Does Drinking Alcohol Make You Gain Weight? Here's What Experts Say

Everything you should know before your next happy hour.

If you're trying to maintain a healthy weight, the first step is to look at what you're eating regularly and decide if it's helping you meet your nutritional goals. But it's not just paying attention to food. What you drink can be a factor too, including the beers you might enjoy during a summer cookout or the bottle of wine you share with a friend over dinner.

Weight is certainly not the only factor when it comes to health, but if you think booze may be affecting your weight, there are a few things you may want to know about alcohol intake and body composition—straight from experts.

Alcohol Keeps Your Body From Burning Fat

You might have heard the term "empty calories" used in relation to alcohol. This means your body can convert the calories from alcohol to energy, but those calories contain little to no beneficial nutrients or minerals, Krissy Maurin, MS, ACT, lead wellness coordinator at Providence St. Joseph Hospital's Wellness Center told Health.

"Alcohol isn't treated like other nutrients in food; in fact, the digestive system works extra hard to eliminate it from the body, prioritizing the elimination of alcohol ahead of all other nutrients," Maurin said. "If you were to have a meal with your alcoholic beverage, the nutrient uptake from the meal would be greatly decreased due to the body working so hard to eliminate the alcohol from the body."

Typically, carbohydrates are the body's first choice to digest for energy from food, but that completely changes when alcohol is consumed. "The body recognizes alcohol as toxic and shuts down its ability to access all other stored macronutrients—carbs, proteins, and fat—in order to utilize and burn off the alcohol first," Maurin explained.

Though you may have heard the term "beer belly" before, Maurin said the belief that alcoholic beverages cause increased fat stores around the stomach area isn't accurate. In fact, a very small percentage of the calories you drink from alcohol is turned into fat. "The main effect of alcohol is to reduce the amount of fat your body can burn for energy," Maurin explained. "You are basically shutting down your metabolism, which then leads to weight gain."

Alcohol Is High in Calories

In general, drinks made with alcohol are high in calories. "Protein and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 but alcohol has 7," Ginger Hultin MS, RDN, owner of ChampagneNutrition, told Health. "When you look at mixers like juices, soda, syrups, cream, whipped cream, or coconut milk, the calories in an alcoholic beverage can be really high."

Speaking of syrups and whipped cream, some cocktails can be sneakily high in calories. "Some margaritas, daiquiris, and pina coladas can be very high in added sugar and saturated fat," Hultin added.

If you want to drink alcohol and are keeping your weight in mind, Hultin suggested several lower-calorie options. Hultin's recommendations include beers with a lower ABV (alcohol by volume), like Pilsners or Lagers (which are around 100 calories per bottle, compared to 150 calories in a "regular" beer), and dry red or white wine (which are around 120 calories per 5-ounce glass). "Aim for 4% to 5% ABV in beer and 10% to 12% in wine," Hultin said.

If beer and wine don't get your taste buds going, spirits mixed with water or soda water can also be a lower-calorie option, like vodka and soda, which has about 100 calories per standard 7.5-ounce glass.

Alcohol Messes With Your Hormones

Hormones play a crucial role in the healthy functioning of the body's tissues and organs. "When the hormone system is working properly, the right amount of hormone is released at exactly the right time, and the tissues of the body accurately respond to those messages," Maurin explained.

Drinking alcohol can impair the functions of the glands that release hormones and the functions of the tissues targeted by those hormones, which can result in a range of health issues. "Alcohol consumption causes increased levels of the hormone cortisol, which has been linked to weight gain," Maurin said. According to a 2013 review published in Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, long-term, excessive alcohol intake can cause hormone changes that disrupt thyroid function, immunity, and bone health to name a few.

Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how much alcohol causes this increase in cortisol. "There's no black and white answer here; everyone is unique in how their bodies react and break down alcohol," Maurin explained. Maurin also noted that many studies on this topic include an "intoxicated" study group and/or alcohol-dependent individuals, who may require a larger amount of alcohol to be affected.

Alcohol Makes It Harder To Get Quality Sleep

It's not unusual for people to use alcohol as a sleep aid. "Since alcohol has sedative effects that can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, it can help an individual unwind and get settled for bed," explained Maurin. However, Maurin pointed out that consumption of alcohol––especially in excess––has been linked to poor sleep quality and duration. "In fact, individuals who are dependent on alcohol commonly experience insomnia symptoms," Maurin said.

"Many people find their sleep is quite disrupted after drinking alcohol, and sleep deprivation is strongly linked to weight gain over time," Hultin said. According to a small 2016 study published in Sleep, during the sleep-deprived phase of the study, participants consumed more food and found it harder to resist tempting snacks.

Alcohol Can Make You Feel Hungry

After a couple of drinks, the munchies often kick in—meaning you're more likely to grab any quick and easy snack without really thinking about it.

Those hunger pangs are caused by a couple of different things, Hultin explained. First of all, alcohol can cause blood sugar levels to dip. "This can trigger hunger cues and sometimes cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods," Hultin said. People with diabetes should be extra careful: According to the American Diabetes Association, alcohol combined with diabetes medications can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), especially when consumed on an empty stomach.

Also, researchers have found that alcohol affects an area of the brain that controls appetite and this can cause intense hunger, especially the day after drinking. According to a 2017 study published in Nature Communications, the nerve cells in the brain's hypothalamus that are generally activated by actual starvation can be stimulated by alcohol. Those intense hunger cues can make you reach for high-calorie foods, like pizza and burgers.

There's also evidence that alcohol can influence hormones linked to feeling full, such as leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), which inhibits food intake. The end result is eating more food than usual because signals to stop eating are blunted by alcohol. "This is paired with the fact that alcohol lowers inhibitions, meaning many people reach for foods that they'd normally avoid, such as those high in fat or sodium," Hultin added.

To help keep your body working at its best, be aware of your alcohol consumption. Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, mental illness, and dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025, recommend that if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation—that's no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.

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