Alcohol and Body Fat – how it really works

Alcohol and weight loss – how can incorporate a few drinks into your life without affecting your weight loss goal?

Whenever people are looking to improve their health one of the first things they try to do is cut out (or at least radically reduce their consumption of) alcohol. Now in no way am I trying to discourage this because as I’ll write later there is certainly something to be said about not drinking at all, but at the same time I think that it’s worth exploring this topic a little more; after all alcohol is a major part of British culture and that of many other places, and being completely teetotal doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. Some will be reading this and thinking that cutting out alcohol sounds like a pretty rubbish prospect, and that can be a (totally understandable) barrier to even starting a healthy lifestyle or one that prematurely ends your efforts when your friends ask you over for drinks.

As in all things, alcohol is something that can be moderated, and in this blog I’m hoping to shed light on exactly how that looks, starting with looking at exactly how alcohol does affect our health and weight.

*This will not touch on alcoholism/alcohol addiction or dependence and is specifically not speaking around that topic, which is a VERY different area needing a completely different approach

First of all, alcohol is a macronutrient, much like carbohydrate, fat, and protein. It provides 7kcal per gram, with their being 8g per unit (that 8g takes up 10ml of liquid because it’s not very dense). That means that each unit of alcohol, and so every shot of 40% white spirit like gin, contains 56kcal in total. The energy in the units of alcohol then needs to be added to the calories contained in the carbohydrates and (more rarely) fat in any beverage to get you to the total energy content. For reference:

  • A double 40% gin/vodka/bourbon/rum and a sugar-free mixer is 112kcal
  • A pint of lager is 220-260kcal
  • Stronger craft beer would be 200-220kcal for a 330ml bottle
  • A 175ml red or white wine would be around 150kcal, and a large 250ml glass stretches you to 225 or so

This is the primary thing you need to keep in mind when you are including alcoholic drinks into a healthy lifestyle. These numbers aren’t astronomical by any means, especially when looking at the spirits, but the energy provided by alcoholic drinks is meaningful – especially as you get into the 3rd, 4th, and 5th drink. We’ll get back to this later.

The main issue with alcohol as it pertains to weight control isn’t actually the alcohol itself in most cases, rather it’s what accompanies the alcohol – the pizza or box of cereal you eat when you get home, and the hangover food (along with not moving so much because you’re hungover). This is the primary thing that needs to be moderated if you wish to consume alcohol while losing fat over time.

On a similar vein, alcohol can really mess with your sleep. Sure, you may go to bed and not awaken until the morning, but the usual sleep architecture (varying different sleep stages) is completely disrupted, meaning you don’t get the quality of sleep you need even if you do get the correct quantity. That can independently affect your appetite and can lead to making worse decisions. One drink may help sleep a little, but 5 or 10 will definitely not.

And as for overall health? The influence of alcohol on chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes is complex, to say the least. For obvious reasons, researchers can’t give people progressively larger amounts of alcohol over time to see who gets ill first, and so we need to rely on survey data and observational studies of people who are already drinking in order to see what happens. These studies are useful, but they do suffer from certain problems – for example, someone who drinks 30 units of alcohol per week also probably does some other unhealthy stuff such as eating too much and being inactive, because unhealthy habits tend to cluster, so when they do fall ill it’s hard to really parse out what the cause was. Even with that said there are some tentative recommendations that can be given:

An intake of fewer than 10 units per week seems to be the level at which risk is reduced the most in some studies, some will say there is no safe intake, and some will say the intake could be a little higher than this. Overall, intake of 1-2 drinks 1-2 times per week is unlikely to cause any harm. It’s also important to ensure you have alcohol free days, but also don’t consume all of your weekly intakes at once (or just a lot all at once) – binge drinking is an independent risk factor for a number of health problems.

And finally, alcohol can cause the negative emotion you have bottled up to work its way to the surface. This may be a good thing, allowing you to talk about what you really should be talking about, but it usually isn’t. Negative emotion and alcohol can lead to tears, shouting and worse – I said I wouldn’t touch on addiction, and I won’t, but you don’t have to be addicted to experience having a bad relationship with alcohol. If you become extremely teary or violent when drinking, that’s something that needs to be dealt with fully, when sober.

That’s a lot of negatives, but can there be positives? Absolutely. While it should not be your only, or primary source, alcohol can provide relaxation and pleasure – both of which are legitimate benefits that should not be overlooked. Alcohol can also add social lubricant, making an evening more enjoyable for all involved. Social and mental wellbeing are huge aspects of health and enjoying a few drinks and laughs with friends is an extremely important thing for a lot of people that shouldn’t be dismissed. We can judgementally say that you ‘should be able to have fun without alcohol’, and you should, but the fact that you can have a nice time without a dog also isn’t an argument for staying away from dogs. Relying on it may be unhealthy, but enjoying it certainly isn’t.

So can we have our cake and eat it? Is it possible to get the positives while avoiding the negatives? It certainly is, and here’s how:

Before talking about specifics we need to address context. If you’re the kind of person that drinks 1-2 times per year, then our honest advice would be to just not worry about it and simply drink responsibly when you do so you don’t end up in dangerous situations or throwing up on the floor. Beyond that, your 1-2 drinking sessions won’t make much of a difference to anything at all. Similarly, if you drink only once every 2-3 weeks and only have 1-2 drinks, don’t worry about it. Choose whatever drink you want and get on with life, that level of intake won’t matter.

If you are the kind that will drink a few drinks, a few times per month, or 1-2 drinks, 1-2 times per week, there are some things that are work keeping in mind.

  • Choose lower calorie options. Spirits with diet mixers are your best shot here
  • Try to break up your alcoholic drinks with water, or diet soft drinks. This will keep you hydrated (less of a hangover!), and moderate your intake
  • Take the calories into account. You don’t have to count your calories to do this by any stretch, but it’s worth being mindful. If you are going to have a glass of wine with dinner, choose a lighter lunch, or skip a small snack somewhere. Similarly, if eating out, choose alcohol OR a starter/dessert, rather than both
  • Plan your post-night-out food. After a night on the town you can be hungry, so prepare something that you will actually eat, that is better than what you’ll get from the takeaway – whatever that may be for you. Alternatively, a chicken kebab is far from the worst thing you could choose! The key here is picking something you actually will eat that takes very little prep – if you make a chicken salad you’re likely to overlook that at 3 am and go for the Doritos, so be realistic
  • Plan your following day, too. Activity will help any hangover grogginess more than an afternoon on the sofa ever will, and a healthier set of food choices will honestly be better than a greasy breakfast and trip to KFC. These things make you feel better because they’re comfort foods, not because of anything else, so plan to have something you enjoy
  • Not. Feel. Guilty. Yes, if you’re drinking to excess regularly it may not be the best thing for you, but guilt doesn’t help. If this is you ask why you’re drinking – do you need social contact, a cathartic release, something else? Find other ways to get those things. And if you drink only occasionally? Just make sure you have fun!

Ultimately alcohol IS a risk factor for some ill health states, and there is a very strong argument for just not drinking at all – but that isn’t necessary to lead an optimally healthy lifestyle. Indeed, if a few glasses of wine per week with dinner gives you a better-perceived quality of life, then they could be considered a healthy choice all on their own.


Missed last week’s blog? Click here to read.

Check out this video Rachael recorded about alcohol and weight loss


"All in or all out" Rachael is a vibrant, no-bullshit-talking Scottish nutrition geek and coach helping women to lose weight without giving up their confidence OR their favourite foods.

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