By Dr Joe
Does alcohol make you gain weight or is this a myth? And if so, how does alcohol make you gain weight.
Let’s delve in into these 2 questions and get some insight right here.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could drink as much as we like and not gain a gram of weight? Sadly, that’s not the case. It is a wish but it’s probably not going to happen.
But the human body is an adaptive entity. Sometimes it succeeds. At other times it doesn’t. Hence, some questions are not easily answered with a Yes or No.
Does alcohol make you gain weight?
Common sense tells me alcohol leads to weight gain but the evidence is not quite as simple as you would imagine it to be.
Scientific research does sometimes lead to findings that will leave you bemused. Part of the problem with science is that there are vested interests. Scientists may pretend to be objective with their research but when you look closer with a microscope, you will find elements of bias.
These biases are either from long-held beliefs or interests overhanging on the shoulders of researchers from sponsors.
Systematic reviews pool a huge number of studies together and tries to make sense of the subject. They don’t always resolve issues. Sadly.
The point I am making is; the research findings regarding the connection between alcohol and weight gain is quite conflicting. Some studies will tell us there is a definite link and others will tell you the opposite.
That’s the nature of science.
If you look closely though, regardless of the fact that, there is no clear trend, the association between alcohol and weight gain is not in doubt when you are talking about heavy drinkers.
It is light to moderate recreational alcohol users that a definite link to weight gain cannot be established without reasonable doubt.
Of course, the occasional drinker need not worry about piling on the pounds from alcohol. That has to be put into context though.
Would you describe the person who binges every now and again as an occasional alcohol user? Probably not…considering the level of consumption.
The research also appears to show that men are more likely to gain weight from alcohol compared to women.
And the weight gain from alcohol appears to affect the mid-rift more than the rest of the body. This is important because belly fat is a bad health indicator compared to fat elsewhere in the body.
If that beer, whisky, gin or wine is contributing to the bulge in your waistline, then you may want to reconsider. I will touch on what to do later on in this article.
Now, getting back to the question of whether alcohol consumption leads to weight gain. Well, it all depends on a number of factors.
In fact, the interplay of factors is one reason why the research into weight gain and alcohol produces mixed results. Consider these factors as confounders.
What are these confounding factors?
- What type of alcohol you drink
- The frequency of your drinking
- How much you drink on each occasion
- What type of food you eat when you drink alcohol
Additional factors will include:
- Your age
- Your level of physical activity
- Your sex
- Your general diet
- Your genetics
- Your overall health
When you are young, you could get away with drinking (within reason) because your metabolism is on fire and you’ll burn off the alcohol very quickly.
You still had one thing to worry about though. The Hang Over. Oh yes, the dreaded hangover. Weight gain was not the overriding issue then.
But hangover does not respect age. If anything, hangover in later years gets worse largely because your body now finds it harder to process the alcohol compared to years gone by.
Also being older now means there’s a new concern in the horizon. Weight gain.
This longitudinal study looked at 7,941 participants who engaged in episodic heavy drinking in adolescence and the findings were quite astonishing.
They found that 41% of the participants transitioned from normal weight (using the standard BMI parameters) to overweight category.
36% of the participants who were overweight at the beginning of the study became obese at the conclusion of the study.
In that study, folks who were already obese, episodic binge drinking had a 35% chance of staying obese. Not just that, the obesity got worse over time.
This study measured only a short alcohol journey from adolescence to adulthood. It becomes obvious what kind of potential weight management issues can occur when alcohol is consumed for a longer period.
And most people who consume alcohol do it for years on a regular basis even in episodic fashion like these study participants.
So, how do you gain weight from using alcohol?
Like I said before, it’s not a given that you will gain weight just because you drink especially if you are a casual drinker.
The regular alcohol drinker though is at risk of piling on the pounds. Of course, the alcohol content of the drink matters too in all of these.
Creamy cocktails are the worst when it comes to calorie content. Beers might be low in calorie content but you tend to drink larger quantities. So, calories even out eventually.
Here are 4 reasons why alcohol makes us fat.
1. Alcohol prevents fat burning
Whilst this piece is about weight management issues as they relate to alcohol use, need I remind us that there are other issues like pancreatic cancer, liver disease and even cancer that are attributable to alcohol.
Quite why some people will develop these medical problems inclusive of obesity and others don’t, when they use alcohol is difficult to understand. I would hazard a guess that these differences in outcomes for alcohol users must be due to genetics arguably.
Ultimately genetics dictate how our bodies deal with alcohol. Which means some people are genetically protected and other aren’t.
There are two main pathways for alcohol metabolism involving two enzymes. These two enzymes are aldehyde dehydrogenase and alcohol dehydrogenase.
These enzymes make carbon dioxide and water as final by-product from alcohol. Between the alcohol you drink and the carbon dioxide and water end products, there are two intermediate metabolites – acetaldehyde and acetate.
Acetaldehyde is a potential carcinogen but I digress there.
Let me get back on track…
Our bodies don’t like those two intermediate products – acetaldehyde and acetate. Your body will do all it can to get rid of those two toxic substances as quickly as possible.
Therein lies the problem.
In attempt to get rid of the acetate and acetaldehyde, your body ignores the fat you already have. Fat burning is ignored.
Not just that. Your body also ignores the calories from the food you ate with your alcohol. Calories from the food you ate earlier in the day aren’t seen as a priority either.
In effect, your body burns the acetate and acetaldehyde from the alcohol in preference to using up your fat stores or calories from your food.
This metabolic prioritisation of acetate and acetaldehyde burning as a preferred energy source is one reason why alcohol use may lead to weight gain.
2. Alcohol has calories and the calories in alcohol do matter
It’s very easy to have a blasé attitude about the calories in alcohol. After all, it is liquid and it tastes nice.
It tickles our pleasure centres. It becomes easy to get carried away. Drinking just a little bit more than we need to.
Truth be told; alcohol has calories. You can ignore the calories in alcohol at your own peril.
In fact, ethanol which is what alcohol is, has been touted to have relatively high energy content.
The calorie value of alcohol (ethanol) is 7.1 calories per gram. This 7.1 calorie energy content of alcohol is higher than what you get from regular carbs and protein. Proteins and Carbs dish out 4 calories per gram.
The calories in alcohol are “hidden”. Not only that, drinking is a pleasurable pastime. How on earth are you supposed to keep track of the calorie input from alcohol when all you are after is; pleasure from your drink.
Can you ever remember ever picking up a bottle or can of alcoholic beverage and say to yourself “hang on, I need to check how much calories are in here” before drinking it?
Only the folk keeping an eagle eye on their calorie intake might do that. That happens within the context of a weight loss journey. For the rest of the population, that never happens.
For instance, did you know that:
- 5 oz of 12% wine will give you 120 calories
- 12 oz of regular 5% beer will provide you with 150 calories
Now, one other thing to remember is that; the alcoholic beverage may come with other added ingredients. These added ingredients will contribute to the total calorie output from the alcoholic beverage.
We are talking sugars and fats as you will find with creamy drinks like Bailey’s original Irish cream. Alcohol manufacturers are getting more creative by mixing and matching all sorts of ingredients to make their products stand out.
Examples are Bailey’s chocolat luxe Irish cream, Bailey’s strawberries & cream, the ever-present spirits mixed with sugary ingredients (alcopops) loved by the younger generation.
Just like 7 ounces of 40% rum mixed with cola will reward you with 155 calories. 57 calories out of the 155 is coming from the cola whilst the remaining 98 calories are derived from the alcohol in the rum mixture.
We are also bad judges of how much we are drinking. This problem of poor guessing of alcohol quantity is worse, the heavier we drink.
People who drink heavily underestimate alcohol quantity more than casual or light drinkers. This is a psychological problem and it arises because underestimation makes us feel better.
Why admit to yourself how much you really drink when a lie is so much more believable.
You might think this does not apply to you but it does. Sometimes you might do it unwittingly. For instance, 5 ounces of wine makes one serving, but who pours himself 5 ounces?
Most people I know will serve themselves more than 5 ounces at a time. But it is still easier to convince yourself that you are having one serving when you are indeed having a serving and half.
Here is something else.
The more often you drink, the higher the quantity you tend to drink in one sitting. Maybe your body develops tolerance to the alcohol or your body goes on a pleasure-seeking ride where it demands more and more.
The implication of all of these is that; you actually consume a lot of calories from your alcoholic beverage more than you think.
And because you are not accounting for these calories, they have to end up somewhere. Your fat stores unfortunately.
Alcohol stimulates hunger and appetite
I have been told that as far back as 6th century, drinking an aperitif was one of the in-vogue practices to stimulate appetite at the time. I have not been able to confirm it but it’s not hard to believe.
Well, think of what happens when you go to a restaurant for a meal. What’s the first thing you are asked to order once you are handed the menu list? Alcohol.
I supposed modern day restaurants borrowed the idea from as far back as the 6th century. Clever idea. Drink alcohol first and you will get hungrier.
This systematic review tells us that consumption of alcohol tends to lead to short term passive overconsumption of energy.
The reason behind that is; alcohol use makes us overeat in the short term because alcohol enhances the feeling of reward we get from eating.
Take 26 men, give them breakfast and ask them to come back for lunch after they have rated their hunger and desire to eat before lunch. Give some of them an alcoholic beverage and the rest non-alcoholic beverage before buffet lunch.
Now measure the amount of food consumed at lunch with alcohol and without alcohol. The researchers found energy consumption to be significantly higher when alcohol was consumed compared to without.
Similar results were obtained in this experiment . It was the turn of the ladies this time around. The women participants in this study also consumed more food when alcohol was drunk before lunch than when alcohol wasn’t drunk prior to lunch.
One conclusion from that study was that alcohol increased rated appetite once the women tasted the food suggesting alcohol does enhance the perceived reward from food.
One more experiment performed on mice that had been given wine over 3 days seeks to find a neurological explanation for how alcohol stimulates hunger and appetite, making us eat more.
Agrp neuronal cells are found in both mice and humans. That experiment which showed the mice to eat more following wine consumption tells us that the appetite-stimulating effect of alcohol is mediated via the hypothalamus where these Agrp neurons are located aplenty.
Once alcohol stimulates these Agrp cells in the hypothalamus, a short-circuiting neuronal pathway is activated making us to eat, and overeat, regardless of whether we are full or not.
There are lots more studies that seem to point the finger at alcohol as an appetite stimulant. Not just that there is also the suggestion that alcohol does suppress satiety leading to hedonic eating.
The net result is an excess of positive energy balance from alcohol use. The use of alcohol therefore makes weight gain and obesity more of a reality than a myth.
3. Alcohol makes us choose the wrong foods
The issue of alcohol enabling us make wrong food choices stems from the neuronal stimulation I talked about earlier.
Talking about choosing the wrong foods when we drink, let me put a popular misconception to rest.
The popular idea seems to be that if you take caffeine with your alcohol, your tolerance level for the alcohol beverage will be a lot higher. Simply put, you won’t get drunk easily when you combine alcohol and coffee (caffeine), right? Wrong.
So, wrong the FDA has put out a warning about this. The FDA actually declared the presence of caffeine in alcoholic drinks as an “unsafe food additive”.
Manufacturers of such products have been forced to withdraw those caffeinated alcoholic drinks from the market.
This has wider implications.
Because there’s the popular belief that if you drink coffee with your alcohol, you won’t get drunk easily. Not only is this not true, it is actually a dangerous thing to do as the FDA has warned.
In fact, the opposite is true. You will probably drink more than you’d like to when you mix alcohol with coffee, getting more intoxicated and you are more likely to have alcohol-related accidents. Don’t do it!
Okay, back to the idea of alcohol making us choose the wrong foods.
I have a friend who goes out for drinks every now and again. She’s not an alcoholic, I should add. Her main complain to me was that, without fail, she will stop on her way home to buy some chocolate and get herself pizza too every time after the drinking session.
She feels guilty afterwards.
Well, there is a science behind it. It’s not her fault.
You remember I talked about how your body likes to metabolise alcohol first because your body wants to get rid of the acetaldehyde and acetate, right?
That same metabolic activity also stops the liver from releasing glucose from inside it. The net effect is that alcohol gradually lowers your circulating blood sugar levels.
Low blood sugar levels lead us to make wrong food choices. We tend to crave high-calorie foods when our blood sugar is low. The pizzas, the chocolates, the cakes, the French fries, the doughnuts, the muffins, the bagels etc.
Sound familiar again?
This has been tested in research here. The study was MRI Scan-mediated. The researchers looked at the activity of the brain when our blood sugar is low and also when the blood sugar is normal.
Food cues were also tested to rate our desire for high-calorie foods when blood sugar is low and when normal too.
They found our desire for high-calorie foods to be higher when our blood sugar was low and our hunger ratings was higher too. Desire for low calorie foods like vegetables, fruits and tofu was low.
The researchers also found on MRI Scan of the participants that different areas our brains responded differently to food cues in low blood sugar states and normal blood sugar situations.
When blood sugar was normal, the brain areas that control impulses were activated. But when blood sugar was low, areas of the brain that trigger desire and reward were activated.
So, going by that research, it’s no wonder you want to reach for those processed high-calorie foods after a drinking session.
Of course, the story here is about how alcohol makes you gain weight. If alcohol pushes you to go for those high-calorie foods, along with all the other reasons, I have outlined, it becomes clear that alcohol is not as innocent as it looks or tastes. Alcohol can make you gain weight.
Alcohol can wreck your weight management plans. Alcohol can make you fat. Especially if you make it your best friend forever.
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