If you’re serious about living a healthy lifestyle, you most likely limit your intake of alcohol, or avoid it entirely.
While research notes that moderate drinking may not be entirely unhealthy, it’s far from being a health promoting ingredient.
Still, some research does find that alcohol may have benefits and might lower risk for cardiovascular disease.
Plus, kicking back with a nice glass of wine or bourbon and whiling the hours away with loved ones is a practice that is centuries old.
At the same time, alcohol is calorie dense (containing 7 calories per gram), and it’s commonly believed that drinking alcohol automatically leads to fat gain.
But, is this true?
Or, is this just another in a long line of fitness industry myths?
Today, we’ll answer the question burning red hot in your mind -- “Does Drinking Make You Fat?”
Before we do that though, it helps to understand how alcohol is metabolized in the body.
What Happens When You Drink Alcohol?
As you’re likely aware, the liver plays a key role in the metabolization of alcohol (as well as protein, carbohydrates, and fat). It also acts as a “filter” of sorts removing various toxins that could be poisonous to the body.
But, the liver isn’t the only organ involved in alcohol metabolism. The stomach, pancreas, and brain also contribute too.
It’s also worth mentioning two other important things regarding alcohol metabolization[3,4]:
- The human body can only metabolize a given amount of alcohol per hour, regardless of how much is consumed.
- The amount an individual can metabolize depends on a wide variety of factors including genetics, body mass and the size of the liver.
When you consume alcohol, the body prioritizes metabolizing alcohol (ethanol) for the simple reason that alcohol is toxic to humans.
What this means is that the body will direct its focus to processing and eliminating alcohol to ensure the survival of the hose (i.e. you).
To metabolize and remove alcohol, the body relies upon two key enzymes:
- alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH)
- aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH)
Together, these enzymes help metabolize (break down) ethanol molecules into smaller ones that can more readily be eliminated by the body.
Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) transforms the alcohol molecule into another toxic compound called acetaldehyde (CH3CHO), which is another known carcinogen.
However, acetaldehyde lasts for a very short time as it is quickly broken down by aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) into a less toxic compound called acetate (CH3COO-).
Acetate is subsequently broken down into carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) by other tissues in the body and used for energy production.
It’s also worth mentioning that acetate is metabolized into acetyl-CoA, which is also used to produce energy.
What we’re getting at here is that the body pushes alcohol metabolism to the front of the line (think of it like the FastPass line at Disney World). When the body senses alcohol in the system, metabolization of all other nutrients (protein, carbs, and fats) is delayed until the alcohol is metabolized and eliminated.
Based on this, it’s not quite true to say that “alcohol makes you fat” or “drinking makes you fat”,directly. The body will not store alcohol. It uses it up immediately for energy.
Furthermore, alcohol metabolization is very energy-intensive for the body.
So, while it’s said that alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, the high thermic effect of alcohol gives it a calorie “payload” closer to 5.1 calories per gram.
In other words, alcohol is too “expensive” from an energy standpoint to be stored as fat.
Now, when acetate and acetyl-CoA (the by-products of alcohol metabolization) are taken up by your cells, it signals to the body that it has plenty of energy, which means it doesn’t need to rely on its energy stores (body fat) for energy production.
When viewed in this light, alcohol isn’t so much a direct cause of fat gain, but an indirect cause via its temporary suppression of fat oxidation.
But, there’s more...
How Drinking Promotes Fat Gain?
While drinking alcohol in and of itself may not directly contribute to fat gain, it’s definitely not helping weight loss either.
Here are several reasons drinking alcohol can affect weight loss and promote fat gain.
Alcohol is a Source of “Empty Calories”
You’ve heard this before, and what this basically means is that alcohol contains very little (if any) micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants).
Sure, you’ve probably heard that red wine or a nice craft beer contains various levels of polyphenols and other antioxidants, but the truth is that you could obtain those same micronutrients in larger quantities from whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
A regular 12-ounce beer contains between 150-200 calories depending on the brew you choose, and a 5-ounce pour of red wine contains around 120-130 calories.
These calories count towards your daily intake and if you’re on a lower calorie diet or taking part in a transformation program, that’s 150-200 calories you’re not getting from protein, carbs, or fats.
Furthermore, most alcoholic beverages are made using mixers (fruit juice, soda, simple syrup) which are themselves high in calories and low in micronutrients.
Many individuals forget to take into account just how calorically dense alcoholic beverages are. And, as a result they end up eating the same amount of food they usually do, or perhaps even more.
These extra calories compound, causing you to overshoot your calorie needs and gain fat.
Alcohol Stimulates Appetite
It’s well known that alcohol lowers your inhibitions and can stimulate appetite. Various studies have been conducted examining alcohol’s effects on calorie consumption.
A 2015 meta-study found that:
“Alcohol increases energy intake in dieters, in part due to abandonment of restraint (disinhibition) and consumption of forbidden items including alcohol exacerbates attempts to resist temptation.”
In other words, while alcohol might not be directly making you fat, the plates of cheese fries, nachos, and chicken wings you eat while drinking is making you fat.
At the same time, earlier studies found that alcohol intake did not lead to significant increases in energy intake.
The takeaway here is that if you find yourself binging on nutritionally void, calorically dense food when imbibing, then it’s probably best to severely limit or avoid drinking altogether.
Drinking Disrupts Hormone Production
It’s well known that amongst the things drinking disrupts, hormone production is at the top of the list.
Crucial hormones affected by heavy drinking include testosterone and cortisol.
More specifically, testosterone levels plummet and cortisol levels rise.[12,13]
Binge drinking has also been noted to induce insulin resistance.
Increased cortisol levels lead to increased feelings of stress, which can bring about cravings for high-calorie, sugary, salty foods.
Chronic stress also has been known to promote abdominal fat storage, and when you combine this with insulin resistance, you have the makings for a rather wicked metabolic maelstrom that leaves your body unable to properly metabolize, utilize, and store nutrients.
Drinking Negatively Impacts Sleep
It’s common practice to have a nightcap prior to bed to help “take the edge off” or unwind after a long, taxing day.
And, while having a drink may help you to relax and fall asleep, research indicates that drinking before bed leads to increased wakefulness during sleep.
As you’re likely aware, sleep deprivation, in any form, can disrupt hormone production in the body by way of decreasing feelings of satiety, increasing feelings of hunger, altering energy metabolism, and reducing physical activity the following day.
The cumulative result of these actions is increased food intake and reduced physical activity -- which is the perfect recipe for fat gain.
Drinking Harms Your Internal Organs
The liver is the primary site of detoxification as well as drug and nutrient metabolism in the body.
Heavy drinking damages the liver and can lead to a condition known as alcoholic fatty liver which negatively affects the way your body metabolizes and stores carbohydrates and fats.
Tips for Drinking While Living a Healthy Lifestyle
Always Count Calories from Alcohol
We’ve said it several times throughout this article -- calories are king when it comes to body weight management.
This includes calories from all sources, including alcohol (and those little bites of food you have in the break room at work).
As such, anytime you drink (regardless if your dieting, bulking, or maintaining), you should track the calories from your alcoholic beverages. This way you avoid overeating and know where you stand from a calorie intake standpoint at the end of the day.
Avoid Alcohol on a Fat Loss Diet
When dieting for fat loss or taking part in a transformation program, calories are at a premium, which means you don’t have room in your “calorie budget” to spend (waste) on alcoholic beverages.
All calories should be directed towards supporting muscle retention and recovery from training so that you can continue to bring it in your workouts each and every day.
In Maintenance Phases, Drink Moderately
When you’re in maintenance mode, you can relax how tightly you control your diet, taking more occasions to enjoy some tasty, high-calorie foods or enjoying the occasional alcoholic beverage.
This doesn’t mean you can go on a bender each weekend, though as binge drinking isn’t exactly synonymous with a healthy, fit lifestyle.
It’s also worth noting that by no means do you have to drink alcohol when you’re in maintenance mode. It’s just that you have more calories to spare when maintaining your weight than when dieting.
Avoid Daily Drinking
While research shows that one or two drinks per day is OK, we don’t really favor drinking every single day of every single week.
The reason for this is that drinking alcohol can become a habit, and one drink per day can turn into two and then into three and so on, which can lead to alcohol dependency issues and/or addiction.
These conditions can be very hard to remedy and the damage done to your body as a result of chronic heavy drinking is irreparable.
It’s ok to have a drink every now and then, just avoid going hard and heavy daily with your alcohol consumption.
Watch Your Diet
As we mentioned, drinking alcohol lowers your inhibitions, which can lead you to overindulge on high-calorie, fatty foods.
By knowing this, you can keep a better track of your dietary habits when drinking and stop yourself before you dive headfirst into a bag of chips, cookies, or cheese fries.
If you know you will be drinking later on, consider doing a protein shake pre-load to help quell hunger and keep cravings under control while you imbibe (responsibly of course).
Enjoy Without Guilt
If you do choose to drink alcohol, make the most of it and savor your indulgence. You’ve worked hard for your results, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed about celebrating your accomplishments with a tasty beverage.
Enjoy it, savor it, relish it. Then get back to your healthy lifestyle habits!
The Bottom Line on Does Drinking Make You Fat
At the end of the day, calories are king.
Drinking does not automatically make you fat or give you a beer belly.
The reason for this is that alcohol is a toxin and the body prioritizes its metabolization and elimination ahead of all other macronutrients.
However, drinking alcohol does temporarily blunt fat oxidation (fat burning).
It also disrupts hormone production, lowers inhibition, makes you less likely to exercise, and stimulates appetite.
The result of this less movement and increased calorie intake, which encourages fat gain.
Still, if you drink in moderation (1 drink for women per day and 1-2 drinks for men) and are aware that the calories from alcohol DO count, and you still remain within your calorie limits, you will not gain fat.
Furthermore, if you remain in a calorie deficit while having one or two drinks again, you will lose weight.
Just remember that alcohol is for all intents and purposes a source of empty calories, meaning it doesn’t provide much of anything in the way of vitamins or minerals.
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