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How alcohol impacts weight gain

For many, drinking is a part of enjoying life. But how does this align with a desire to lose weight?

Anna Hayes
Anna Hayes
Health coach
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How alcohol impacts weight gain

Drinking alcohol is associated with celebration and marking special events. It’s common to consume alcohol before, alongside and/or after a meal and for many it makes up a large aspect of our social life. However, alcohol consumption has been shown to have an impact on weight gain and makes it more difficult to lose weight. If weight loss is your goal and you enjoy an alcoholic drink, then your consumption may be worth looking into to help support your weight loss.

In this article, we’ll explore the impact of alcohol on weight gain, how you can navigate your weight loss journey as a person who enjoys alcohol, and what role your mindset plays when losing weight.

6 ways alcohol make you gain weight

Alcohol contains 'empty energy,' meaning it provides the same amount of energy as food but without any of the nutritional value. Additionally, alcohol is high in calories, which can contribute to an increased energy intake. This can promote a positive energy balance, leading to weight gain.

Here are 6 specific ways alcohol can make you gain weight:

1. It slows down your metabolism

Drinking alcohol can slow down your metabolism. The main functions of your metabolism are to digest food and convert it into energy, alongside helping to eliminate waste products. Alcohol can inhibit the way your body burns fat mass. When alcohol is in your system, your body is more focused on breaking down the calories and sugar from the alcohol rather than burning fat mass, which will make it more difficult to lose weight.

2. Your liver may start producing fatty acids

Your liver also plays a role in the metabolism of fat, carbohydrate and protein. The liver is the main organ responsible for alcohol metabolism, which involves converting alcohol into less harmful substances for the body to process. However, when the liver receives too much alcohol, it produces fatty acids and the liver is unable to process them. These fatty acids then remain in the liver, causing fatty liver, which is the first stage of alcoholic liver damage.

3. Drinking makes us extra hungry

As well as the high energy content in alcohol, drinking also increases our appetite, leading us to overeat. Many of us would have experienced this, having some crisps or nuts alongside a drink, or buying a pizza on a night out. Alcohol triggers the part of our body that increases our hunger.

4. We’re less likely to make healthy decisions

Drinking too much alcohol reduces your inhibitions and can lead to poor decision-making. For example, if you have had one too many drinks when it comes to food you're less likely to make well-balanced nutrient dense choices. Particularly, as drinking alcohol can increase our cravings for salty foods that are high in saturated fat.

5. We ignore our feeling of fullness

Drinking alcohol also has on our feeling of fullness. When we drink, we’re less likely to pay proper attention to our body’s satiety. However, research has suggested that drinking alcohol before or during a meal does not influence the amount of food eaten in that meal, despite the energy density of the meal being increased.

6. Our sleep is negatively affected

Having alcohol in our system negatively impacts our sleep, and we are more likely to feel fatigued after drinking the night before. Not getting enough good quality sleep is strongly associated with increased energy intake. It’s also more common to choose less nutrient dense foods that are high in energy, to help boost energy levels and get over a ‘hangover.’ However, it would be more beneficial to eat well-balanced meals containing foods that are high in nutrients to help with this.

Does alcohol cause belly fat?

Excessive drinking is more likely to cause an individual to develop a higher level of body fat around their abdominal region. 

Having an increased amount of fat in this area has been associated with a higher risk of developing chronic health issues, for example, high blood pressure diabetes and different types of cancer. 

In general it has been shown that light-moderate consumption of alcohol is not linked with adiposity gain, however excessive drinking is more consistently linked with weight gain. 

How to lose weight gain from alcohol?

If you have gained weight as a result of excessive alcohol consumption or struggling to lose weight as a result, then it’s important to assess your diet and lifestyle habits. Here are 3 ways you can incorporate healthier habits into your life.

1. Aim to focus on eating well-balanced meals.

A great example of this would eat meals  made up of predominantly fresh whole foods, which include:

  • Complex carbohydrates. These will help to provide your body with enough energy. Wholegrain carbohydrates for example, wholemeal pasta, brown rice, quinoa are higher in fibre, which will help to maintain steady blood sugar levels and increase satiety. 
  • Lean protein, for example, chicken, turkey, fish, legumes and low-fat dairy products. Not only will this help to minimise your loss of muscle mass as you lose weight, but will also leave you feeling more satisfied.  
  • A wide variety of fruits and vegetables to ensure you're meeting your vitamin and mineral needs. They also help to support your digestion and gut health.
  • Unsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, avocados, oily fish and olive oil are essential for our hormone balance, incorporating essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega 6, which the body can’t produce. Fats also help the body to absorb vitamins A, D and E.

2. Engage in regular physical activity and exercise.

Taking part in regular physical activity and exercise is beneficial for our overall health. It’s been proven to help prevent and manage heart disease, stroke, diabetes and various different cancers. It also helps to support your weight loss, and can improve your mental health, and well-being. 

At Embla, you can work together with your personal health coach to make changes to your nutrition and build physical activity into your week. This will help you to lead a healthy balanced lifestyle that is suited to you, to support you with your weight loss. 

3. Practice mindful drinking.

Mindful drinking is similar to mindful eating. It helps to reduce the all-or-nothing mentality that can come with drinking alcohol. The idea around mindful drinking is about engaging and enjoying every drink you consume. The majority of people tend to overconsume because of the ingrained habit of as soon as our glass is empty we will fill it up with more wine, or go to the bar for another round.

Aim to drink slowly and engage in your senses for example, how does it taste and how is the drink making you feel. Appreciate your surroundings and who you’re with.

This will take time, but you'll find you'll end up consuming less the more present you are. 

Overcoming obstacles on the weight loss journey

It can be difficult to cut out alcohol completely during your weight loss journey, particularly if it’s something you enjoy, and makes up a big part of your social life.

Although we don’t measure or track calories at Embla, it's a good idea to get an idea which alcoholic drinks are higher in energy than others. Beer and wine tend to be the highest in energy, alongside cocktails with lots of added ingredients that are usually high in sugar. You could opt for some diet mixers to decrease the energy content, or swap to some non-alcoholic alternatives instead.

Whilst drinking alcohol or after it can be common to choose foods that are high in salt and saturated fat for example, getting a kebab and chips on the way home to help ‘sober’ you up. 

However, this can actually make you feel worse the morning after, as your body is working twice as hard to break down alcohol and high amounts of sodium and fat. Instead choose a well-balanced meal that is nutrient dense, to help your body break down the alcohol. While food does not ‘soak up’ alcohol, it does increase the rate at which your body breaks it down.

Here are 4 tips to help when you're drinking alcohol:

  • Make sure you eat a well-balanced meal before drinking, and if you choose to snack whilst drinking aim for nutrient dense snacks. For example, hummus with vegetable sticks and pitta bread or our homemade vegetable crisps or crispy paprika chickpeas (link to Embla recipes).
  • Drink water alongside the alcoholic drinks to prevent dehydration. For every alcoholic drink aim to have a glass of water alongside, or after your next drink.
  • Drink at your own pace. If you are buying rounds between people it can mean you end up drinking more than you would normally to keep up.
  • If you are planning to reduce your alcohol intake, do it with a friend or partner for support and can help each other.

The role of mindset in alcohol-related weight loss

It can be difficult to cut out alcohol completely during your weight loss journey, particularly if it’s something you enjoy, and makes up a big part of your social life.

Here at Embla, we don’t believe in restricting yourself. Restricting yourself is more likely to lead to having an unhealthy relationship with food and/or drink. As humans the more we restrict something the more we want something more which can cause us to over indulge and eat more of that food or drink we’re restricting. It also feeds into the all or nothing approach; if you are strict and have food rules you are punishing yourself, so when you get to the weekend you are more likely to rebel or ‘treat yourself.’

We believe all food and drink can fit into a healthy balanced diet, and you can still enjoy an alcoholic drink during your weight loss journey. Finding balance in your lifestyle is so important, and still feeling like you can go and enjoy social events without worry, or feel like you're missing out by not drinking. But, when it comes to working toward your goals of losing weight and maintaining your achievements, the way forward is to become more aware and mindful around your choices of food and drink. You can still enjoy those foods and drinks you associate with a good time, whether that be in a social environment or just for pure self-indulgence.  

As humans we’re creatures of habit and sometimes it’s just being with friends that stimulates drinking, due to the social aspect. You can try to break the chain of socialising and drinking by doing something with your friends that doesn't involve drinking, for example, playing a team sport. If you are in a social situation with other people that are drinking, you could try having a non-alcoholic drink or practice alternating between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

How we approach weight loss (and alcohol) at Embla

Our approach at Embla is that all food and drink can make up a healthy well-balanced diet, it’s about incorporating the right balance, which we can support you with. 

Research has shown a link between excessive alcohol consumption and weight gain. However, it’s not necessary to eliminate alcohol to lead a healthy balanced lifestyle and lose weight, but it’s essential to be mindful of alcohol intake and consume it in moderation. 

At Embla, you can work with your health coach to come up with ways to still enjoy alcohol during your weight loss journey. 

References:

Caton, S. J., Nolan, L. J., & Hetherington, M. M. (2015). Alcohol, appetite and loss of restraint. Current obesity reports, 4, 99-105.

Jones, A. W., & Jönsson, K. Å. (1994). Food-induced lowering of blood-ethanol profiles and increased rate of elimination immediately after a meal. Journal of forensic sciences, 39(4), 1084-1093.

Traversy, G., & Chaput, J. P. (2015). Alcohol consumption and obesity: an update. Current obesity reports, 4, 122-130.

Wang, L. U., Lee, I. M., Manson, J. E., Buring, J. E., & Sesso, H. D. (2010). Alcohol consumption, weight gain, and risk of becoming overweight in middle-aged and older women. Archives of internal medicine, 170(5), 453-461.

Yeomans, M. R. (2010). Alcohol, appetite and energy balance: is alcohol intake a risk factor for obesity?. Physiology & behavior, 100(1), 82-89.

Yeomans, M. R., Caton, S., & Hetherington, M. M. (2003). Alcohol and food intake. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 6(6), 639-644.

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Anna Hayes
Anna Hayes
Health coach
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