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These days, weight loss seems downright impossible. After all, today’s dieters are bombarded left and right with conflicting (or ridiculous) information on how to lose those pounds. And the sacrifices required to shed them are enough to make anyone groan—or seek relief in a bottle of wine.
Unfortunately, the relationship between alcohol consumption and weight gain isn’t much more straightforward. If alcohol may be throwing a wrench in your weight loss plans, here’s what to keep in mind before drinking and dieting.
Alcohol Affects What You Eat
If you notice your stomach growling after a few drinks, don’t reach for the appetizer menu just yet. By drastically altering your brain’s perception of hunger and fullness, alcohol can make you want to polish off a handful of onion rings, regardless of whether you’re hungry. And as most of us know, alcohol can have a disinhibiting effect on behavior in general—including the motivation to count calories.
“You wouldn’t make your best decisions after two glasses of wine,” wrote Gary Foster, the chief scientific officer at Weight Watchers, in an article in The Washington Post. “You won’t make your best eating decisions, either.”
Perhaps for the same reasons, alcohol does more than boost your appetite: it can also skew your choice in grub. Several studies have shown, for instance, that drinkers tend to devour more fat and fewer carbs than non-drinkers. But before sugar critics take a breath of relief, keep in mind that alcohol has been shown to inhibit the breakdown and encourage the accumulation of fat in cells across the body (a diabolical combination). So before your next night on the town, remember to keep careful watch of what you eat—a few drinks can trick you into tossing your weight goals out the window!
Yes, The Amount You Drink Matters—But Not In The Way You Think
Right off the bat, there are plenty of reasons to assume that more alcohol means a chubbier waistline. Take a good look at the caloric content of alcohol, for instance, and you’ll see it falls at a substantial seven calories per gram, somewhere between sugar (which has four) and fat (nine). Yet here’s the kicker: despite its steep caloric price, heavy alcohol consumption is sometimes associated with weight loss, whereas light and moderate consumption may yield the opposite outcome.
One explanation is that your cells process copious amounts of alcohol less efficiently than modest amounts, due to the metabolic reactions each one triggers. However, the exact number of drinks needed to stimulate this so-called “energy wastage” pathway remains a mystery. One thing researchers know for sure is that drinking heavily and often—think almost every night—may banish the pounds, but of course, at the risk of many other health issues.
There’s one more consideration worth mentioning. By substituting booze for more nutritious energy sources—like carbs, protein, and some vitamins—the heaviest drinkers sacrifice somewhere between 15 and 41% of their nutrient intake every day. And since “empty” alcoholic calories are thought to be processed differently than food calories, this could actually spell weight loss in the long run. But unless you’ve reached the point of trading burgers for beers, chances are you’re racking up calories from both sources—and facing double the trouble when it comes to weight gain.
Surprisingly, When You Drink Also Matters
The amount of alcohol you drink per week is just as important as the amount you drink in one sitting. But once again, the relationship between drinking frequency and weight gain may come as a surprise. In a 2005 study published in The American Journal of Epidemiology, for example, researchers set out to find the relationship between frequency of alcohol consumption, number of drinks consumed, and body mass index (BMI)—a measure of body fat based on height and weight—in 45,896 drinkers. They discovered that participants who downed the fewest drinks the most frequently had the lowest risk of weight gain, while those who drank the most alcohol the least frequently were at a higher risk. That means you might pack on more pounds getting wasted once a month than sipping a few glasses of wine here or there throughout the week.
Putting It All Together
Altogether, there’s no surefire way to determine how much alcohol will help you lose weight. (And genetic factors can factor into the equation as well.) Nevertheless, there are a few evidence-based takeaways to keep in mind. For one thing, it may be better to drink a little bit each night than a truckload all at once. Moreover, the best way to keep from splurging on calories is to monitor your food intake closely while you’re drinking.
At this point, you might be wondering if the best solution is to simply drink more (and more often). After all, as noted earlier, doesn’t heavy drinking lead to weight loss? Although a small amount of evidence suggests this might be the case, don’t forget the innumerable health risks associated with heavy drinking—starting with nutritional deficiency, heart disease, and cancer (not to mention all of the social and psychological costs). What’s more, research has yet to reveal a truly conclusive link between alcohol consumption and weight loss, even amongst the heaviest drinkers.
When all is said and done, there are plenty of reasons to manage your drinking—or drop it altogether—for the sake of attaining your dream figure. If you’re worried drinking could be sabotaging your plans, Ria Health can help. Our team takes a medical and psychological approach to helping members achieve their goals, whether that means drinking or not.
Kimberly Nielsen writes about health issues, and has written for various scientific newspapers and blogs. She is currently studying biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in Public Health.