Everything You Want to Know About Alcohol and Weight Loss
If I quit drinking will I lose weight? This dietitian is six months sober and digging into the research.
This isn’t an essay on how I gave up drinking, but in the interest of full transparency, I’m a registered dietitian and I gave up drinking six months ago. While weight loss was not my reason, I figured that I would lose weight because everyone says that’s what happens when you stop drinking, right? I mean I’m a dietitian, I should know. Turns out, I don’t know, because I’m six months in without a drop of alcohol and I haven’t lost a single pound. After doing some research, I’ve come to learn that giving up alcohol is not always associated with weight loss, and that if you want to lose weight, giving up a glass of wine with dinner isn’t the magic bullet. Here’s how you can have a relationship with alcohol (or not) while working toward your weight loss goals.
Alcohol Is Made Up of Selfish Calories
Let’s go back to basics: That whole “calories in calories out” idea isn’t actually accurate. That rhetoric dates back to the 1860s when we discovered the calorimeter and discovered energy balance. The basic ideas is that if you expend the same amount of calories that you consume each day, you’ll be able to maintain your weight because there won’t be a calorie surplus to get stored in our bodies as adipose tissue (aka fat). And, while yes, if you eat upwards of 2,500 calories per day, you’ll more than likely gain weight (unless you’re Michael Phelps), not all calories are created equal.
100 calories of chicken is entirely different from 100 calories of beer, and to treat them the same would be, quite frankly, pure silliness. While alcohol does provide calories — 7 calories per gram to be exact — it’s also a nutrient-void toxin that our bodies must work very hard to process and eliminate as soon as possible. Your body doesn’t use those 100 calories of alcohol the same way it does chicken — alcohol can’t help us build strong muscles or support healthy bones. This is why you often hear that alcohol is filled with “empty calories.” Furthermore, we could say that alcohol is made up of “selfish calories,” as it forces the body to ignore the life-sustaining nutrients just so it can be metabolized and burned off. At the end of the day, consuming alcohol is a burden on our bodies.
Alcohol Can Hinder Weight Loss, But Not for the Reasons You Think
Even with my intimate knowledge of alcohol metabolism, I still found myself with a lot of questions: Does alcohol affect our hormones? If so, which hormones? Does it inhibit weight loss? Does the dose of the poison matter? So, instead of pouring myself a drink, I decided to pour over the literature. After much review, here’s what to know.
Heavy drinkers and binge drinkers are at a higher risk for obesity, because of the metabolic changes that occur when your body is frequently metabolizing alcohol. Remember that alcohol is selfish and when it stops nutrients from being metabolized, they have to go somewhere. That somewhere is right into our adipose tissue (aka fat).
Drinking in moderation doesn’t appear to have a profound, long-term effect on our hormones, but it still has some temporary effects:
- It increases the release of our happy neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin when we start drinking, hence that euphoric feeling. In heavy drinkers, this effect becomes blunted, and alcohol intake actually increases the release of our stress hormone, cortisol.
- It blocks a hormone called vasopressin. This hormone is responsible for preventing our kidneys from getting rid of fluid. Ever hear of the saying, “breaking the seal?” The blocking of vasopressin is what makes you have to suddenly urinate all of the time after having a few drinks. This is also the reason you can end up extremely dehydrated after a night out.
- Prolonged heavy drinking can mess with your blood sugar regulation because it reduces insulin sensitivity.
It appears that alcohol can actually stimulate cravings and that it may influence certain hormones that are linked to satiety (fullness).
The current research suggests that, if you’re a heavy drinker, and you stop drinking, you will lose weight. However, for moderate and social drinkers, the jury is still out. The recommendation for drinking in moderation (1 serving of alcohol per day for women, 2 servings for men) to prevent weight gain is one that is wedded to an overall healthy lifestyle. Anytime someone is embarking on a weight loss journey, it is recommended that they reduce alcohol consumption, but the long term studies don’t guarantee this works. Alcohol may prohibit weight loss, and it may not — it’s very individualized, as are all things nutrition-related.
It’s Possible to Drink Alcohol with Health Goals
Now just because there isn’t a definitive answer, doesn’t mean there aren’t strategies for drinking in a mindful way that won’t totally derail your health goals. We know is that alcohol decreases inhibitions, so it’s safe to say that if you are drinking in heavy amounts, you probably aren’t focused on your goals at that time, and you can easily end up over-consuming calories. If weight loss is your ultimate goal, heavy drinking or binge drinking is probably going to interfere. Still, alcohol is part of many social interactions, so how can you partake with friends and still maintain your weight or even lose weight? Here are a few strategies.
Please don’t go anywhere starving. You know you’ve done this. I’ve done this and I’m a professional. For whatever reason, you are not properly fueled, you get to the party, someone hands you a drink and next thing you know, you’re knee deep in chips and guacamole having finished four White Claws, and the main meal hasn’t been served. Here’s the thing, if you had fueled yourself properly throughout the day, you wouldn’t have gotten buzzed so quickly and felt the need to mindlessly (and ravenously) snack. Instead, you could have enjoyed a beverage and a handful of chips prior to the meal and been just fine. My main point: Drinking on an empty stomach can lead to overdrinking, overeating, an upset stomach, and getting tipsy way too fast. Having something to eat beforehand will help slow down how quickly the alcohol gets absorbed and will help prevent all of the above.
Be mindful of serving size: 1 serving of alcohol = 1.5 ounces of liquor; 4 ounces of wine; 12 ounces of beer. Bartenders and party hosts alike love to overpour. To keep track of servings, I recommend the following:
- If you want a beer, opt for a bottle or can instead of what’s on tap. Bottled and canned beers typically come in 12 ounce servings (watch out for the larger bottle and cans), so you know what you are getting when you drink them.
- If you want a glass of wine, this one can be trickier. In a standard wine glass, 4 ounces should come up to about a quarter of the way or a little bit under the halfway point of the glass. If you’re at home, try measuring out 4 ounces to see where this amount hits on your wine glasses.
- If you want a cocktail, try sticking with clear liquors like vodka and tequila, and opt for mixers that aren’t high in sugar. The less sugar, the less work your body has to do in order to process. Also if you overdo it, the less hungover you’re going to feel in the am. Pro tip for ordering out: Order a cup of seltzer with lime (or your mixer of choice) with one shot of your preferred liquor on the side, and combine them on your own. That way you know you are sticking to the one serving rule, and not going overboard in empty calories.
Have your cocktail, talk with your friends, and then stop drinking. A friend of mine once said: No one is interesting or amusing after two drinks, and I am in full agreement with this. And chances are if you enjoy a tasty mixed drink or a nice glass of wine, you’re probably not in it for the taste after your third one. Stop after two and get yourself a water or another clear, non-alcoholic beverage.
Say it with me: Seltzer in between. You don’t like seltzer? Then all the more reason to drink it. It’ll take you longer to finish, which means there will be more time in between you and your next alcoholic drink. It will also give a feeling of fullness, so you’ll be less likely to dive headfirst into the queso.
Time limits are super helpful: If you get to the party at noon and you know you’ll be there until 9:00 pm, plan to have non-alcoholic drinks for the whole afternoon and wait to start drinking during or after dinner around 6:00 pm. By that time, you’ll still be sober and ready to head home by 9:00 pm, super hydrated and fresh faced ready for a good night's sleep.
You don’t have to drink to have fun. It’s your choice to drink or not to drink and you don’t owe anyone an explanation if you’re skipping the cocktails.
Bottom Line: Drinking Alcohol (or Not) Can Be a Part of Your Weight Loss Journey
First of all, you don’t need to do some weird ritual in order to be able to enjoy alcohol and maintain/lose weight. Alcohol itself probably doesn’t contribute to weight gain or difficulty with weight management, rather it affects your behaviors around food and drink that can lead to results you aren’t happy with. Moderate alcohol consumption is unclear, and everyone is affected differently so take that recommendation with a grain of salt and listen to your body. If you feel miserable and hungover after one drink, cut alcohol. If you can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner and feel fresh the next day, more power to you.
Vanessa Rissetto received her MS in Marketing at NYU and completed her Dietetic Internship at Mount Sinai Hospital where she worked as a Senior Dietitian for five years. She is certified in Adult Weight Management (Levels I & II) by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Her work in private practice also includes treatment of GI disorders, bariatric surgery, weight management, PCOS, and family nutrition. She loves helping clients take an active role in their health journey, motivating them and ensuring that they always achieve success. Vanessa was named by one of the top 5 black nutritionists that will change the way you think about food by Essence magazine. Vanessa lives in Hoboken NJ with her husband, two kids and their new goldendoodle Freddie. An exercise enthusiast, she is always up for a class as long as it's after she rides her Peloton.