When it comes to weight management, alcohol is often viewed as a major “no-no”. From the dreaded “beer belly” to the “freshers fifteen”, there are countless stories of how alcohol has led to an unwanted increase in weight or body fat.
It’s time we address alcohol and weight management as well as what we can do to do minimise any impact it may have, so that you can reach your goals.
Will excess amounts of alcohol make me gain weight?
Well, yes and no. As frequency and dosage of alcohol use increases, a statistically significant, but relatively small, increase in weight gain is seen (notably in men but not in women) in the research.1 However, further studies have implicated rationale as to why we do see members of the general public who do drink more tending to carry more weight.2
Why alcohol intake may be detrimental to weight loss
Alcohol contains 7kcals per gram, so a little under that of fat but certainly higher in energy density than protein or carbohydrates.
Alcohol can’t be stored and takes priority to be metabolised over other nutrients leading to an increased tendency to store these nutrients. We also know that alcohol can reduce inhibition whilst increasing cravings — this makes for the perfect storm of nutrient storage. That kebab you had at the end of the night? Well, it probably didn’t help.
Considering this, in tandem with increased likelihood to consume calorie dense, high fat, high sugar, palatable foods, we can assume that the body is in a prime “fat storing” mode. That means that nutrient rich drinks like beers, ciders, certain wines, cocktails and alcopops may also contribute to fat gain.
It’s also worth remembering that these calorie–dense foods can take you into a calorie surplus (which means you’re consuming more calories than your body can use) as you eat and drink on top of your normal meals. Consistently consuming more calories than your body can burn off will lead to weight gain.
It all adds up
All these aspects tie in — and accumulate — especially when you’re knocking back a cheeky few pints every weekend. If an individual ends up consuming a couple of thousand calories extra at the weekend, week after week habitually, then, eventually, excess weight gain will become significant as the excess calorie–induced fat accumulation adds up.
Interestingly, some people don’t tend to gain weight or fat despite what would be perceived as chronic, excessive alcohol consumption. This suggests that it may be the food we consume while drinking or the type of alcohol consumed that determines body fat gain.
This may be due to the fact that, as alcohol can’t be stored, it must be metabolised, and we see a marked increase in metabolism following alcohol consumption.
So much so that it could mean energy balance is maintained (despite the large number of calories consumed via alcohol and under the assumption calorie dense foods aren’t consumed).
It could explain why some people don’t gain weight with excessive alcohol consumption.
What role do “hangovers” play?
The physical embodiment of regret. A hangover is a state of existence (barely) following a period of excessive drinking with the following symptoms: headache, nausea, sickness, low mood, reduced inhibition, increased cravings and many others.
When it comes to weight management, hangovers impact not just only how much energy we expend but can also impact how much we take in.
We tend to perform less exercise when hungover whilst also favouring highly palatable foods that are energy dense (which is to satisfy our psychological urges and feelings but also address the fatigue associated with reduced sleep quality and reduced control of blood sugar).
Minimise hangover risk and impact on body composition
There are certain approaches you can take to reduce the effect alcohol will have on your weight management efforts.
Avoiding alcoholic beverages that are calorie and nutrient dense (such as beers, ciders, certain wines etc.) may be the best option for maintaining weight or if you’re in a weight loss phase. Instead swapping these out for clearer spirits combined with a zero-calorie mixer (diet drinks, etc.) would be the optimal choice if you were to drink.
It’d also be recommended to plan for eating once the drinking session has ended as the intake of calorie dense, highly palatable foods that we all crave post boozing will likely affect your body fat more than the alcohol itself.
A protein bar or some other lower kcal, high protein, high fibre snack would be a much better option in these scenarios and easy to keep on hand (either in your handbag or on the bedside table).
This transitions us seamlessly into minimising hangover risk. the higher protein and fibre snack can help contribute to improved blood sugar regulation the following morning (which often contributes to a sense of fatigue and “hangryness”).
Additionally, trying to achieve eight hours of sleep will help too, although sleep quality will be lower following alcohol intake.
Hangovers are likely some form of inflammatory condition (be it inflammation in the gut, brain or other parts of the body caused by the alcohol you’ve consumed and the damage it’s caused), so aiming to consume more anti-inflammatory foods and nutrients and reducing pro-inflammatory foods may help too.
Increasing your intake of fruits and veg, particularly those rich in vitamin C is a great way to get in those anti-inflammatories while reducing your intake of the higher saturated fat, added sugars foodstuffs can help reduce exposure to pro-inflammatory nutrients.
The more severe the hangover, the more likely you’ll be to do less and eat more, so getting back into regular routine by minimising the hangover effect should be a priority. Even lining your stomach pre-drinking with high protein, high fibre foods can inhibit alcohol absorption and reduce hangover risk.
Take home message
While alcohol may not certainly be the world’s best weight management tool, abstaining from it is definitely not a necessity. You just have to understand the impact it can have, what you can tolerate and the approaches to take to minimise the “damage”.
Be aware that alcohol intake shifts your body into a “storage mode” state and the nutrients you eat and drink during a session (both pre and post) will ultimately determine how your body composition will be affected.
Swap out nutrient rich drinks for clear spirits and zero kcal mixers and keep the foods around your drinking session restricted to high protein, high fibre snacks.
Minimise your hangover risk by lining your stomach, increasing your anti-inflammatory nutrient intake and getting adequate sleep.
Focus on getting back into routine as quickly as possible, even if it’s just a walk the next day and a few healthy meals.