There’s nothing quite like a refreshing drink to unwind after a long day at work or to ring in the weekend. But that elegant cocktail that makes you feel like a million bucks might not seem that fabulous if you knew the sugar and calories it packs in! And the case for beer was lost a while ago, with the beer bellies you’re probably all too familiar with. Here’s the lowdown on how and when alcohol can cause you to gain weight and pile on that unwanted fat.
Heavy Intake Will Cause Weight Gain: Men More Prone
There are mixed results from studies and research on whether or not alcohol directly contributes to weight gain and obesity. However, studies like the British one conducted over 5 years on middle-aged men do give cause to pause. The study concluded that drinking over 30 gm of alcohol per day – that is, getting over 9% of their daily caloric intake via alcohol – was directly linked to obesity and weight gain. The type of alcohol didn’t matter as it was the heavy drinking that brought on this effect. And while there was no prior significant evidence linking drinking light-to-moderate quantities of alcohol with obesity, the researchers concluded that higher alcohol intake does seem to contribute to weight gain in men who consumed alcohol.1 Heavy drinking may also cause women to pile on the pounds.2
Light To Moderate Drinking May Not Be A Problem
Long-term studies on light to moderate drinkers, however, reveal a different story. As one study that was 12.9 years long noted, women who were of normal weight and drank light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol actually gained less weight than non-drinkers at the follow-up stages.3 Another study backed this up saying that light-to-moderate drinking was not linked to weight gain in most women – however, this may not be true of African-American women drinkers.4
Other Factors May Affect Weight Gain Alongside Alcohol Intake
Binge drinking causes you to consume a lot of sugar and calories in a very short time. Repeated binging can lead to regular heavy drinking which, in turn, increases the risk of weight gain. The occasional indulgence may not pose a problem if you’re normally a light drinker and lead an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
As researchers point out, it is not clear whether these results are linked to gender-based differences in how the body reacts to alcohol intake. The role of other external factors may have also impacted the results – say, other lifestyle-related factors like diet, exercise, smoking etc.5 So, having a healthy lifestyle alongside that moderate alcohol intake might help ward off weight or fat gain even if you drink frequently.6
Alcohol Has As Many Calories Per Gram As Pure Fat!
So why is it that alcohol could have a role to play in making you fat? As it turns out, it has as many calories to the gram as pure fat – 7 calories per gram on average.7 That’s thanks to all the sugar and starch it contains. In terms of total calorie intake, here’s a look at what you get from a standard serving of your tipple of choice:8:
- 12 fl ounces of beer: 153 calories
- 12 fl ounces of light beer: 103 calories
- 9 fl ounces of a piña colada: 490 calories
- 6 fl ounces of a mojito: 143 calories
- 5 fl ounces of red wine: 125 calories
- 5 fl ounces of white wine: 121 calories
- 4 fl ounces of champagne: 84 calories
- 3.5 fl ounces of sweet wine: 165 calories
- 1.5 fl ounces of distilled spirits (gin, vodka, tequila, whiskey, rum): 97 calories
- 1.5 fl ounces of liqueurs: 165 calories
- 2.75 fl ounces of a Manhattan: 146 calories
- 2.25 fl ounces of a martini: 124 calories
Alcohol Is As Sweet And Calorific As Candies Or Potato Chips
The National Health Service in the United Kingdom compares the calorie count of some popular alcoholic drinks to a range of popular candies and chocolates. And with good reason. All alcohol has some amount of sugar in it – and as it turns out, it is comparable to some candies and chips you wouldn’t touch with a bargepole when you are weight watching or trying to lose some fat. One pint of cider can make you hit the upper limit of sugar intake set by the World Health Organization – which is not more than five teaspoons of sugar in a day, the less the better. Certain alcohol is especially high in sugar, with sherry, fortified wine, liqueurs of different kinds, and cider topping the list. Spirits like vodka or gin, while themselves not as high in sugar, are often mixed with sugary sodas or packaged juices that increase your sugar intake.9
As far as calories go, a pint of beer has about as many as a full bag of potato chips. A double measure (1.7 ounces) of fortified wine contains the same calories as a bourbon biscuit.10 You wouldn’t binge on the chips or the biscuits if you were trying to stay fit or lose weight. But drinking a couple of drinks a day could mean you’re consuming as much sugar and calories as if you had those foods. Food for thought, isn’t it?
Alcohol Could Cause Belly Fat To Accumulate
While the debate on weight gain and obesity rages on, it is worth noting that alcohol may indeed impact lipid oxidation or the breakdown of fat in the body. Studies looking at the metabolism of alcohol have found that alcohol suppresses this oxidation and cause fat in the body to increase. What’s more, this non-oxidized fat seems to accumulate in the abdominal region. So there may be something to the “beer belly” label.11
Your Drink Might Make You Consume More Calories
While drinking, do you find yourself grazing on snacks you may not otherwise have felt the need to eat? There are suggestions that consuming moderate amounts of alcohol could result in increased energy intake. That’s because of a combination of the appetite-enhancing effects of the drink, prompting you to eat more, plus its own calorie content.12 Double whammy!
Empty Calories May Cause You To Miss Out On Healthier Foods
Even if you are being strict about calorie counting and ensuring you don’t bust your daily intake limits, you may be doing yourself a disservice. Especially if you’re being very strict about your diet otherwise. That’s because alcohol is something that contains what the experts call “empty calories.” Which means you aren’t getting any real goodness out of them (the pleasure notwithstanding!). So you may wind up trading a potentially nutritious fresh fruit, vegetable juice, salad, or even a lean protein meal that could keep you full for longer and ply your body with a host of vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy carbs, and fiber for a drink that wears off once your body burns through the sugar. This burning off is bound to happen fairly quickly. Plus, you don’t get any of those minerals and vitamins in any material amounts.13
Excessive Intake Can Cause You To Develop A Fatty Liver
Excessive or heavy drinking even if it is for a few days can cause fats to build up in your liver. If you allow this to progress to alcoholic hepatitis, a precursor to cirrhosis or scarring of the liver in alcohol-related liver disease, you may develop jaundice and notice swelling in the stomach and ankle region as a result of impaired liver function. However, a fatty liver problem can be reversed simply by stopping consuming all alcohol for a couple of weeks and then taking it easy with intake thereafter.14
Have Your Alcohol Responsibly And Limit Fat Problems
Here are a few ways you could still enjoy drinking but lower your chances of having a problem.
- Avoid heavy drinking: Stick to the limits of low-risk drinking which is not more than 3 drinks per day (and not more than a total of 7 through the week) for women and not more than 4 drinks per day (and not more than a total of 14 through the week) for men.15
- Don’t binge drink. Space out your intake. Binge drinking causes your blood alcohol concentration to go to 0.08 g/dL which tends to happen if you consume when you’ve had 4 (for women) – 5 drinks (for men) in the space of just 2 hours.16
- Have a healthy dinner: This will fill yourself up before you have a drink so you’re less likely to overdo the drinking and can avoid the empty calories, trading them up for healthier options instead.17
- Drink water between each alcoholic beverage you consume: Besides helping you cut down on the calories from your drink, doing this also prevents you from getting dehydrated.18
- Have lighter versions of your favorite drinks: You could do this by picking low-calorie variants: for instance, lighter wines may have less than 80 calories per 6 ounces serving compared to regular ones which could have twice that number.19 Another way to cut your caloric intake is by diluting your drink with regular soda or sparkling water.
So it is possible to enjoy a drink now and then even if you are trying to lose weight, assuming you don’t have any other health issues like diabetes or metabolic disorders. In these cases, however, you’ll need to see how your body responds and consult a doctor or nutritionist for advice. Just avoid overdoing it and keep a keen eye on the calorie and sugar intake from your drinks. Combine that with a healthy lifestyle overall, including a healthy diet and a regular exercise regimen, and you should be just fine.
|↑1, ↑5||Wannamethee, S. Goya, and A. Gerald Shaper. “Alcohol, body weight, and weight gain in middle-aged men.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 77, no. 5 (2003): 1312-1317.|
|↑2, ↑4||Wannamethee, S. Goya, Alison E. Field, Graham A. Colditz, and Eric B. Rimm. “Alcohol Intake and 8‐Year Weight Gain in Women: A Prospective Study.” Obesity 12, no. 9 (2004): 1386-1396.|
|↑3||Wang, Lu, I-Min Lee, JoAnn E. Manson, Julie E. Buring, and Howard D. Sesso. “Alcohol consumption, weight gain, and risk of becoming overweight in middle-aged and older women.” Archives of internal medicine 170, no. 5 (2010): 453-461.|
|↑6||Traversy, Gregory, and Jean-Philippe Chaput. “Alcohol consumption and obesity: an update.” Current obesity reports 4, no. 1 (2015): 122-130.|
|↑7, ↑13, ↑19||Calories in alcohol. Drinkaware UK.|
|↑8||Alcohol calorie calculator. RETHINKING DRINKING, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.|
|↑9||Alcohol and Sugar. Drinkaware UK.|
|↑10, ↑17, ↑18||Calories in Alcohol. National Health Service.|
|↑11, ↑12||Suter, Paolo M., and Angelo Tremblay. “Is alcohol consumption a risk factor for weight gain and obesity?.” Critical reviews in clinical laboratory sciences 42, no. 3 (2005): 197-227.|
|↑14||Alcohol-related liver disease. National Health Service.|
|↑15, ↑16||Drinking Levels Defined. National Institute On Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.|