If your goal is fat loss, the rules of alcohol have changed. It's not just about the color of your liquor or just sticking to wine (a common myth). The rules of alcohol and fat loss start simple: one drink is no harm to any weight loss goal. But, beyond that amount, it becomes a slippery slope of how much, how often, and what you can do to ensure that what you eat after you drink doesn't become your enemy.
Alcohol is a nutritional enigma. For one, you can make the argument that it has health benefits (wine is a staple of the Mediterranean way of eating, right?). On the other hand, booze can be loaded with sugar, trigger seemingly endless hunger (food tastes better after midnight), and overwork your liver. So where's the truth?
Research suggests that the relationship between alcohol and fat loss is fairly simple: one alcoholic drink at dinner isn’t enough to blow your diet, but a 2015 study from Current Obesity Reports says that three drinks a night could.
Researchers have also found that light-to-moderate alcohol intake—at most two drinks a day for men and one for women—is less likely to be a risk factor for obesity than heavy drinking (defined as four drinks a day for men and more than three for women, which has been more consistently linked with an expanding waistline).
While it’s easy to suggest "alcohol and fat loss" are a bad couple, weight gain is a complex combination of factors, says Marisa Moore, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist of Atlanta and founder of Marisa Moore Nutrition. It includes many factors such as gender, activity, total food intake, genetics, and the amount of alcohol consumed.
Even more importantly, what you drink (and how you eat after you drink) can make a big difference to your waistline. If you want to stay lean and still enjoy your adult beverages, here's what you need to know and how to best manage your drinking without overthinking the process.
Alcohol and Your Metabolism
When it comes to how your body stores fat, excess calories lead to increased fat storage. Other factors matter, but, calories are still what needs to be controlled most for you to lose weight or prevent weight gain.
Surprisingly, alcohol does not affect how your body stores fat. Rather, it makes it more likely that you'll consume more food and harder for you to burn fat.
Here's a quick lesson on how your body processes alcohol. A small amount of alcohol is absorbed through your tongue, but the majority is absorbed directly into the bloodstream through your stomach and tissue lining your small intestine. Then, your liver is put to work, where alcohol is metabolized to acetaldehyde (a toxic chemical that is associated with the lousy feelings of a hangover) by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), and that process has a domino effect.
When you consider the relationship between alcohol and fat loss, it all ties back into how many calories you consume. Some drinks are loaded with more calories (more on that in a moment). But, the bigger issue is tied to the ways that alcohol confuses your hunger.
You see, your body has an internal system that helps regulate how much you eat. But, there are many triggers that can short-circuit those controls, such as sleep deprivation (when you don't sleep enough, you're more likely to crave endless amounts of food).
Alcohol appears to reduce the signals that help you eat less. You know this as 3 am super-sized burritos, or a stronger desire to consume foods that you normally wouldn't eat when sober.
And that's just the beginning. Alcohol also raises dopamine and lowers serotonin; these neurotransmitters play an important role in controlling your hunger and cravings. And, alcohol also disrupts your sleep, which means the following day you're also more likely to desire and crave more food (and more calories).
Is Any Alcohol Best for Weight Loss?
Whether you drink mezcal or mojitos, all drinks have calories. Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, which means it's more caloric than protein and carbs (those have 4 calories per gram) and less caloric than fat (9 calories per gram). But, when you mix it with mixers like tonic water, it can add 150 calories or more per drink.
While many people argue that wine is much better for you (from a fat loss perspective), there's not much difference. The average beer will run anywhere from 100-150 calories per 12-ounce serving.
Wine? That’ll cost you about 120 calories, on average, for a 5-ounce glass. The difference is small enough that if you’re going apples to apples, one glass to one beer, your body won’t notice a difference.
The bigger concern is how alcohol interacts with your internal system. Beer lowers cortisol, which means that it can temporarily reduce hunger. It's why drinking beer can leave you feeling so full. On the other hand, red wine raises cortisol and stimulates your appetite. And mixed drinks, partially because of the addition of sugar, makes you even hungrier.
The Guide to Alcohol and Weight Loss
To keep alcohol from contributing to weight gain, here are a few tips that will help you navigate what to drink, how much to drink, and what to eat when you drink.
Think in Ounces, Not Drinks
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one alcoholic beverage is defined as a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5-ounce of liquor. In weight loss, it may be best to avoid liquid calories as much as possible as these calories can add up quickly and don’t typically satisfy hunger. Here's your quick guide to average calories per drink (notice the serving size)
- 12 ounces beer = 150 calories
- 12 ounces light beer = 100 calories
- 5 ounces wine (red) = 125 calories
- 5 ounces wine (white) = 120 calories
- 3 ounces sake = 115 calories
- 1.5 ounces liquor (80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol) = 100 calories
Watch the Wine
Wine is a drink that’s usually incorrectly poured and calories can quickly stack up. There are roughly five glasses of wine in a 750-ml bottle, so serve with a fifth in mind. Not to mention, as we discussed above, the more wine you drink (compared to beer), the more likely you are to battle insatiable post-drinking hunger.
Opt for Low-Sugar Drinks
It's important for you to consider the sugar content of a drink. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 24 grams of added sugar (roughly 6 teaspoons) for women and 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men per day. If you’re not thinking about it, it’s easy to get that in one drink. A 12-ounce frozen margarita has about 680 calories and 156 grams of sugar. Yeah, that's not a typo.
The goal is to reduce total added sugars from all sources, and drinks fit into that, Moore says. If you’re a wine lover, make it a spritzer to cut the calories in half, or opt for a lower-alcohol wine (ABV), which has fewer calories than higher-alcohol wines. Mixed drinks typically pack more added sugar and calories.
When including alcohol at meals, eat fewer carbs and fat, and stick to lean protein (poultry, most fish, lean cuts of beef like sirloin or filet, seafood, or lentils) and veggies. You'll ramp up the metabolic qualities of the meal (burn more calories), feel fuller (so you are less likely to go crazy post-drinking), and limit the likelihood of storing extra calories (from fat and carbs).