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

  • Very informative!!
  • When I was a drinker, it wasn't as part of my diet. It was because I wanted to party, dance and let loose. We didn't plan to not eat or to substitute drinks for food. That is just what happened. Now I'm older and don't drink for medical reasons. But if I still drank, I would probably do it the same way as when I was younger.
  • CHA1975
    Agreed..good article. I used to only drink when I went out with my husband. Now, I drink wine nightly to help with stress from my job. I load it with ice though, so the effect is not as strong, but it's usually 2 full glasses. I work out (boot camp) mainly 5 days a week, but the results are slow. I will cut out the wine for a month and see if there's a major difference. Either way, I do need to cut back or at least go back to every now and then.
  • Luckily, I don't like alcohol.
  • Alcohol is a carb so diabetics really need to budget this in their daily carb intake.
  • Great info. And as said, all things in moderation!
  • all things in moderation - agreed
  • All things in moderation works for me. One of the points of working on my health is to enjoy my life more. I enjoy the occasional rum & coke (coke zero). Eat better, eat less, exercise more - but let's not be fanatical about it. :)
  • very interesting!
  • drinks are for special times....maybe once a year
  • LADYSUISEI
    Oh dear, I suppose all of those facts are pretty obvious but from time to time, we all conveniently "forget" them! I am having a month off alcohol, to see if it makes any difference and I'm hoping it will at least make me feel better... If not, then I will go back to polishing my halo!!!!! (sorry for the joke, but I am acutely aware that I potentially sabotage my efforts with a single night out that can often go pear shaped ie I drink more than I intended to, then I eat some food I wouldn't normally have)
  • 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.

About The Author

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

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