If you’re serious about getting in shape, people will often tell you that alcohol is a definite no-no. Even just a few drinks at the weekend will be turned straight into fat and go right to your gut. As a result, all the hard work you’ve done at the gym will be undone faster than Superman losing his powers whenever a chunk of kryptonite shows up. The only way to get the body you want, it's implied, is to avoid alcohol completely. Or is it?
Contrary to popular belief, only a fraction of the alcohol you drink ends up being stored as fat. What’s more, studies show that it’s possible to drink alcohol on a regular basis—every day in some cases—and still lose weight. (As long as you're drinking in moderation, of course, and not downing a six-pack on the couch every other night.) Here’s a closer look at the science on alcohol and weight loss and what it all means for you.
First, less than five percent of the alcohol you drink is converted into fat. However, that doesn’t mean it has no effect on weight gain. Rather, alcohol reduces the amount of fat your body burns for energy. Just two drinks of vodka and diet lemonade has been shown to cut whole body lipid oxidation—a measure of how much fat your body is burning—by more than 70 percent.
Rather than getting stored as fat, alcohol is converted into a substance called acetate. The acetate is released into your bloodstream and takes precedence over the metabolism of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. The way your body responds to alcohol is very similar to the way it deals with excess carbohydrate. Although carbohydrate can be converted directly into fat, this doesn’t happen unless you’re eating huge amounts of it.
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Instead, one of the main effects of overfeeding with carbohydrate is that it replaces fat as a source of fuel. By suppressing fat burning, it enables the fat in your diet to be stored a lot more easily, as well as reducing the amount of stored fat that’s burned off. What this means is that alcohol increases fat storage only when you take in more calories than you burn off. In fact, there are plenty of studies out there to show that you can drink alcohol and still lose fat, just as long as you’re sensible about it.
In one trial, researchers from Colorado State University got a group of men to drink two glasses of wine every night with their evening meal. After six weeks, nothing much happened. The men’s weight didn’t change, and no fat was gained. Here’s how the researchers sum up their findings:
“Our study supports the concept that moderate consumption of alcohol (two glasses of wine per day) in free-living subjects does not influence body weight, body composition, resting metabolism or substrate utilization in any way which may promote the development of obesity over a six-week period.”
Another study from the same research group shows much the same thing. Drinking two glasses of wine, five nights a week for ten weeks, had no effect on body weight or fat percentage in a group of sedentary, overweight women.
German scientists from the University of Hohenheim recruited a group of 49 overweight subjects, and assigned them to one of two 1500-calorie diets. The first diet included a glass of white wine every day, and the other a glass of grape juice. After three months, the wine group ended up losing slightly more weight—10.4 pounds versus 8.3 pounds in the grape juice group—although this wasn’t a statistically significant difference.
In short, there is nothing inherently fattening about alcohol. What’s fattening is consistently eating too much food relative to your energy needs. As long as your overall diet puts you in a calorie deficit, you can drop fat without ditching alcohol.
So why does alcohol have such a bad reputation when it comes to weight loss? The problem isn’t necessarily with the calories, but in the way that alcohol affects your eating behavior. Alcohol can disrupt your attempts to get lean because it has a “disinhibiting effect,” making it harder to resist the temptation to eat certain foods.
Studies show that you tend to eat more if a meal is served with an alcoholic drink than you would if that same meal was served with a soft drink. So you get hit twice—once from the calories in the alcoholic drink, and then again from the subsequent increase in calorie intake.
When a group of women was asked to taste cookies after drinking vodka and diet lemonade, or a placebo that smelled and tasted similar, they ended up eating more after drinking the vodka. Of the three main lifestyle factors that stimulate spontaneous food intake, alcohol is at the top of the list, ahead of watching TV and sleep deprivation.
Picture this: It’s a Friday night, and you’re out for dinner with some friends. You’ve decided in advance that you’re doing to indulge a little, but only in moderation. You sit down for some pre-dinner drinks, and promise yourself that you’ll have just one. But that one is soon followed by another, and then another.
Like the fading light from a setting sun, your ability to resist the urge to eat certain foods gradually dims. Then the “what the hell effect” kicks in, and any attempt to put a limit on what you eat is silently but swiftly abandoned. Inhibitions are lost, and the dietary restraint switch is flicked to the off position. It’s a slippery slope that ends with a trip to McDonald’s in the early hours of Saturday morning.
But that’s not all. The workout you’d planned to do on Saturday goes out the window, replaced with binge-watching the new season of Narcos. You’re tired, hungry, and annoyed at yourself for letting things slide. To make yourself feel better, you end up eating even more, embarking on a junk food binge lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days. I already messed up, you say to yourself, so I’m going to do what I want for the rest of the weekend.
The decision is made to drop out of your latest mission to get in shape and “start fresh” at a later date, be it next week, next month, or next year. To sum up, the idea that alcohol automatically turns into fat and goes straight to your waist is mistaken. Alcohol does put the brakes on fat burning while it’s being metabolized by your body. But it’s no more likely to stop you losing weight than excess calories from carbohydrate or fat.
Alcohol itself, consumed in moderation, isn’t going to have a negative impact on fat loss as long as it’s accounted for in your weekly calorie budget. Where alcohol can torpedo your attempts to get in shape, however, is via the domino effect it sometimes has on your eating and exercise habits in the hours and days that follow. Too much alcohol has the potential to damage your progress in a way that extends beyond its calorie content alone. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.