How Does Drinking Affect Weight Loss?

You don’t need to give up drinking to achieve your weight loss goals.

At Plexus, we believe good health is all about leading a balanced lifestyle. For many people, a life full of restriction can lead to binge eating or drinking, followed by a whole lot of guilt.

Understanding the effect drinking has on achieving your body composition and your overall health is the first step to finding the right balance for you.

Alcohol is high in calories

Alcohol is often referred to as the fourth macronutrient. Macronutrients are how your body gets its energy, which is measured in calories. The three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fat and each serves a unique purpose (read more on macronutrients here). Aside from fat, alcohol is the most energy dense macronutrient, at 7 calories per gram [1]. That’s almost double the caloric value of protein and carbs.  

To put it in perspective, a standard glass of wine has 125 calories, a standard beer has 150 calories and a standard shot of spirits has 90 calories. Add to that the extra calories from sugar in most mixers or premix drinks and you could be consuming a lot of extra calories.

The impact on your metabolism

How your body uses and stores energy changes when you drink alcohol. Usually protein, carbs and fat will be broken down and used for energy and other bodily functions. Then any extra calories will be stored as fat. However, when you drink alcohol your body delays other metabolic processes. Rather than processing these calories, it instead stores them as fat so it can prioritise breaking down the alcohol [2]. This means when you drink alcohol your food choices are especially important as excess calories can have a massive impact on your body composition goals. 

As your body breaks down alcohol, a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde is produced [3]. This chemical is a known carcinogen and together with dehydration, leads to that dreaded hangover. The effects of acetaldehyde include a faster heartbeat, headache or upset stomach [4].

Alcohol makes it harder to gain muscle

Alcohol disrupts protein synthesis, which is essential for muscle growth and repair [5]. This means when you drink alcohol, the rate your body repairs and builds muscle is diminished. If you’re drinking frequently and a lot of it, it can be difficult to gain muscle, meaning you’re not getting the most out of your workouts.

But if your main goal is to lose fat, why should you care about gaining muscle? Well, a greater muscle mass is not only healthy, but will help you burn more calories when you are resting [6]. This means you can eat more calories each day, without it going to your waist. 

It disrupts your sleep

Alcohol disrupts your sleep cycle, further impacting on your recovery [7]. Research shows that although drinkers may fall asleep more quickly, their quality of sleep is compromised. This is because alcohol suppresses REM sleep, which is the phase of sleep important for learning and memory retention [8]. Disruptions in REM sleep may cause drowsiness during the day and poor concentration [9]. Furthermore, people who binge drink regularly are significantly more likely to have trouble falling and staying asleep and those who drink before bed often experience insomnia symptoms [10].

You’re more likely to make poor food choices

It’s safe to say most of us have ended up at McDonalds or local kebab store at the end of a big night. And there’s a scientific reason why.

Alcohol reduces your inhibitions, making you more likely to consume foods high in unhealthy fats and added sugars. One study found that the more alcohol people consumed, the more calories they would eat and less nutrient-dense food [11]. Another showed drinking alcohol before or with meals saw food intake increase by as much as 30% [12].

The link between alcohol and motivation

We’ve established that excess alcohol consumption goes hand-in-hand with poor food choices and reduced sleep. The next day when you’re feeling lethargic and hungover, settling in for a Netflix binge with a packet of Doritos seems much more attractive than pursuing your health and fitness goals. This can create a cycle, making you more likely to eat more, and burn less energy. This recipe isn’t getting you any closer towards your fat loss goals, nor improving your strength and overall health.

Do I have to stop drinking for weight loss?

Cutting out drinking would fast-track your weight loss results, but life is all about balance. At Plexus, we are here to help our clients lead fit, lean, strong and healthy lives, but this doesn’t mean they can’t still enjoy a drink or piece of cake here and there.

Unlike heavy alcohol consumption, light to moderate alcohol consumption has not been linked with weight gain. In fact, a study of the effects of alcohol in athletes found that when consumed after sport or exercise, small amounts of alcohol of 0.5 g/kg body weight were unlikely to impact most aspects of recovery [13]. To put that in perspective, a standard drink in Australia has 10g of alcohol. This means a 70kg person could get away with two glasses of red wine every now and then, provided they also account for the extra 250 calories.

Furthermore, try to only drink once a week and when you do, opt for lower calorie options like a light beer. If you prefer spirits, have it straight or with a low-calorie mixer such as soda water, Coke Zero or Sprite Zero instead of regular soft drink.

It also helps to plan ahead and avoid making meal decisions on an empty stomach or after a drink. Be aware you may be more tempted by higher calorie meals and make conscious choices about the foods you eat. For example, pair your shiraz with a lean eye-fillet steak and steamed vegetables, instead of a fattier cut of meat like a scotch fillet and a side of creamy potato salad. 

Remember all these options are in your control. Weigh up what’s important to you and make a decision on drinking based on what aligns with your weight loss goals and your values.

References:

[1] https://cleanhealth.edu.au/how-does-alcohol-affect-fat-loss/

[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11115785/

[3] https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa72/aa72.htm

[4] https://dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/dph/files/acetaldehydefaq.pdf

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257708/

[6] https://plexuspt.com.au/blog/training/5-reasons-everyone-should-be-strength-training/

[7] https://nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-7075-6-4

[8] https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nutrition/alcohol-and-sleep

[9] https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20130118/alcohol-sleep

[10] https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nutrition/alcohol-and-sleep

[11] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/diet-quality-worsens-alcohol-intake-increases

[12] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1757913916640654

[13] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24748461/