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Alcohol & Weight Gain vs. Weight Loss: Based on Individual Factors

It is estimated that over 50% of all individuals in the U.S. aged 18+ have consumed an alcoholic beverage within the past month. Approximately 70% of people have consumed alcohol within the past year. While many people seriously enjoy drinking in social situations and “going out” with friends to bars on the weekends, others find that drinking tends to impair their mental performance, lead to impulsive decisions, and in some cases – cause weight gain.

While not everyone who drinks alcohol ends up gaining weight, a large percentage of drinkers do. The weight gain is often caused by drinking high-calorie and high-carbohydrate alcoholic beverages as well as eating unhealthy foods while drunk (or hung-over). If you drink low calorie alcoholic beverages in moderation, and limit binge eating of unhealthy foods while drunk, you can significantly reduce (and even prevent ) weight gain associated with drinking.

Alcohol & Weight Gain

It should also be known that the way your body metabolizes alcohol is different from other foods and beverages. When you eat food, your body breaks-down the food and uses various calories from carbs, fats, and proteins. It then is digested within the gastrointestinal system and nutrients are absorbed. However, when you drink alcohol, the body perceives it as being “toxic” and therefore doesn’t digest it.

What ends up happening when you drink alcohol (especially in large quantities) is that the body attempts to process it via the liver. Since the body is working in overdrive to rid itself of the perceived “toxin” it isn’t as efficient in the metabolism of food. Therefore all of the calories you consume while drunk may not properly metabolize and instead get directly stored somewhere on your body as fat cells.

How Alcohol May Cause Weight Gain

Below are different ways by which alcohol is capable of making you gain weight. It is important to understand that the degree to which these factors have influence over weight is subject to individual variation. In other words, one person may have a difficult time limiting the amount of unhealthy food they eat while drinking, while another may struggle more with limiting the number of high-calorie drinks they consume.

  • Appetite increase: Some people notice that they become extremely hungry when they start drinking. If you notice that you are hungrier than usual when you drink, it’s likely that you’re going to gain weight. Couple this with lowered inhibitions and a poorer ability to make healthy decisions, and you’ll end up eating a lot of foods devoid of any nutritional value. While not everyone experiences a major appetite boost from drinking, others clearly do and find it difficult to control.
  • Carbohydrate cravings: If you find yourself shoveling down pizza, breadsticks, chips, pretzels, and fries while drinking, it may not be a coincidence. Some have theorized that consumption of alcohol leads to depletion of glycogen stores (from carbohydrates) and electrolytes throughout the body. Once these are depleted and/or reduced, the body may crave salty, high-carbohydrate foods to replenish what our body is missing.
  • Digestive changes: One theory is that the food you eat while drinking doesn’t get properly digested and instead gets stored as fat. Those that drink excessively may have bodies that are working in overdrive to filter out the alcohol. During the time they are trying to filter out the alcohol, they don’t properly digest the food you just ate, leading to greater weight gain.
  • Drug interactions: If you are taking other medications along with your alcohol consumption, an interaction may occur. This interaction may lead to increased fat storage and amplified effects from the alcohol. Since the liver is responsible for metabolizing may drugs as well as alcohol, the interaction effects may make you gain more weight. Talk to your doctor about any concerns about a medication interacting with alcohol.
  • Empty calories: Although alcohol may temporarily fill you up, it offers absolutely zero nutritional value. Other than the social buzz you get from drinking, your body doesn’t really get any functional benefit. Alcohol tends to contain an average of 5.6 calories per gram consumed, which all adds up. This means that if you are full from alcohol, you filled up on calories that are relatively non-useful, and you will need to eat other foods to meet nutritional requirements.
  • Fat storage: When you are drinking heavily, the body becomes more concerned with filtering out the alcohol that you consumed rather than metabolizing foods. This means that if you ate certain foods, they may not get properly metabolized and may instead get stored throughout the body as fat. The old expression that people who drink heavily have a “beer belly” is certainly true.
  • Gut inflammation: The lining of your gut may become inflamed if you are a chronic drinker. This means that your stomach can become highly acidic and you’ll likely feel some degree of stomach pain as a result of this inflammation. Having an inflamed gut is associated with increased fat and obesity.
  • Hormonal changes: Some have suggested that alcohol can alter levels of various hormones including leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite. Certain studies have found associations between those that consume large quantities of alcohol and elevated levels of leptin. When leptin levels are increased, you’re more likely to have a bigger appetite.
  • Impaired volition: The ability to resist unhealthy foods and instead make healthy choices becomes impaired when we are drinking. Most people that drink heavily find that their willpower becomes significantly impaired, leading to regrettable decisions. While drunk, binge eating funnel cakes may not seem like a bad idea, but when sober you’ll likely regret it.
  • Mixed drinks: Those that make “mixed drinks” often mix their alcohol with soda or some sort of fruit juice. The problem with these mixes is that the soda and/or fruit juice contains high amounts of sugar, which is known to cause weight gain. This means that you’re getting additional calories from the beverage that you mixed with the alcohol. Even if you mix with “diet” soda, these drinks contain aspartame, a substance that is known to stimulate appetite.
  • Motivational deficits: Those that drink frequently may experience reduced motivation in all aspects of life. This is due to the fact that the body is constantly being worn down both physically and mentally by the alcohol. When physiological performance is being compromised by frequent alcohol consumption, motivation can take a nosedive.
  • Poorer sleep: Those that drink a lot of alcohol may find that it disturbs their sleep pattern and ability to get quality sleep. Since you won’t be getting as deep of sleep after a night of drinking, this can lead you to feel less mentally sharp and more likely to overeat. There is some research that suggests lack of quality sleep leads a person to overeat.
  • Slow metabolism: Some have suggested that consuming alcohol causes your body’s metabolism to slow. This means that even if you were to eat the same diet while drinking as you would while sober, you may be likely to gain weight because your body isn’t using up as much food as it normally does. Since everyone has a different metabolic rate, alcohol tends to influence metabolism differently based on the individual.
  • Social eating: Most people that drink alcohol do it with friends and companions. This means that they are already socializing and likely to be at (or go to) a restaurant and/or bar – both of which have food. A lot of foods that people eat with friends socially are unhealthy and serving sizes are generally large, leading to weight gain.
  • Taste improvement: Let’s face it, when you’re drunk, most unhealthy foods taste amazing. You may be able to eat fast-food, pizza, and cheese fries like nobody’s business. Part of this may be in part due to the body’s craving of carbohydrates, but also due to an array of neurochemical changes induced by the alcohol.

Factors that influence weight changes on Alcohol

There are additional factors associated with drinking alcohol that can affect your weight. These include: the amount of alcohol you consume, type of alcohol, how frequently you drink, your lifestyle, whether you take other medications or drugs, as well as your genetics.

1. Amount of alcohol

Those that drink larger quantities of alcohol are more likely to fall victim to weight gain than those who drink less. The greater the amount of alcohol you consume, the more energy your body will use to filter it out. This leads to poorer digestion of food as well as increased storage of fat.

Alcohol also contains a lot of empty calories and carbohydrates that provide zero nutritional value. Your body ends up storing these calories as fat due to the fact that they cannot be used for any particular purpose. When you drink a large amount of alcohol, it is also more likely to impair dietary decisions, leading to consumption of high-carbohydrate and salty foods.

The more alcohol you consume also leads to a greater “hangover effect.” During this period, many people lack motivation to exercise and still make poor dietary decisions. At very high levels, alcohol also has potential to alter levels of various hormones like leptin and testosterone (in men) leading to decreased muscle mass.  Most evidence suggests that those who drink 3+ drinks per day will experience some weight gain.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12716687

2. Type of alcohol consumed

Certain types of alcohol tend to have more calories than others.  Especially if you consider that some people may be splurging on mixed drinks, which often contain some alcohol and some soda or fruit juice.  The weight that you’ll gain from the alcohol may not be as profound as the weight that you’re also gaining from whatever the alcohol is mixed with.

Also consider the fact that drinking a “light” beer tends to have less calories and carbohydrates than a regular one. A drink like a “Whiskey Sour” contains nearly 200 calories whereas a 12 oz. “light beer” tends to contain just 105 calories.  It is always important to consider the type of alcohol you’re consuming when thinking in terms of potential weight gain.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21790610

3. Frequency of drinking

While one night of heavy drinking may not take a huge toll on your performance or weight, if you are a frequent drinker, you may end up gaining a lot of weight. Those that drink frequently tend to develop a greater tolerance as well as consume more empty calories related to alcohol. Assuming a person has gained weight since they started drinking, this increase in weight naturally allows the individual to tolerate more alcohol.

When tolerance and weight increase from frequent drinking, it creates a “vicious circle” of perpetuating reinforcement. The person gains weight, so they can handle more, so they keep drinking, gain more weight, etc. Not everyone experiences an extreme “vicious circle” but many frequent drinkers that have gained a lot of weight end up in this position.

Those that drink less often aren’t as likely to end up with weight gain. This is because the person allows their body time to recover from the effects of drinking and doesn’t become as tolerant to the effects of alcohol. A great strategy to limit weight gain from drinking is to simply drink less frequently.

4. Lifestyle

Before you place full blame on alcohol for causing your weight gain, it is important to understand that some people who drink (even a lot) end up minimizing (or neutralizing) any weight gain by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Those that eat a healthy diet, particularly one that restricts carbohydrates are less likely to experience major weight gain while drinking. Additionally those frequently exercise may be able to burn off a lot of the empty calories and fat associated with drinking.

Other lifestyle factors such as stress level and the quality of sleep that you’re getting play a role in influencing weight. Some people cope with high stress by treating themselves to unhealthy foods and it is known that poor sleep can contribute to obesity. To minimize any weight gain from alcohol, do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

5. Other drugs

If you take medications, supplements, and/or drugs, it is important to understand that they may be affecting your weight. Those that frequently use stimulatory substances may be more likely to experience weight loss from the drug. If the person on a stimulant drinks frequently, the weight gain may be partially neutralized from the drug.

People that take an SSRI antidepressant and/or antipsychotic may experience amplified weight gain when they drink. These medications are already associated with weight gain for a variety of reasons. It is thought that certain effects such as increased leptin, lack of energy, as well as increased appetite (particularly for carbohydrates) may be amplified as a result of an interaction.

6. Genetics

It is also important to avoid dismissing the possibility that certain genetic variants play a role in alcohol-induced weight changes. People carrying a certain gene or series of genes may have different reactions to the alcohol that make them more (or less) likely to gain weight when they drink. It has already been seen that among various ethnic groups, there appear to be different reactions to the effects of alcohol. Fortunately there is new research and technology (i.e. GeneSight) that may help predict how you’ll respond to alcohol and psychotropic drugs.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16047538

Alcohol & Weight Loss: Could it make you lose weight?

There is some evidence that actually suggests alcohol may cause some people to experience weight loss.  A study involving nearly 20,000 women from the United States aged approximately 39+ found that those who consumed a light or moderate amount of alcohol were at less risk for being overweight and/or obese nearly 13 years after the study had ended.  This suggests that for middle-aged women, alcohol consumption may reduce likelihood of weight gain.

A second study conducted at the University of Denmark over a 6-year period, analyzed 43,500 individuals and found that infrequent drinkers experienced more weight gain and those who drank daily had the least amount of weight gain. Although the frequency of drinking was high, they failed to explain why those consuming daily alcohol were less likely to experience weight gain.  This study received some attention when it circulated in promotional press-releases for an alcohol-related book.

A different study by the University College Medical School in London over an 8-year period, analyzed nearly 50,000 women. The results of this study showed that women who drank less than 2 glasses of wine per day were 24% less likely to experience weight gain than those who didn’t. The problem with this study is that it focused specifically on women and only analyzes wine consumption.

Another decade-long study with over 7,000 people, conducted by the United States National Center for Disease Control, discovered that alcohol consumption isn’t associated with increased risk of obesity. It is important to understand that “risk” of obesity isn’t the same as experiencing weight gain. A person may experience significant weight gain and an increase in BMI and still may not be at risk for “obesity.”

Note:  It should be noted that some of these studies and “claims” are somewhat sketchy and may be easily misinterpreted. Since most are not available and/or difficult to find in acclaimed journals, one should be highly skeptical of these findings.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20212182

How Alcohol May Cause Weight Loss

There are a few ways that alcohol may cause some individuals to actually lose weight. Although most weight loss efforts are sabotaged as a result of drinking, some people counterintuitively find that they shed some pounds from drinking alcohol. Below is a list of ways by which people could theoretically end up losing some weight from drinking.

  • Diuretic effect: The fact that alcohol is a diuretic means that it leads to dehydration. When we become dehydrated, we can lose a significant amount of water weight. When water retention decreases, our body becomes lighter and some people may attribute this to “weight loss.”
  • Eating less: Some people make a conscious effort to eat less if they know they are going to drink. This often means that a person may lose weight simply as a result of overcompensation via caloric restriction. If taken to an extreme, a person may severely limit the number of calories they consume and end up losing weight.
  • Genetics: Some people have more favorable genetics for drinking alcohol. One person may pack on a serious amount of weight, while another person may lose some weight. Although most people will gain weight if they drink heavy, low or moderate amounts of alcohol may reduce weight gain.
  • Muscle loss: If you are drinking alcohol instead of eating healthy foods, it could contribute to muscle loss and decreased bone density. Those that heavily consume alcohol are at risk for increased risk of osteoporosis and reduced muscle. Naturally if your bones become less dense and you lose muscle, you’re going to “lose weight.”
  • Purging: There are individuals that force themselves to “purge” their alcohol after a night of drinking. This involves intentionally vomiting after drinking to remove the alcohol from the body, thus decreasing the amount of weight gain. Those that intentionally purge the alcohol often also purge healthy nutrients from food and weight loss ensues.
  • Replacing meals: Although it is not recommended to replace meals with alcohol, some people use this strategy for drinking. If they know they’re going to drink heavily, they simply skip a meal and/or eat considerably less food than usual. If strictly implemented, this strategy can result in weight loss.

Critical analysis of “weight loss” from drinking

Firstly, it is important to understand the difference between “weight loss” in spite of drinking and “weight loss” directly from drinking. Most people that drink alcohol and experience weight loss have some specific systems in place to help ensure that they lose weight. A person who is eating a low carbohydrate diet, works out frequently, and is health-conscious may be losing weight “in spite” of the fact that they had a drink.

While a bystander may come to the conclusion that alcohol caused the weight loss, it’s more likely that the diet or other behaviors contributed to weight loss in-spite of drinking. Those that end up drinking and lose weight directly from the alcohol may experience a temporary weight loss as a result of malnourishment and depletion of various electrolytes and carbohydrate stores. Over the short-term, the amount of weight lost from drinking isn’t usually that considerable.

Finally there are individuals that lose weight due to methods like purging their alcohol at the end of the night, which also leads to reduced calories. While these methods are unhealthy, they can lead to weight loss, but should not be directly tied to alcohol consumption. Most evidence suggesting that alcohol can keep you thin fail to account for other variables like fitness, dietary intake, genetics, and socioeconomic status.

How much weight will you gain from drinking alcohol?

There’s no telling exactly how much weight you stand to gain from drinking alcohol. You may not gain much of any weight if you rarely drink and maintain healthy habits. Those that drink frequently are thought to gain more weight than non-drinkers, but some studies have actually found the opposite. Therefore it is relatively safe to assume that weight gain is largely individualized, affecting each person to a varying extent.  If you are a heavy drinker and have a problem with weight gain, you may want to consider alcohol withdrawal and assess whether your weight improves.

Does everyone gain weight from alcohol?

Certainly not everyone will gain weight from drinking alcohol. People that understand the effects of alcohol and take them into consideration before drinking can make changes to mitigate some of the weight gain that they may experience. Some people gain a serious amount of weight and chalk most of it up to drinking. Like weight gain experienced from any substance, there are a significant number of individualized variables that need to be taken into consideration before we can definitively say that alcohol caused you to gain weight.  There are also some studies that suggest men are likely to gain weight from frequent moderate alcohol consumption, whereas women aren’t.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19548203

Bottom line: Alcohol in moderation is unlikely to make you fat

Most people may experience temporary weight gain from frequent alcohol usage, especially when drinking large quantities. However, those that drink on occasion in moderation are unlikely to experience clinically significant weight gain. There is even some evidence suggesting that moderate consumption of alcohol can have several health benefits.

Many of the claims suggesting that alcohol will cause you to gain a lot of weight fail to consider other factors such as socioeconomic status and lifestyle. The effect of alcohol on testosterone levels and muscle is usually somewhat overhyped by the mainstream media, especially over the short-term. Consistent long-term usage of alcohol may be more likely to cause weight gain than infrequent usage.

It is important to understand that all of the junk food you shovel down while drinking is significantly more likely to cause you to gain weight than the alcohol itself. While alcohol doesn’t usually directly cause significant weight gain, its consumption can elicit a host of changes in a person’s cognition and functioning, leading them to make regrettable dietary choices. If you can manage to make healthy, low carbohydrate dietary choices while drinking, you’ll likely minimize the amount of weight that you gain.

Have you gained weight from drinking alcohol?

If you drink alcohol regularly (or used to), be sure to share a comment below in regards to whether you gained weight. If you did gain weight, what do you believe caused it? Was it from drinking high-calorie (or high-carbohydrate) alcoholic beverages? To help others get a better idea of how much you drink, you could mention the number of times you drink per month as well as how many beverages of a particular type that you enjoy.

Also mention your diet, fitness, and whether you believe that other lifestyle habits may have contributed (or prevented) your weight gain. Those that have a strategy that they use to help offset weight gain from alcohol are more than welcome to share it with other readers.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14625264
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16047538
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15483203
  • Source: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh21-2/144.pdf

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Kate June 26, 2015, 7:18 pm

    I’m interested to know if weight gain from alcohol is harder to lose than weight gain from over eating. I’m a wine drinker, and have been for years. Thank you.

  • whitney July 8, 2015, 9:33 pm

    This is probably very atypical but I was a heavy drinker for 3-4 years, stopped completely for a few months, didn’t change my diet and it didn’t affect my weight at all. I started drinking again, unfortunately heavily and also not resulting in any change of weight. It was kind of discouraging.

  • LMore December 8, 2015, 10:46 pm

    I tend to go through cyclical phases with alcohol, and I can definitely see a correlation between heavier drinking phases and higher weight and body fat. I definitely think it is due to the liver’s preoccupation with processing the alcohol, causing a backlog of hormones and fat. The older I get, the more dramatic the effect.

    These days, months when I’ve had a lot of social engagements and am drinking more often (especially around ovulation), my menstrual cycle becomes disrupted (I am 32). My “heavy drinking” phases usually entail 6-8 drinks a night, several nights a week, and might last 1-2 weeks before taking a complete break for an extended period (anywhere from 4-5 days to a couple of weeks, followed by a gradual increase in frequency until reaching peak rate for a week or two and backing off again).

    Though I know quitting drinking entirely is probably in my future, for now I try to counter the alcohol by babying my liver in other ways, through supplementation (milk thistle, NAC, and the vitamins and minerals most depleted by alcohol), a reduced-carb, organic lifestyle with minimal food and environmental toxins (cleansers and such), a diet high in vegetables, and exercise. I also try to pace myself so that at least most of the drinks are roughly an hour apart, making it a little easier on the liver.

    That’s a tough one to maintain, though. I went into an upswing a few weeks ago and I’ve gained ten pounds without even thinking about it and with minimal dietary changes. And I’ve been experiencing uterine bleeding for most of the past month.

  • Mike March 22, 2016, 7:22 pm

    I drank increasingly heavily for years. At my maximum I weighed 105kg (about 220lbs). I jacked it in, and I’m now teetotal. In 9 months of not drinking, and although I actually eat more frequently now, I weigh 90kg. A lot of that was water retention, but I have definitely lost “fat” weight too. I still need to lose about 12kg to have a healthy BMI. That’s my next goal in life!

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