The Sobering Facts About Alcohol and Weight Gain
Alcohol has been with us in one form or another since the dawn of recorded history, with the oldest known alcoholic drink being brewed sometime between 7,000 and 6,600 BCE. But just because drinking is something that we’ve always done doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing for us.
You should already know that drinking can wreak havoc on your liver over time, and you may even know about its detrimental effects on your heart health. But one aspect that you shouldn’t overlook is the link between alcohol and weight gain.
It turns out that excessive imbibing won’t just have you feeling worse, but it will also have you packing on the pounds. And it’s not hard to see why when you consider factors like these:
Alcohol is Loaded With Empty Calories and Carbs
The most straightforward way that alcohol contributes to an expanded waistline is by being full of empty carbs and calories.
When you hear about empty calories, what that means is that whatever you’re eating, or drinking is providing you with calories but giving you little nutritional value along with it. And it’s the same thing with carbs.
And that description fits alcohol to a T.
The extent to which alcohol is overloading your diet with wasted calories and carbs depends on your drink of choice. Beer is usually the biggest culprit, as it’s a boozy bread soda when you get right down to it.
And popular liquors like tequila and rum are as bad, even if you take them straight up. Loaded with sugar, they can grow your midsection as fast as the heaviest beer.
On the other end of the spectrum, spirits like vodka or whisky contain fewer carbs and calories. But if you’re taking them with a mixer, as most people do, then you can throw that advantage out.
In any case, you’re still taking in carbs and calories that provide little, if any, measurable nutritional benefit. And the more you drink, the more you’re bloating your diet.
You’re Probably Not Drinking Alcohol Straight Up
The problem of alcohol and weight gain extends beyond the booze itself. While you could cut down on the excess calories and sugars by taking your drink straight-up, that’s not how most people take their drinks.
Beer and wine already come with added carbs, calories, and sugars pre-packaged. But if you a cocktail is your drink of choice; you could be even worse off.
Suppose you thought that you would keep trim by having a nice vodka tonic instead of your usual beer. Well, then you run into the fact that tonic water is basically sugar water with quinine added. You may as well drink hummingbird food on the rocks.
And that’s the problem you run into with most mixed drinks. Whatever mixer you’re using is likely to be full of sugar and carbs, often in excess of what you would find in a plain old beer.
Calories From Drinking Don’t Behave Like Those From Food
Aside from contributing to an excess of calories, alcohol is a problem for how those calories behave.
See, your total body weight is more than the basic math of calories in Vs. calories out. This is because not all calories are created equal.
Calories from fiber are a good example. Since you have a limited ability to digest it, your body can only absorb a small number of calories from it. That’s why a popular diet strategy is to fill up on fibrous foods to feel satiated without contributing much to your overall calorie count.
Alcohol has pretty much the opposite effect. It’s a very simple molecule that is easily broken down and readily absorbed, giving you a quick boost to your calorie count.
Alcohol and Weight Gain: The Bad News
But wait, it actually gets worse.
Because alcohol is broken down so readily, your body burns those calories first. While burning calories fast isn’t a problem in and of itself, it causes issues when alcohol isn’t your sole source of calories.
Since the more complex calories from the actual food you eat are being broken down more slowly, and since your body already has a ready source of energy from those alcohol calories, those complex carbs and lipids will almost all end up being stored as fat. So even if you eat a healthy diet outside of your drinking, alcohol can still find a way to make that a problem for you.
And even that’s a big “if” considering one of alcohol’s other drawbacks.
Drinking Tends to Cause an Increased Appetite and Poor Diet Decisions
Suppose that when you’re sober you stick to a clean, fat-burning diet. Well, you can throw all of that out when alcohol is calling the shots.
Research shows that alcohol tends to increase food cravings. The more you drink, the larger the correlation, up to about a 30% increase in total calories consumed. And subsequent studies have replicated the effects.
Researchers are still unsure why this is the case, but the likely explanation is that drinking causes the body to release an excess of the hormones that cause feelings of hunger. So basically, drinking makes you think that you’re hungrier than you actually are.
That would be bad enough, but you also have to take into account that drinking impairs your judgment, causing you to make dining choices that you would otherwise recognize as being bad for you.
You have to think, most people do their drinking in the evening and night when options for healthy eating are restricted. Ever notice how a fast-food drive-thru always has a huge line after the bars close? Well, there’s your answer right there.
That’s why more than a few big drinkers have woken up the next day covered in burger and burrito wrappers.
Heavy Drinking Can Alter Your Fat Distribution
If it wasn’t bad enough that alcohol encourages fat accumulation, then here’s a kicker for your: it tends to make fat accurate in the least flattering areas.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, alcohol seems to encourage fat to disproportionately accumulates in the abdominal area. Many believe that this is what causes the so-called beer belly that many men experience.
So, while you can expect excessive drinking — and the excessive eating that comes with it — to increase your body weight overall, you can count on most of that settling squarely on your waist and gut where it will be most noticeable.
Alcohol Can Slow Down Your Ability to Burn Fat
Burning fat once you’ve already accumulated it is hard. Anyone who’s ever been on a diet will tell you that much. But it seems like drinking actually makes the work of losing weight harder.
This is because your body (correctly) identifies alcohol as a poison and makes processing and eliminating it priority one. While this is happening, less essential bodily functions like regulating blood sugar levels take a backseat.
This contributes to excessive fat buildup because the hormone glucagon — the hormone that both elevates blood sugar and initiates the breakdown of fat, isn’t being produced while your liver is hard at work processing all that alcohol.
And since it takes an hour on average to process a single unit of alcohol, you could be setting your fat-burning furnace back for a long time after a night of drinking.
Alcohol Can Impair Your Liver’s Ability to Function Properly
The liver is your body’s first line of defence against toxic substances. Which means that it is the one that bears the brunt of the abuse from alcohol. While a bad enough problem on its own, the harm alcohol does to your liver can contribute to weight gain.
Beyond processing and eliminating toxins, you need your liver to metabolize and store carbs and fats. Excessive drinking can lead to what’s called alcoholic fatty liver.
This condition is often the first step towards permanent liver damage and inhibits your body from storing and metabolizing fats and carbs properly. And when your body can’t do that, losing weight reliably becomes very difficult.
Alcohol Wreaks Havoc on Your Hormones
In its apparent quest to cause as much damage to as many parts of the body as possible, alcohol can also inhibit your body’s ability to produce the right hormones in the right quantities. And in particular, it affects the male and female sex hormones.
Men in particular are more susceptible to weight gain from excessive drinking. One potential explanation for this is because alcohol decreases the amount of testosterone the body produces.
Testosterone plays a multitude of roles in the body, two of which are building muscle and burning fat. The less testosterone you have, the harder it is to do both.
And the problem gets worse with time. Men naturally produce less testosterone with age and adding alcohol onto that exacerbates the problem.
Drinking also increases the amount of estrogen in the body. This is particularly a problem for men, as estrogen can neutralize the effects of what testosterone they do have while increasing fat buildup in certain areas.
Particularly in the chest. This is what leads to alcohol-induced “man boobs”.
Drinking Disrupts Your Ability to Sleep Well
You might think that having a nightcap before bed will help put you to sleep. However, what sleep you get will be of far worse quality.
Alcohol can have a variety of impacts on your ability to get a good night’s rest, including disrupted sleep patterns and increased periods of wakefulness. This causes you to get less of the rest that you actually need and tends to lead to you feeling groggy and sleep-deprived the next day.
Sleep deprivation is another factor that can disrupt normal hormone production. In particular, it can cause imbalances in the hormones that regulate hunger, satiety, and energy storage. Sleep deprivation is also another factor that can contribute to decreased testosterone in men.
And whether you wake up the next day hungover or just exhausted, it’s a likely contributor to the amount of stress that you’ll experience that day, which increases your levels of the hormone cortisol.
That’s a problem because when stressed, your body reacts as though you were being threatened. It can’t tell the difference between a life-or-death situation and just being tired, hungover, and irritable on your commute. So, it errs on the side of caution and reacts as though it were the former.
This is a problem because when your body is in stress-mode, non-essential body functions like digestion and fat burning get put on the backburner. Have enough cortisol in your system, and it will become a problem if you’re trying to burn fat.
Inhibits Proper Digestion
Along with most of the rest of your body, alcohol puts stress on your stomach and intestines. This causes decreased production of digestive secretions. These substances are vital for breaking food down into the nutrients that your body needs to function.
Alcohol also slows the movement of food through the digestive tract, causing decreased rates of nutrient uptake overall.
This slowed digestion contributes to weight gain because this disruption brings your metabolism to a screeching halt. The slower your metabolism, the harder it’s going to be for you to burn fat.
Alcohol and Weight Gain Go Hand in Hand
If you’re trying to slim down, or even just stay at your current weight, then drinking gives you about every disadvantage you could possibly have. From impaired judgment to wreaking havoc on your body chemistry, to the drinks themselves being full of empty carbs, calories, and sugars, it’s one of the worst weight-loss choices that you can make.
And of course, the link between alcohol and weight gain isn’t the only factor you should consider if you’re thinking about quitting. Excessive drinking can have a negative impact on every area of your health and wellbeing.
To learn how giving up the bottle could lead to a more gratifying life, check out these surprising benefits to giving up drinking.