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Is drinking alcohol a cause of weight gain? An expert’s opinion

Maintaining a healthy weight begins with looking at your regular diet and assessing whether it meets your nutritional needs. However, it’s not just about food. A lot is dependent upon what you drink, and that includes the beer you down during happy hour or the bottle of wine you share with a friend over dinner. When it comes to health, weight is hardly the be-all and end-all, but if you think drinking may be impacting yours, here are a few things you may want to know about alcohol consumption and body composition.

Alcohol inhibits fat burning
Alcohol is sometimes referred to as having ’empty calories’, Krissy Maurin, MS, ACT, lead wellness coordinator at Providence St. Joseph Hospital’s Wellness Center in Orange County, California, tells Health that alcohol calories can be converted to energy, but those calories contain very few nutrients or minerals. According to Maurin, alcohol isn’t treated like other nutrients in food; in fact, the digestive system works extra hard to eliminate the substance from the body, prioritizing its removal above all other nutrients.

In the case of consuming alcoholic beverages with meals, there would be very little food nutrient uptake due to the body working so hard to eliminate the alcohol. Typically, carbohydrates are the body’s first choice to digest for energy from food, but that completely changes with alcohol consumption. ‘The body recognizes alcohol as toxic and prevents it from accessing other stored macronutrients – carbs, proteins, and fat – in order to use and burn off alcohol first,’ Maurin explains.

Although you may have heard the term ‘beer belly’, Maurin says the belief that alcohol causes weight gain or increased fat stores around the stomach area is not entirely accurate. In fact, only a small percentage of the calories you drink from alcohol is converted to fat. Her main concern is that alcohol reduces your body’s ability to burn fat for energy. You are basically sabotaging your metabolism, which then leads to weight gain’, she added.

Alcohol is high in calories
Alcohol generally contains a lot of calories. In Washington State, Ginger Hultin MS, RDN, and owner of ChampagneNutrition explains that protein has 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates have 9, and fat has 14, but alcohol has 7. Mixers like juice, soda, syrups, cream, whipped cream, and coconut milk can increase the calories in an alcoholic drink. Speaking of syrups, some cocktails can contain sneakily high levels of fat. ‘Some margaritas, daiquiris, and pina coladas have very high levels of added sugar and saturated fat,’ Hultin adds.

Hultin advises sticking to lower-calorie options if you want to drink alcohol and avoid weight gain. The author recommends beer with lower ABV (alcohol by volume), like Pilsners and Lagers (which have around 100 calories per bottle, versus 150 for a “regular” beer), and dry red and white wine (which have about 120 calories). In wine, Hultin recommends a range of 10 to 12% alcohol content. In addition to beer and wine, spirits mixed with water or soda water can also be a low-calorie option, like vodka and soda, which has 133 calories per standard 225-gram glass.

Hormones are affected
Hormones play a vital role in the healthy functioning of all the body’s tissues and organs. When the hormone system is working correctly, the right amount of hormone is released at the right time, and the tissues respond accurately to those messages,” explains Maurin. The effects of alcohol can impair the function of the glands that release hormones and the function of the tissues targeted by these hormones, resulting in a number of health problems.

According to Maurin, alcohol consumption increases levels of the hormone cortisol, which has been linked to weight gain. Scientists are still attempting to determine how much alcohol causes this increase in cortisol. There is no one-size-fits-all answer here; everyone’s body reacts differently to alcohol and breaks it down differently. Several studies have included ‘intoxicated’ study groups and/or individuals who are alcohol-dependent, who may need a greater amount of alcohol to be affected.

Sleep is affected by alcohol
Many people use alcohol as a sleep aid. According to Maurin, since alcohol has sedative effects that can induce sleepiness and relaxation, it can help an individual relax and wind down before going to bed. However, alcohol consumption–especially when it is consumed in excess–has been linked to poor sleep quality and duration. ‘It’s common for individuals who are alcohol dependent to suffer from insomnia,’ she says. There’s a link with hormones – in this case, melatonin, which has long been associated with sleep-wake cycles. Those who drink alcoholic beverages frequently report a disturbed sleep pattern, and sleep loss is strongly correlated with weight gain over time, according to Hultin.

It can make you feel hungry
If you’ve had a few drinks, the munchies often kick in, so you’re more likely to reach for whatever quick and easy snack you can find. Hultin explains that hunger pangs are caused by a few different things. Firstly, alcohol can cause blood sugar levels to drop. ‘This can trigger hunger cues and cravings for carb-rich foods,’ she says. In addition, alcohol affects an area of the brain that controls appetite, and this can cause intense hunger, especially the day after drinking. A study found that alcohol can stimulate nerve cells in the hypothalamus of the brain, which are usually activated by actual starvation. Intense hunger cues can make you reach for high-calorie foods, such as pizza and burgers.

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There’s also evidence that alcohol can alter hormones associated with feeling full, including leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, and glutagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), which inhibits food intake.’ Alcohol consumption in moderate amounts inhibits the secretion of leptin among healthy subjects, according to one study. The combination of this and alcohol’s ability to lower inhibitions leads people to select foods they would not normally choose, such as those high in fat or sodium,’ Dr. Hultin concludes. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025, recommend that if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation—no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two for men. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have linked excessive alcohol consumption to cancer, heart disease, mental illness and dementia.

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