- Alcohol wreaks havoc on your hormones, self-control, and ability to burn fat.
- Therefore, it can make you gain weight if you're drinking too much.
- Some folks are more prone to weight gain than others, though.
"Beer belly" refers to that protruding stomach some men carry around. But you don't have to be male or drink beer in order to gain weight from alcohol.
To be upfront, study results are mixed on the matter: Researchers are still pinpointing exactly how alcohol can make people gain weight and who might be most at risk, says Judy Simon, a clinical dietician nutritionist and clinical instructor at the Nutrition Sciences Program at University of Washington.
But if you fall under either, or both, of these categories, here's some important information on how drinking alcohol can affect your body and may cause weight gain, among other side effects, — plus a few tips on how best to consume alcohol to offset the risk.
1. It changes how your body processes fat
Alcohol is a toxin. If you consume too much of it, you can develop alcohol poisoning or even die. This is important for potential weight gain because it dictates how your body reacts to alcohol.
To prevent alcohol poisoning and possible death your liver focuses all its energy on metabolizing, or breaking down, the alcohol into non-toxic components.
As a result, your body sacrifices metabolizing fat because it's too busy breaking down booze. And that isn't great for your weight.
That fat you're not burning? It gets stored as additional weight. So, if you're eating pizza or even a light salad with your cocktail, the calories from that food get stored as fat instead of burned for energy.
"One of the things I tell my patients is every night, if you have a couple glasses of wine, just think of it as turning off fat burning," says Dr. Holly Wyatt, the Vice Chair for Clinical Programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Nutrition Sciences.
"If you're trying to lose weight, what you really want to happen is you want fat burning to be turned on as much as possible," Wyatt says.
2. It makes you hungry
Alcohol can also affect hunger levels, which may lead you to snack more, which then causes you to consume more calories, which ultimately may cause weight gain. It's a vicious cycle, really.
While recent research on humans is limited, past studies have suggested that different hunger-related hormones, like ghrelin and leptin, might be affected by alcohol consumption.
More recently, a 2017 study performed on mice found that alcohol consumption triggered regions of the brain usually associated with starvation, causing the mice to overeat.
Despite containing a lot of energy, alcohol also doesn't have the same satiating effect as solid food.
"Your body doesn't sense liquids the same as it senses solids," says Wyatt. "You can consume a lot of calories quickly and the body might not even register them."
That can make it easy to inadvertently consume more calories than you need.
3. It makes it difficult to choose healthy options
Drinking alcohol can also lead you to make poor food choices. Alcohol is known to lower inhibitions, impairing the logical decision-making sections of your brain like the prefrontal cortex.
While your decision making is impaired, you might be more prone to eat foods you'd normally avoid, or even to give up on your healthy diet entirely, Wyatt says.
Even once you sober up, other physical effects of alcohol can stand in the way of a healthy diet and exercise regimen.
"If somebody is getting hungover the next day, the chances of them waking up and having a healthy lifestyle [are slim]," Simon says. "You're not gonna want to get up and take a run."
4. It's already loaded with calories
Consequently, alcohol is considered a high-energy substance. That means, even if you skip the sugary cocktail, there are still plenty of calories in your whiskey neat.
For reference, here's how many calories are typically in beer, wine, hard liquor, and some popular cocktails:
|Drink||Calories||Serving size (fl. oz.)|
|Red wine||~125 calories|
|Vodka shot||~100 calories||1.5|
|Whiskey shot||~100 calories||1.5|
|Rum shot||~100 calories||1.5|
|Whiskey sour||~160 calories||3.5|
|Pina colada||~490 calories||9 oz.|
Cocktails are some of the worst offenders when it comes to calorie count. There are a couple of reasons for that:
1. They usually contain added sugar, which ramps up the calories.
2. They can contain up to two standard drinks worth of alcohol, doubling the calories from alcohol you'd get in a single shot.
5. It messes with your hormones
"Some of those can be related to weight, because everything in the endocrine system is so interrelated," she says.
Alcohol can also affect your circadian rhythm as well as your cortisol levels, says Laura Lashinger, an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
Alcohol is "kind of a stressor for your body, so it can cause your body to lose proper cortisol secretion," Lashinger says. "And cortisol is responsible for a lot of our bodily functions."
You can still enjoy drinking
Have we scared you off alcohol yet? Don't worry: not everyone who drinks gains weight.
There is especially little evidence suggesting infrequent drinkers will pack on the pounds. If you'd like to continue to drink while staying slim, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Choose wisely: First and foremost, Wyatt says you should pick lower-calorie alcoholic beverages. Steer away from high-carbohydrate, high-sugar drinks, like cocktails with fruit juices, and opt instead for a distilled alcohol like vodka combined with a calorie-free mixer like flavored seltzer.
2. Drink on time: Pay attention to when you drink, Wyatt says. While there's no magical time of day you can drink and not be at risk of weight gain, you should be aware of what time of day you're most likely to snack or overeat. For example, if you already tend to overeat late at night, that might not be a good time to throw alcohol into the mix, since it can lower your inhibitions and lead you to have a bigger junk food binge than you were planning. Same goes if you're a breakfast binger — skip the bloody marys and mimosas.
3. Eat solid foods: Even though alcohol reduces your ability to burn fat, Simon says the answer isn't to drink on an empty stomach. Drinking with food can help ensure a clearer head which may help you make better, healthier decisions throughout the night, like avoiding junk food.
4. Hydrate: Drinking a glass of water for every alcoholic drink can also help you slow down your consumption, Simon says.
Overall, Simon says, that the best protection against weight gain is "sticking to that average of four or less drinks a week for women, and less than two drinks a day for men."
While alcohol doesn't necessarily affect everyone the same way, it can cause some people to gain weight due to its high-calorie content and the way it affects metabolism, hunger-hormones, and decision making.
If you'd like to prevent weight gain and still enjoy drinking, try choosing lower-calorie alcoholic beverages and manage how much alcohol you consume.
And if you find it hard to stop drinking, despite a strong desire to, there are helpful resources: Talk to your doctor or call the SAMHSA's Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), a free, confidential, 24/7 treatment referral and information service for individuals and families facing substance use disorders.
Willa Hart is a Chicago-based freelance writer who writes about healthcare, science, and women's news, among other topics.