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Alcohol and Weight Gain: Have We Had it Wrong All Along?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Did you down a couple of green-tinted beers this past Wednesday? What better time than post-St. Patty's Day to talk about how alcohol affects your weight. One new study questions if what we thought we knew about alcohol and weight management holds true. No, I'm not trying to send you into a shame spiral for indulging on Wednesday's famous drinking holiday, so don't worry. But since you may still have alcohol calories on your mind, well here it goes.

When it comes to weight management, one of the easiest things many people can do to cut back on calories is to drink less alcohol—or give it up altogether. After all, alcohol contributes non-nutritious ("empty") calories to your diet, can make you more likely to overeat when you're under its influence, and often results in more calories being stored as fat. Plus when you're on a calorie-controlled diet, you need to make the most of the calories you consume, choosing super nutritious foods to give you the most bang for your calorie budget. Makes sense, right?

If that's true, you may say, then people who drink the most are probably more likely to be overweight and people who drink the least (or not at all) would be more likely to maintain a trim, healthy weight. That is logical, but a recent study published in the March 8 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine found that nondrinkers were actually more likely to gain weight than people who consumed "moderate" amounts of alcohol. (Yes, that is counterintuitive.) So is there more to this story or should you go back out to the bar and chug another beer in an effort to keep your weight down?

For more than a decade, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston tracked the drinking habits of more than 19,000 women (ages 39 and up) who had "normal weight" BMIs at the start of the study. According to Tara Parker-Pope who reported on this study for The New York Times, 60% of these women were self-reported "light" or "regular" drinkers of alcohol and 40% reported drinking no alcohol at the start of the study. Over the course of the 13-year study, 41% of the previously "normal" weight women became overweight or obese, and interestingly, the non-drinkers actually gained the most weight—about nine pounds each. Self-reported "moderate" drinkers gained less: three pounds on average. Researchers calculated that the risk of becoming overweight was about 30% lower for moderate drinkers (1-2 alcoholic drinks daily) than for non-drinkers.

My mind hurts a little trying to make sense of that. So I used my best critical thinking skills and talked with SparkPeople's head dietitian, Becky Hand, a licensed and registered dietitian, to come up with a few important takeaways from this study. Here's what you need to know before you pick up a new drinking habit in an effort to control your weight.

"I consider this to be preliminary research," says Becky Hand, MS Ed, LD, RD. "Additional research is needed before anyone should take recommendations from this." As Parker-Pope points out in her blog, a lot of research on alcohol is conflicting, and the findings regarding this group of women differs from similar studies done with men. "You can't apply what happens during a single study to everyone," Becky cautions. "Notice that in this study, all alcohol intake, food intake, and weight information was self-reported by the study participants. It's well known that study subjects tend to underreport what they really eat, over-report their adherence to healthy habits, and fudge their weights, sometimes deliberately and sometimes without realizing they are doing it at all." That's why any study that uses self-reporting to gather data should always be taken with a grain of salt; unlike a laboratory setting, these variables are not truly controlled or 100% accurate.

She also encourages adults to keep the American Heart Association's guidelines for alcohol consumption in mind: no more than one or two daily drinks for men, no more than one drink daily for women. (One drink is equal to a 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits, or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.) If you're cutting calories to lose weight, you might not be able to fit alcohol into your program (at least on a regular basis) and still meet your body's macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, fat) and micronutrient (vitamins, minerals) needs.

"For people who are following reduced-calorie diets," Becky explains, "alcohol can take the place of otherwise nutritious and low-calorie foods that are beneficial to the body." This is precisely what happened with the women in this study.

"Women who drank alcohol reported fewer calories from food sources, particularly carbohydrates," wrote the Parker-Pope. Could that mean that there isn't anything innately special about imbibing that speeds up metabolism or triggers a unique fat-fighting physiology? Probably. It's more likely that those women who reported drinking alcohol without gaining weight ate less food calories in order to drink more alcohol calories. It's not a bad idea to skim a few hundred calories out of your diet in order to fit in a special drink.

"That's fine to do occasionally, like on St. Patrick's Day or other celebrations" says Becky, "but not something women should make a habit of. Proper nutrition from food should always be your first priority, especially if you're following a reduced-calorie diet."

That's partly because alcohol is an "antinutrient," which means that it does not provide any beneficial nutrients to the body (besides calories), and may actually interfere with vitamin and mineral absorption. The health risks and potential side effects of alcohol are well known. We may not think of it as such, but it is classified as a drug and has been proven to deplete vitamins (including folic acid and vitamins B-12, C, D, and E), minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and selenium), amino acids and essential fats from the body when consumed in excessive amounts. According to the American Heart Association, heavy alcohol intake increases such dangers as alcoholism, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, breast cancer, suicide and accidents. It's not possible to predict in which people alcoholism will become a problem. Given these and other risks, the American Heart Association cautions abstainers NOT to start drinking alcohol just to gain the purported health benefits of the drug. And always, consult your doctor on the benefits and risks of consuming alcohol in moderation.

What worries me about studies like these is that so many men and women who are desperate to lose weight will take this as a recommendation to drink more. I don't think that's too far-fetched, especially with the popularity of diet pills, weight-loss gimmicks, and recent reports that 80% of women would undergo risky weight-loss surgery to lose weight if they could. With so many naturally healthy foods and beverages to choose from, should we really be encouraging women to drink more alcohol in order to control their weight?

Admittedly, I do not drink alcohol. I come from a long line of family members who simply don't drink, and I guess they passed that lifestyle choice on to me. I would fit into the non-drinkers in this study, but I do not believe that I am doomed to become overweight or obese in the next dozen years just because that happened to some of the women studied here. And I'm definitely not going to start drinking now in order to prevent weight problems, as the outcome of this study seems to encourage.

What about you: Do you agree with the findings in this study? How has drinking, not drinking, or limiting alcohol affected your weight?

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CECELW 4/30/2021
i'm glad I don't drink alcohol Report
AGEJEW 10/8/2020
Interesting. But I still believe alcohol helps you pack on the pounds. Report
KATHYJO56 9/2/2020
I am not a drinker, but this is still an interesting article. Report
I drink WAY to much every day. I'm ashamed of myself, but when I have a bad day at work (which is every day) I drink my dinner at night. I eat healthy most of the time during the day and then drink from like 5:30 to 8:30, drink a ton of water after and then go to bed. I hate daylight savings time because I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. I try to ride my bike as much as possible, but this getting early dark is annoying. I don't drink much when I ride my bike. Report
Very interesting article Report
This is interesting Report
I never say what I want have, but I believe in everything in moderation. Report
I don't drink either, Coach. I will stick to my exercising and diet. Report
Interesting article. Everything in moderation! Report
Interesting. Report
Interesting article! I've been a skinny heavy drinker and an overweight non-drinker. When I drank I danced for hours and hours. I don't think the alcohol made me skinny! The dance did! I don't drink anymore! Too many family risk factors. Report
It would be silly to assume that correlation equals cause. Did you know that global warming has increased with the decline of pirates in the Caribbean? Easy solution to global warming: more pirates! Report
I often have a glass or two of wine after work and I go out at least twice a week where I have a couple of cocktails. I've notice that alcohol satisfies all sweet cravings for me. On nights I don't have a drink, I find myself craving something sweet. That doesn't happen when I have alcohol. The calories I consume via alcohol (yes, I track every drink) are typically less than those I would consume via a candy bar. I'm not saying it is the best option, but a glass of sweet wine after dinner is much more satisfying than a dessert. Report
Neat article. I don't drink... just on New Years or weddings... I feel obligated then. My sister drinks daily. I always had more of a weight problem than she ever did, although she never exercised and we have similar body frames. I always wondered why so many people that I knew that drank seemed to stay slim... the article says that the findings of the tests are inconclusive and the alcohol should not replace healthy foods... but maybe their reduction of stress is an unmentioned health benefit.

I still won't drink often. It is NOT something that I really enjoy... so to all my drinking friends, let me says "Cheers!" Report
I lost 100 pounds a few years ago while drinking 2 or 3 glasses of wine each evening for "happy hour". It's something I enjoy, and well worth giving up the calories in other ways. If I do without ALL my favorite things, I won't stick to my weight loss plan. Choose how you want to spend your calorie choice includes wine. Report
I drink wine most days and have done for many years.

Here is what I've learned and have become convinced about.

It depends on what you drink and when you drink it.

If you are someone who drinks beer after work most days, chances are you are going to pack on the pounds. Beer has an enormous number of calories, and a serving size is HUGE. If you drink beer in a pub, chances are you'll also indulge in salty, fatty bar snacks with high calories also - like nuts, pretzels - and then there is the pizza or takeaway food that is often served in these venues.

If you prefer wine, it's easier to moderate in my opinion. And if you drink red wine, it's harder to drink in copious amounts (unless you have an alcohol problem) and chances are, your taste in venues will probably be a notch up from a pub so snacks won't be handed out freely etc...

If you prefer spirits, chances are you are either an infrequent drinker or the exact opposite a very heavy drinker...

The more alcohol you drink, the less you want to eat - so, to my point about when you drink; the earlier in the day you start, the more likely you are to skip snacks and just don't feel like eating the drunker you become...

Don't know about you, but most alcoholics I've met are very slim, largely because they don't eat...and I believe it's because it alters the brain chemistry so much you simply don't want to eat...

That's my thoughts as someone who has very much enjoyed alcohol throughout adulthood, but has never gained an enormous amount of weight... Report
I have been trying to find an explanation as to why I have not gained any weight from alcohol, even though I drink at 1 or 2 alcoholic drinks almost every week day, and at least 3 or 4 drinks per day on the weekends. That's a lot of calories, right??

But I really don't eat much when I'm drinking. I know if I'm at a restaurant, I'll be hungry and order food. By the time the food comes, I've had at least 1 or 2 beers, and I'm so not hungry anymore; I might end up having two or three bites of my meal. So that's maybe 100-250 calories from my beer or wine, instead of the 400 or 500+ I would have eaten at dinner.

I'm a pretty avid runner and cyclist, sure, but drinking alcohol has not had an effect on my weight in the slightest. I thought I would have gained a significant amount since ramping up my drinking in the past few years, but I weigh the same now as I did when I was 20 years old- 110lbs. I think there's something to these studies, don't discount them completely. Report
I am more likely to end my day with a nice glass of wine than a dessert that is at least double the calories. Do I plan for that glass of wine in my daily food plan, yes. Why? because it is something nice that I enjoy. Do I think that drinking has to do with my weight maintenance, no. Planning my calories for the day, yes. Report
Maybe it is as simple as a person that drinks "in moderation" may also eat in moderation - the study does not say there is a direct cause and effect relationship. Report
Alcoholic drinks contain lots of empty calories, but I don't think that moderate drinking leads to weight gain. I don't care how many studies they do. Alcohol does not make you gain weight. I have never met a heavy set alcoholic. They are not healthy but not fat. Report
Where there's alcohol, there's usually smoke. The missing variable that some comments suggest, may be that the people who are drinking and not gaining, are also smoking cigarettes. When I smoked cigarettes (which I thank God that I do not now!) I weighed a LOT less and never worried about gaining weight from anything - including alcohol. Now, I don't enjoy drinking at all... because I don't smoke.... just a thought. Report
It's easy to skip dinner when you've had a few drinks.
Also, emotional eaters can really shove down the calories when they eat, but I can go on a major drinking binge for 800 calories, skip dinner, and still stay under 1500 or 2000 calories for the day.

Not saying this is healthy or recommended, just thinking of why a drinker could weigh less than a non-drinker. Report
There is a saying to the effect of "Moderation in all things..." but of course there's sooo many variables in alcohol's gender, one's age, one's muscle-to-fat ratio, one's weight, the various reactions that one can get to drinking alcohol, whether it is consumed alone or instead of a meal, or whether it is consumed with a meal with companionship. My folks and grandfolks were raised Baptist, so of course, to that school of thought, Booze = Hell, or maybe somewhere not quite as extreme, but certainly wasn't a good thing to do. I wasn't raised that way, and spiritually speaking, I see nothing in the Bible that says I can't drink alcoholic beverages ("strong drink"). So over the years, I've gradually moved from a "booze is yukky" to "hmmm a glass of wine is very nice!" mentality. The more I've studied, the more I've learned what works best for me, and so far, that seems to be that I lose weight when I'm eating a well balanced meal with maybe 2-4 ounces of wine, if I want it. If the meal I have is a bit fattier than I might ordinarily eat (like very rich foods, fatty marbled cuts of beef, maybe pasta with lots of creamy sauces, that sort of thing), then 2-4 ounces of wine might not be enough - I might need more like 4-6 ounces to help with the emulsifying and digestion of the extra fat. But, I will also be drinking extra water - roughly double the amount of wine consumed - to counteract the dehydration that is caused by the body processing the extra alcohol (no different then if I drank coffee or ate just an unreasonable amount of sugar - I've learned that these types of food/drink will also dehydrate me so I just drink more water to compensate.). That way, I'm less likely to have a headache or hangover.

But... I don't feel like I need to drink wine every single day or every meal. So some weeks, I might not have a sip at all. Other weeks, I might have had 1 or 2 glasses. During the High Holy Days, I might be having a glass or two every day during the week long festival. Probably on a yearly average though, my average is probably 1 glass of wine a week.

In my younger days, I drank liquors like Amaretto, and so my experiences with cocktails and hard liquors is limited. Many times I'd drink something and not really know what was in it. Margaritas and daiquari's I've had, since they are mostly fruit with some (thing) hard liquor. If I cared, I guess I'd go study a BarTender's guide to mixed drinks...ha. I haven't bothered to try a Cosmos or some of the supposedly "sophisticated" drinks. But it did seem like I gained more weight drinking a cocktail, maybe because they were sweet and I tended to want to eat more stuff to counteract the alcohol (because I didn't want to get drunk and have problems driving myself home.).

So anyway, this isn't the be all or end all. I'm sure there is more that I don't know about it, but it does seem like drinking some red wine helps me more so than just drinking hard alcohol for the sheer joy of drinking with friends etc... otherwise, I've always been somewhat heavy regardless of whether I drank wine or hard drinks, or whether I abstained. Report
oooooh... well if you want it have it.. don't ..well ..up to you.

Studies of all kinds change their "findings" constantly. If we followed them all literally we'd be dizzzzy by now!

Take it with "a grain of salt" & enjoy life.
I enjoy cocktail hour many days out of the week. However since starting Spark People and tracking my calories I have cut back on the amount that I drink so that I can stay within my calorie range and still eat healthy. Report
As with most studies of this type, you have to avoid assuming that the results are causal. Just because the moderate drinkers gained less weight does not mean that their drinking was why they gained less weight. Perhaps moderate drinkers are better at moderation in their eating, too. Or there could be any number of other reasons. I say this as someone who drinks maybe 1-2 drinks a month on average. Report
I disagree that this study seems to encourage people to drink to keep their weight down. It is simply a study that is reporting its findings. If people are going to make that assumption, then they are going to make a lot of other ridiculous assumptions as well, like they should drink maple syrup lemonade all day to lose weight. Report
While using food and drink as a reward is dangerous, the only nutritionally-void thing I still like to ingest is alcohol, so my 1-2 drinks one night a week is my treat. I always run three miles in the morning and then eat normally during the day, so I have something like 500-600 calories for dinner and drinks "saved up". I make sure to record it afterwards too. Report
Alexandera64, I certainly agree with you. People with ANXIETY use alcohol to "calm them". My brother always says if men didn't have anxiety there wouldn't be any bars. Report
Did they account for the anxiety level of people? People who are anxious tend to use "something" whether alcohol or food to curb their anxiety where as people who are not anxious will eat healthy, for the most part, and not gain weight. People gain weight for a variety of reasons from body chemistry changes to social anxiety and addictions. To say that alcohol is what makes the difference is ridiculous in my opinion. I haven't had a drink since the past decade because of health reasons. I never had issue with my weight until I hit peri-menopause so where would I fall in that particular study, eh? There are just way too many variables to give such assumptions as this study does. How dangerous too to give permission to people who may already have difficulties moderating alcohol in their diet. Report
A new Dunkin Donuts opened near me. I hadn't been to one of those since I lived in another state some 20 years or so ago, so I went to the grand opening event. As I remarked to the manager, "I used to hit DD fairly often back then, and come to think of it, I weighed about 150 lbs less than I do now. I guess I should go back to regular donuts as a weight loss program!"

Me thinks there's a variable or three unaccounted for in this study. Pity, because yesterday I had 2.5 beers over the evening, which I do maybe 1ce/month, and was hoping I hadn't blown my plan for the day. This article was to have been my salvation! My justification! Alas, no. Report
When I was in college (and drinking heavily about 6 nights per week) I weighed less than I do now. I was also on the dance team (3 hour practices 3 x per week plus games) and on the days after I drank I would stay in bed and do nothing all day and not feel well enough to eat until dinner. I'd say a young person's metabolism and the hangover effects alcohol has on a person (sleeping very late in the day and eating less) makes a drinker weigh less.

But would we really substitute weighing 10 pounds less for putting so much poison into our bodies? I'd rather weigh 10 pounds more and know that I'm feeding my body healthy nutrients and staying strong with execise. That being said, I also enjoy a nice glass of wine here or there. So, moderation is definitely the key. A few drinks won't do much harm and may suppress your appetite, but going overboard 6 nights a week like in college is unhealthy.

I truly believe drinking attitudes change with maturity. If I commented on this blog 3 years ago my opinion would have been much different :) Report
This isn't exactly the site's most impressive article. We already know the effects of alcohol scientifically. This study didn't look at that. Liquor doesn't have magic powers, it's obviously a cultural/sociological factor associated. Or of course, health. The majority of people I know who *never* drink at all choose not to due to pre-existing health issues. So the choice could be a reaction to the same issue/s causing the weight gain ...If 80% of the non-drinkers in this study are diabetic, I think we've got our answer. Report
Just a random thought, I am not much of a drinker myself, but I think of my college days when alcohol was more abundant in my lifestyle. Maintaining my weight then did not seem to be a problem. I don't think I will consume more adult beverages in order to lose weight now however, but I do know when I go out I am more engaged in the conversations with friends or the entertainment going on then thinking about eating food. Maybe it goes along with the whole 'less stress' feeling you have when you are out with friends having a cocktail. I know also I am more aware of my surrounding when I am out then when I am home per-say. You wouldn't catch me with my naughty eating habits in front of company or in public, that's for sure! So maybe it is not so much that the women who drank more maintained their weight purely to alcohol, but maybe more to the social atmosphere they were subject to. Just a thought, that's all :) Report
I would like to see a more scientific study done where the blood sugar is measured after a person has a drink or two. I read a comment from a diabetic who wrote that since she had added a glass of red wine with dinner, her numbers dropped. I'm not suggesting that you try it if you're diabetic, but it might warrant a discussion with your doctor. Red wine keeps coming out a winner in the studies. If you think about it, humans did not have the luxury of dessert until recent times. Dessert was probably a piece of fruit if they were lucky in ancient times. Fluids were required for life and distillation was a necessity where clean water was not available. Our bodies are probably better wired to handle a little red wine than white flour and refined sugar. Give up the refined carbs guys. Report
I don't think alcohol speeds up the metabolism, especially since it is a depressant and depressants actually SLOW the metabolism. However, here's a theory for you:

Light-moderate alcohol use can be an okay way to self-medicate for stress. (IMO, probably just as healthy if not more so than many prescribed anti-anxiety meds)

Decreased stress means 2 things, weight loss-wise:

1) less stress-eating
2) less cortisol production (cortisol being a stress-hormone that encourages weight gain, especially around the mid-section - the most health-threatening fat)

Before anyone jumps on me, I am NOT saying the drinking is the best way to manage stress, just that it might go towards explaining the study findings.

I happen to enjoy a nice glass of wine. Moderation is, as with most everything else, the key. I don't overindulge (except maybe once or twice a year at a party or something). Most of the time, I drink anywhere from 1-4 glasses of wine a week. I don't know if it helps my weight loss efforts, but I don't think a little bit hurts. A side note: I haven't imbibed a drop this week, I've been great with my eating and exercise, and I gained weight! Coincidence? Maybe I should break open a bottle! ;-)

My worst time of day for mindless snacking is from about 5:00 until dinner (around 6:30 here). I sometimes find that one glass of wine keeps me from endless snacking while I wait for my hubby to get home for dinner. Although I know that it's 100 nutrition-free calories, it sometimes beats several hundred calories because I just can't keep from putting something in my, for me, an occasional glass of wine probably does help with weight loss..... Report
like everything else, moderation is key. I'm still learning moderation; my biggest problem - once bottle of red wine is open I do not stop till the bottle is finished :( Report
I agree with Pearl... I would like to see these results correlated by age. My guess is that younger women drink more, and happen to have faster metabolisms and generally more active lifestyles. Report
Who knows, Nicole...maybe the drinkers end up indulging in more sexual activities. Report
Interesting results. My first thought though, is that, ( this is a very general statement), women who are drinking regularly may be in a somewhat different crowd 'butting' (no pun intended) up with younger women who have a youthful figure, and where a womans figure is more noticed and commented on.

As I have matured I drink less, my lifestyle has changed. I am home in the evenings.
My friends tend to do the same, we are more relaxed, we allow an indulgence once in a while. Instead of franticaly trying to fit into a sweet little number that reveals all, we wear relaxing outfits that do tend to hide a bit. Report
My take on this study: People who are inclined to be light or moderate drinkers may have the kind of internal equilibrium that also makes them have moderate, healthful eating habits. Everybody has to look at the new studies and evaluate them with the science project they know best: their own bodies and habits. It's generally harder for me to have just one glass of wine than it is to have none. Yet, when I cut out alcohol completely, I tend to eat more to de-stress. This is not something I've got figured out yet. Report
I am an occasional drinker with red wine being my choice. I know that when I have a nice glass of red wine (I like it dry) in my hand I do not think about food in the same way that I do when I am not drinking. I don't want to ruin the flavour. But this does not make me want to drink all the time. Let's be sensible here! I believe that the reason that heavy drinkers are thinner is because they just don't eat properly. By this I mean not much at all. They are sleeping off their latest drunken stupor! I saw too much of this as a child because my father was an alcoholic like some others here have mentioned as well. I would hope that people do not "choose" to become an alcoholic, as this is a "sickness" - lest we forget that! As to whether or not alcohol aids in weight loss? I highly doubt it! So occasion away! Report
When I started Spark it was Football Season and for 7 weekend in a row I drank my normal beers during games. When I got really serious about losing and feeling bad after having 1,500 empty calories every weekend; I actually lost a half to a whole pound more. What made the difference was I didn't feel tired to go to the gym after football or the next morning. I didn't feel like I had to stay at the gym longer to burn those extra cals. off. The scale was nice to me and that was all the buzz I needed.
The real test again will be when Football season starts up. Report
I just recently cut out alcohol and gained 10 pounds within a month. I know other people who have cut it out and lost that much in a month. It's all about the individual's make up and life style. Starting to drink because of this one study is like starting to smoke because of the study that said that smoking increases your metabolism. If you don't know how to make good decisions about your health you should probably ask you doctor who has your best interests in mind not some random article/study that has its own angenda. Report
I count calories so as long as the drinks are added into my total daily calories I am ok but usually drinking leads to eating unhealthy foods so then my calories will go way over. I do let myslef have a few drinks on weekends and still losing weight but like I said I have to make sure it is within my calorie range. Report
I was drinking with my husband, then boyfriend, nightly when we were dating. I went from a size 2 to a 12! My opinion is that alcohol does contribute to weight gain, at least for me However, maybe a glass of wine, if budgeted in the daily caloric intake, wouldn't hurt too much on an occasional basis. Report
The drinking takes "room" just like food does so I think those drinking a lot are probably not eating much is why it appears there are no fat "drunks". I don't think there is anything particularly good/different to take away from this study; I don't think drinking really changes the overall habits of one and causes/takes away from one's gaining/losing weight. Report
I'm with the 'if you know how to be moderate, you know how to be moderate in all things' group. If you CAN'T drink is different than just being somebody who doesn't....
Hooray for moderation, the Golden Mean. Report