For example, a standard 2.25-ounce martini will have around 125 calories while a standard 4-ounce margarita has closer to 170 (and who drinks a 4oz margarita! Many restaurants don’t even serve sizes that small anymore!).
People who are following a plan that includes tracking macronutrients (macros) need to develop a plan to account for the calories in alcohol that would otherwise not fall under the category of carbohydrate, fat, or protein. For example, a typical glass of wine has 150 calories and ~5 grams of carbs. If someone is tracking macros and only tracked the carbs, they would essentially only be accounting for 20 calories for each glass of wine. This is unfortunately not how the energy balance equation works – all calories consumed count. There are a variety of ways that you can account for the calories in alcohol using macros. With our Stronger U members, we ask them to add 10 grams of fat and 10 grams of carbs to each drink to account for the calories coming from alcohol in these beverages. Here are examples of how to track standard drinks using macros.
It’s important to note that there’s a whole variety of alcoholic beverages on the market that vary in their alcohol content, the amount typically served, and the other components of the drink so please refer to information about the specific beverage you are consuming for a more accurate estimate of its calorie and macro content.
Many factors such as your current goals, your age, weight, body size, activity, etc – determine your personal calorie needs and these can vary greatly between different people. For example, I work with some women who are trying to lose weight that need to eat 1500 calories per day to hit their goals and some men who want to gain muscle that consumes 3000+ calories per day. The impact of the calories from one drink therefore really varies by individual. For someone following a 1500 calorie diet, choosing to have a glass of wine with dinner requires making some fairly impactful reductions in the amount of food eaten elsewhere (150 calories can be an entire snack, a small dessert, or a HUGE salad) to fit that one drink into her day and stay within her calorie goals. However, if you have 3000 calories to eat each day, there is a lot more room to add in a drink with dinner without feeling much of an impact on overall eating plans (if you want to estimate your overall calorie intake from alcoholic beverages per week, here’s a link to a really eye-opening tool).
Overall, what do I recommend? If you truly enjoy drinking alcohol, you can fit it into your calorie needs here and there, even when weight loss is a goal. But take a look at your overall day and if you plan to have a drink, you need to make other changes to your day to fit it in. You should eat a bit lighter earlier in the day and then also be sure to choose wisely while drinking (more on that to come next!). If you are eating a meal out and want to splurge a bit, I like to recommend choosing either an appetizer, a drink, OR a dessert as a simple rule to allow you to enjoy a special meal out but also balance the overall impact on your energy balance.
Impact of alcohol on appetite and food consumed
Beyond the caloric impact of the actual drink, drinking alcohol can also impact energy balance through its effect on appetite and food choice. People tend to eat more and are drawn to select different types of food when drinking. It’s not only personal experiences that confirm this…. there is research to suggest this is true as well! Research has found that alcohol can stimulate appetite (makes you more hungry and makes eating food feel even more enjoyable), reduces your ability to recognize when you are full, and decreases your desire to say no to foods that you know don’t fit within your current diet plan.
Alcohol impacts feelings of appetite and satiety differently than food. In fact, all beverages do. People often do not recognize the calories consumed in liquid form. What does that mean? Well, when we drink alcohol or sugary drinks, we don’t feel full or eat less later on even though these drinks contain calories. This is different than when we eat the food right before a meal (like a side salad or bowl of soup) where people tend to eat less after eating these starters at the meal (Almiron-Roig et al., 2013). Therefore, with alcohol, we eat the normal amount of food we would usually eat and then add in the additional calories from the beverages on top of that (Suter et al., 1997). Eventually, over time this excess in energy intake could lead to weight gain. There are many proposed reasons we don’t respond to the calories from beverages the same way we respond to food. These sensory factors such as how they feel in your mouth and the taste, the effort it takes to chew food versus drink a beverage, and the total time required to consume those calories (Poppitt, 2015).
Not only do we not decrease food intake after consuming alcohol but alcohol may also stimulate us to eat more (Yeomans, 2004)! Individual research studies have examined this relationship in detail. In a study that closely weighed and measured the food intake of male adults in a laboratory setting, participants came to the lab 3 different times and were provided with either no alcohol or the amount of alcohol in 1 drink or 4 drinks. On the day they consumed 4 drinks, they ate more food and chose to eat more high-fat salty food items than on the other days (Caton et al., 2004). When trying to explain why this happened, they found that participants also reported being more hungry after 4 drinks. When we are feeling more hungry, we tend to eat more. Additional research confirms these findings showing an increase in appetite that lead to eating more food when alcohol was consumed (Caton et al., 2007; Yeomans, 2010; Rose et al, 2015).
Another study examined three common lifestyle factors that have consistently been found to be associated with an increased risk for obesity – watching television, not sleeping enough, and drinking alcohol. This review study compared and summarized experimental research on these three behaviors. The study found that not only were all three of these factors linked with obesity but they all also appear to contribute to weight gain specifically by encouraging overeating (Chapman et al, 2012). Additionally, compared to the other two, alcohol intake was the most strongly related to eating more! The figure and description below from this study (Figure 3) show visually how alcohol had a greater impact on increasing food intake than the other variables.
These studies give us really good insight into the immediate impacts of alcohol within a controlled laboratory environment but what about the impact of alcohol on food intake out in the real world? These results are a bit more mixed. In research examining alcohol intake over time in studies where participants are not in research labs, we see some suggestions that alcohol intake in high amounts is related to gaining more weight over time than if you didn’t drink (Sayon-Orea et al., 2011). However, others have shown that a moderate amount of alcohol drinking might actually be associated with a reduction in weight gain (Wang et al, 2010). So, that is a bit confusing!
In summary, drinking alcohol does not register to our brains as calories being consumed, it seems to increase hunger and increases the desire to eat higher calorie and higher fat foods. This combination can easily lead to a night of consuming more calories than you planned. Whether this actually translates into having an effect on your weight depends on a lot of other factors that determine your overall energy balance. Sticking with only 1-2 drinks every once in a while and making adjustments to reduce calorie intake elsewhere will likely have a limited impact on your weight goals even if you eat a little bit more than you’d like on those rare occasions….just don’t do it every weekend!
Impact of alcohol on nutrient metabolism
Alcohol is a drug (a central nervous system depressant). Since it is a non-essential (our bodies do not need it) toxin, when we consume alcohol, our body prioritizes removing it from our bodies as quickly as possible. When our bodies are focused on processing alcohol, our capacity to process other nutrients at the same time is reduced (Shelmet et al., 1988).
Research examining the effects of how alcohol is metabolized in our body has found that drinking the amount of alcohol in just 2 standard beverages has some immediate impacts. That amount of alcohol upregulates the pathways that increase the amount of fat produced by the liver, reduces the amount of fat broken down in the body, and reduces how much fat is burned for fuel immediately after consuming it (Siler et al., 1999). The figure below shows the significant reduction in the amount of fat used for energy before and after consuming 2 drinks.
Additional research has shown that even when alcohol is included as a part of a meal, there is the same resulting decrease in using fat as fuel immediately afterward (Rabe et al, 2003).
How meaningful are the impacts of these findings in your quest to lose weight and body fat? Likely quite minimal. The temporary reduction in fat burning and increase in fat production is small when compared to the impact of your overall energy balance throughout the rest of the day, however, it is clear that alcohol is certainly not beneficial for promoting weight and fat loss!
So, should you drink?
If you enjoy alcohol and it’s an important part of your social life, you can continue to indulge a bit with your friends. Consuming moderate amounts of alcohol (up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men) will likely have a limited impact on your weight loss goals. If you are tracking your calories or macros to support weight loss, you will want to make sure you accurately count your drinks and ideally make them fit within your daily goals. Be mindful of the amount and enjoy it, in moderation. It wouldn’t hurt to drink some extra water in between drinks to stay hydrated as well 🙂
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