April is Alcohol Awareness Month, which seems like the perfect time to talk about how alcohol can sabotage your weight loss goals. In some cases, people unwittingly use alcohol as a reward for rigorously following a diet and exercise plan. In other cases, people just forget to consider the impact of those glasses of wine or bottles of beer on body weight and composition. And, as we’ll see, it’s not just the calories that count when it comes to alcohol.

Alcoholic Beverage Calorie Intake: Infographic

How many calories are in wine, beer, and spirits?

At a very simple level, alcohol is a source of energy. Every gram of pure ethyl alcohol contains seven calories. Add in the sugar found in most alcoholic drinks, and you’ve got a lot of empty, nutrient poor, calories. 

Wine and beer both contain a lot of carbohydrates, as do many cocktails. A 5-ounce glass of wine normally contains around 126 calories, most of which are from the alcohol itself with the remainder from carbohydrates. Dessert wine, which contains more sugar, has a higher calorie count, as does beer. This is because beer also contains much more carbohydrate, along with the alcohol, amounting to around 150 calories for a can of regular 4-5% beer or 215 calories in a pint of 5% beer. 

Straight liquor is the lowest calorie option, but mixers such as tonic water, soda, juice, and cream or milk quickly bump up the calorie count due to added carbohydrates and fats. One ounce of gin, rum, and whisky (40% alcohol) each contain around 64 calories, while something like Baileys or Schnapps provides around 100-125 calories. And watch out for mixers: a double vodka and coke, for example, can easily come in at over 300 calories.

How does alcohol affect weight loss?

Alcohol’s calorie content is problem enough, but what many people don’t realize is that the calories in alcoholic beverages are more readily used for energy than some other types of calories. It makes sense that the body wants to metabolize alcohol before anything else. After all, alcohol is a toxin and our bodies want to get rid of it ASAP. When alcohol consumption is infrequent, say a couple of times a month at a birthday celebration or work function, this likely won’t derail weight-loss goals too much. More frequent consumption of alcohol, however, pretty much creates the metabolic conditions in the body that are the exact opposite of the effects of exercise. We end up with higher levels of fat circulating in the body, unused for energy, and much lower rates of fat burning – meaning existing fat stores expand, along with our waistline.

Alcohol can lead to increased abdominal or visceral fat especially, which raises the risk of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The fact that we can consume alcohol quite quickly and without feeling full often means it’s all too easy to rack up those calories (and liver and kidney damage) without realizing.

Alcohol, Appetite, and Metabolism

The calories in the alcohol itself are just one concern, however, as we all know that alcohol loosens our inhibitions, which can translate to poorer dietary choices. In fact, several studies have shown that people who drink an alcoholic beverage before or with a meal are more likely to consume a higher number of calories than people drinking a non-alcoholic drink with the same amount of carbohydrates.

And, naturally, drinking too much can result in a hangover that really puts a dampener on any intentions to get up early and head to the gym or running track.

Alcohol is also problematic because it provides calories without nutrients. This means that we are making our body work overtime without giving it the nutrients it needs for healthy metabolism. This may lead to food cravings that feel like they can only be satisfied by high-calorie, often salty and sweet foods. 

How Alcohol Affects Your Digestion, Liver, and Hormones

Not only does alcohol affect our behavior, it also causes physiological harm at a much deeper level. Alcohol can damage the lining of the stomach, for instance, which means we are less able to properly digest food. This can impair healthy metabolism and may even contribute to increased allergies and food sensitivities due to leaky gut syndrome. 

As most people know, alcohol also impairs the function of our liver, meaning that we are less able to metabolize toxins and nutrients, with serious consequences for all-around health. The liver also processes fat and plays a key role in the management of cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Alcohol can lead to fatty liver disease and cirrhosis and make it harder for the body to respond properly to regulate blood sugar and blood lipids. 

The liver also helps regulate levels of hormones, including testosterone and its metabolites. Too much alcohol can lead to reduced testosterone levels in men, which inhibits muscle growth and reduces fat-burning for energy, leading to increases in belly fat. This makes it even harder to lose weight, in addition to leaving men feeling weaker, more easily fatigued, and possibly with fertility issues. In women, a higher alcohol intake can increase levels of free testosterone, which is associated with increased insulin resistant and an increased incidence of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, infertility and menstrual disorders.

Is there any good news?

Despite its downsides, alcohol can be a social lubricant, and drinking one to two alcoholic drinks a week can help raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This is the type of beneficial cholesterol that helps to clear bad cholesterol from the arteries. For most people, engaging in regular exercise has the same effect, however, without the negative effects on the liver, kidneys, and overall health. 

In conclusion, drinking alcohol can sabotage weight loss goals, but if a person is going to drink while trying to lose weight, it’s best to make it infrequent and opt for a small amount of straight liquor, which is lower in calories. Drinking plenty of water between drinks can help increase feelings of fullness and minimize a hangover, and it’s a good idea to have healthy snacks on hand, such as vegetable crudités and hummus or a bean dip to avoid unhealthy eating if cravings strike.

 

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