Nutrition Articles

Alcohol and Weight Loss

Can You Have Both?

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Alcohol and weight loss are enemies, but an occasional drink can have a place in a healthy lifestyle. In fact, many experts note the potential health benefits of consuming a single drink per day, including a reduced risk for high blood pressure If, however, you are exceeding one drink daily, you might be sabotaging your weight loss plans.

Alcohol is metabolized differently than other foods and beverages. Under normal conditions, your body gets its energy from the calories in carbohydrates, fats and proteins, which are slowly digested and absorbed within the gastrointestinal system. However, this digestive process changes when alcohol is present. When you drink alcohol, it gets immediate attention (because it is viewed by the body as a toxin) and needs no digestion.

On an empty stomach, the alcohol molecules diffuse through the stomach wall quickly and can reach the brain and liver in minutes. This process is slower when you have food in your stomach, but as soon as that food enters the small intestine, the alcohol grabs first priority and is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream.

As the alcohol reaches the liver for processing, the liver places all of its attention on the alcohol. If you drink very slowly, all the alcohol is collected by the liver and processed immediately—avoiding all other body systems. If you drink more quickly, the liver cannot keep up with the processing needs and the alcohol continues to circulate in the body until the liver is available to process it. That's why drinking large amounts of alcohol (or drinking alcohol quickly) affect the brain centers involved with speech, vision, reasoning and judgment.

When the body is focused on processing alcohol, it is not able to properly break down foods containing carbohydrates and fat. Therefore, these calories are converted into body fat and are carried away for permanent storage on your body.

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it causes water loss and dehydration. Along with this water loss you lose important minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and zinc. These minerals are vital to the maintenance of fluid balance, chemical reactions, and muscle contraction and relaxation.

Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram and offers NO nutritional value. It only adds empty calories to your diet. Why not spend your calorie budget on something healthier?

Alcohol affects your body in other negative ways. Drinking may help induce sleep, but the sleep you get isn't very deep. As a result, you get less rest, which can trigger you to eat more calories the next day. Alcohol can also increase the amount of acid that your stomach produces, causing your stomach lining to become inflamed. Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to serious health problems, including stomach ulcers, liver disease, and heart troubles.

Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, which is detrimental to your diet plans. Alcohol actually stimulates your appetite. While you might be full from a comparable amount of calories from food, several drinks might not fill you up. On top of that, research shows that if you drink before or during a meal, both your inhibitions and willpower are reduced. In this state, you are more likely to overeat—especially greasy or fried foods—which can add to your waistline. To avoid this, wait to order that drink until you're done with your meal.

Many foods that accompany drinking (peanuts, pretzels, chips) are salty, which can make you thirsty, encouraging you to drink even more. To avoid overdrinking, sip on a glass of water in between each alcoholic beverage.

Skipping a meal to save your calories for drinks later is a bad idea. Many drinkers know they'll be having some alcohol later, whether going to a bar, party, or just kicking back at home. Knowing that drinking entails extra calories, it may be tempting to "bank" some calories by skipping a meal or two. This is a bad move. If you come to the bar hungry, you are even more likely to munch on the snacks, and drinking on an empty stomach enhances the negative effects of alcohol. If you're planning on drinking later, eat a healthy meal first. You'll feel fuller, which will stop you from overdrinking. If you are worried about a looming night out with friends, include an extra 30 minutes of exercise to balance your calories—instead of skipping a meal.

What are more important, calories or carbs? You might think that drinking liquor is more diet-friendly because it has no carbohydrates, while both wine and beer do contain carbs. But dieters need to watch calories, and liquor only has a few calories less than beer or wine. Plus, it is often mixed with other drinks, adding even more empty calories. Hard liquor contains around 100 calories per shot, so adding a mixer increases calories even more. If you are going to mix liquor with anything, opt for a diet or club soda, instead of fruit juice or regular soda. Sweeter drinks, whether liquor or wine, tend to have more sugar, and therefore more calories. In that respect, dry wines usually have fewer calories than sweet wines.

The list below breaks down the number of calories in typical alcoholic drinks. Compare some of your favorites to make a good choice next time you decide to indulge in a serving of alcohol.

Drink Serving Size Calories
Red wine 5 oz. 100
White wine 5 oz. 100
Champagne 5 oz. 130
Light beer 12 oz. 105
Regular beer 12 oz. 140
Dark beer 12 oz. 170
Cosmopolitan 3 oz. 165
Martini 3 oz. 205
Long Island iced tea 8 oz. 400
Gin & Tonic 8 oz. 175
Rum & Soda 8 oz. 180
Margarita 8 oz. 200
Whiskey Sour 4 oz. 200

Alcohol can easily be the enemy when it comes to weight loss. It adds extra calories to your diet, encourages you to eat more food, and alters the normal digestive process. Not only are the extra calories a hindrance, but the changes in food breakdown sends turns those extra calories into unwanted body fat. Alcohol does have a bad reputation when it comes to weight loss, and rightfully so, so be smart about your alcohol choices if you're watching your weight. This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople's nutrition expert Becky Hand, MS, Licensed and Registered Dietitian.

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Member Comments

  • ETHELMERZ
    I'm so glad that I simply can't stand the taste of alcoholic beverages, no matter how cutely doctored up, and ads shown of pretty people laughing and having fun! I tried to learn to like it while young, but it makes me throw up. Even the smell gets to my stomach, I went with others on a wine tasting tour, the smell made me throw up while the tour guide was talking about all the varieties they had, red wine smell in particular does it to me! At least one thing I don't need to worry about having to stop myself from having.......
  • Apart from those with medical issues, the real issue we Americans have is a serious problem with moderation. We live big and have a strong tendency to overdo it with everything--food, alcohol, homes, Target trips (lol!) and even healthy things like exercise. I know we hear it again and again, but a lot of Europeans have got it right. "A little bit of everything without overdoing it" is something I've heard again and again here (I live in Italy) regarding diet. And while people here tend to have more natural activity in their daily lives, there isn't nearly as much of the gym rat culture here as you see in the US. It's not rocket science why Europeans tend to be slimmer than their American counterparts in spite of the fact that they love and are very proud of their food and alcohol. Maybe that's why they can afford to have universal health care as well--there's far less obesity related illness.
  • 3-5 oz. of a good red wine, not every day, seems to help my weight loss. I can sometimes substitute this for consuming more calories with a meal, or for a high calorie dessert.
  • Yet another instance where teetotalers have a leg-up.
    I've never understood the appeal of inebriation, personally.
  • Alcohol use, over time, is comprehensively toxic to the bodys systems. Here is a partial list of damage caused by alcohol:

    Brain Damage - blackouts, memory loss, anxiety, serious mental health problems
    Cancers - second biggest risk factor for mouth cancer behind smoking, liver cancer
    Heart and circulatory damage - high blood pressure, weakening of the heart, irregular hear rate/rhythm, heart failure
    Lung infections
    Liver - cirrhosis, alcohol induced hepatitis, permanent scarring
    Pancreas - inflammation
    Intestine - inhibits body's ability to absorb nutrients
    Kidney damage
    Bone damage
    Weight gain
    Skin damage
    Sexual health damage
    Social effect - become a victim of crime, rape, etc
    Stomach - ulcers internal bleeding
  • There is sooo much more to a choice to drink alcohol than nutrition. I mean, why would you put something in your body that is "a toxin". There are cultural reasons. Social reasons. Many people feel so uncomfortable with themselves that they find the numbing of alcohol to be helpful. I'm like this. But, unfortunately, numbing isn't selective. Anger, pain, fear, and other "negatives" are numbed, but so is joy, gratitude and everything else.

    If you like the taste of an alcoholic beverage and feel you are considering putting a nutritionally valueless substance in your body, why not seek a healthy alternative?

    Oh, and if you find that you can't stop drinking when you have decided you want to, that is another conversation. PM me and we can talk. I've been there.
  • For most people, moderation is key.
  • This was a really informative article which reminded me of a few things to be mindful of, particularly during the upcoming Christmas festivities!
  • I thought this was an excellent article, full of good information. Drinking a glass of water after each drink really does help me slow down and it also keeps me more hydrated. Thank you for informing us about alcohol. I happen to love it, but also know that it does cause me to eat more & have had to learn my own limits.
  • I would be very interested in the calories in mead. It is getting to be more and more common. We even went to a party that only had mead.
  • While in the waiting room at a recent doctor's appointment I was reading one of the magazines in their waiting room (sorry but I don't remember which one) and read an article saying one to two glasses of red wine daily can actually help with weight loss. According to the article it blocks the conversion of sugar in your body and to insulin. Since my doctor has recommended I drink a glass of red wine in the evening I was happy to read that amount shouldn't have a negative effect on my weight loss efforts and actually might even help.
  • JUSTICEJR
    Great article. I recently all but quit drinking 6 months ago, after seeing some pictures of me at a wedding on Facebook and realized how bloated and fat my face looked. I'm a 31 yo male lawyer, 50-60 hour work weeks, so had limited time to work out, but somehow found time to binge drink (12+ drinks) one weekend night a week and moderate (or my version of it) drink (4-5 drinks) a couple nights a week. I made a commitment to never have more than 2 drinks on a weekend night and cut out the drinking during the week all together. I'm down to zero-3 drinks a week, and it has completely changed my life. I was in great shape in college and law school, but my job slowly killed that. I now look forward to being hangover free on weekends so I have energy to work out, and look forward to going to the gym on weeknights instead of happy hour. I have gone from a gross 198lbs to 176 in 6 mos--cutting out the alcohol no doubt has helped. I also have more energy and motivation. And now when I do drink, 2 will give me a buzz so it saves money too! I'm 5'10 and my goal is get to 170 and stay there. College was fine--I binged multiple nights a week and it never affected my body and I managed to stay in shale but the past few years the pounds started packing on and when I finally noticed I decided it was enough.

    My Best weight loss - http://tinyurl.co
    m/kwasmwu
  • JUSTICEJR
    Great article. I recently all but quit drinking 6 months ago, after seeing some pictures of me at a wedding on Facebook and realized how bloated and fat my face looked. I'm a 31 yo male lawyer, 50-60 hour work weeks, so had limited time to work out, but somehow found time to binge drink (12+ drinks) one weekend night a week and moderate (or my version of it) drink (4-5 drinks) a couple nights a week. I made a commitment to never have more than 2 drinks on a weekend night and cut out the drinking during the week all together. I'm down to zero-3 drinks a week, and it has completely changed my life. I was in great shape in college and law school, but my job slowly killed that. I now look forward to being hangover free on weekends so I have energy to work out, and look forward to going to the gym on weeknights instead of happy hour. I have gone from a gross 198lbs to 176 in 6 mos--cutting out the alcohol no doubt has helped. I also have more energy and motivation. And now when I do drink, 2 will give me a buzz so it saves money too! I'm 5'10 and my goal is get to 170 and stay there. College was fine--I binged multiple nights a week and it never affected my body and I managed to stay in shale but the past few years the pounds started packing on and when I finally noticed I decided it was enough.
  • CELLA_P
    Speaking just for myself, I've chosen to abstain completely from alcohol. Before losing 80 lbs., I had very high triglycerides, and losing weight normalized them. Alcohol can raise triglyceride levels, so for that reason alone, I'd never drink it. My second reason is the added risk of breast cancer.

    Resveratrol? I'll get my polyphenols courtesy plain ol' grapes 'n' wild blueberries instead...
  • "Moderation in all things" would seem to apply here. I know that what the article says about alcohol lowering inhibitions and increasing cravings for fatty, salty food is true in my case. But, I also believe that having a glass of wine with dinner or in a social setting can greatly increase the pleasure of that experience. Like everything in life, there are risks and benefits associated with the choice to consume or not consume alcohol. My choice is to limit consumption during the week but to allow myself moderate amounts on the weekends. It "works" for me but everyone is different and must choose according to the specifics of their lives and personalities.

About The Author

Liz Noelcke Liz Noelcke
Liz is a journalist who often writes about health and fitness topics.

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