As we move into the holiday season, here’s what you should know about how alcohol affects weight loss (or causes weight gain). Once I discovered that the wine I drank (to help me wind down at the end of the day) actually made me fat and lazy, I dove into the research to learn more. After all, a moderate red wine intake is heart-healthy. Isn’t it?
Wine is Not Healthy
For years now, we’ve been led to believe that the health benefits of red wine come from the drink’s antioxidants, especially one called resveratrol. Resveratrol comes from red grape skins and is a heart-healthy compound. Keep in mind, white wine does not contain any resveratrol. However, several experts agree, there’s probably not enough resveratrol in the amounts people normally consume for it to have a significant health benefit. And drinking more red wine is not the answer.
A recent study in the Lancet concluded that zero alcohol is best to minimize health risks. The same report shows modest cardiovascular benefits, but not when considering the many ways alcohol can threaten health. Alcohol consumption increases cancer risk, liver problems, and traffic injuries. Any protective effect goes away, even at low doses.
Another study published in The BMJ and co-led by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania reviewed evidence from more than 50 studies that linked drinking habits and cardiovascular health for over 260,000 people. The study’s co-author, Michael Holmes, MD, Ph.D., concluded that contrary to earlier reports, it now appears that any exposure to alcohol has a negative impact on heart health. In fact, the evidence is adding up that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe.
Alcohol Impairs Fat Burning
One of the main ways alcohol affects weight loss is by slowing down fat metabolism. Some sources show it can shut down fat burning for 12 to 36 hours. When you consume alcohol (a toxin), your body is mainly concerned with processing and eliminating it. This impairs all other essential metabolic functions. There’s a strong connection between alcohol and fat metabolism because of the liver’s role in so many metabolic processes. Even moderate drinking can lead to fatty liver, a condition that affects the way the body metabolizes and stores fats and carbohydrates. Regular alcohol consumption can also lower testosterone, a hormone that affects both weight loss and muscle mass gain.
Alcohol Increases Appetite
Not only does alcohol contain more calories than carbohydrates and protein (7 calories per gram), but another common way it affects weight loss is by increasing appetite. In mice studies, alcohol activates brain signals (AGRP neurons) that encourage the body to eat. It’s an effect similar to starvation, which also activates these neurons. When that happens, we eat more. And if you are consuming mixed drinks, the calories and sugar add up quickly along with extra food.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions making it more likely to overeat and choose unhealthy foods. Let’s face it, after a few drinks, most people are not that concerned with what they’re eating. In one study, women who were heavier drinkers or engaged more in binge drinking had an increased risk of obesity.
Other Ways Alcohol Affects Weight Loss
Here are just a few other ways alcohol can sabotage your weight loss efforts:
- Alcohol can make you feel less interested in exercise. It can also impair the body’s ability to recover after a workout and cause a reduced ability to burn excess calories with exercise.
- Drinking can cause blood sugar imbalances and promote insulin resistance, making it even harder to lose weight.
- Alcohol provides empty calories, meaning it doesn’t help meet your nutritional needs. This is another reason you may end up eating more when consuming alcohol regularly.
- Some studies suggest that alcohol intake promotes visceral fat (belly fat), increasing your risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
- Alcohol can impair liver function (involved with energy storage, fat metabolism, digestion, hormone production, and 500 other critical functions).
Are You a “Gray Area” Drinker?
I recently came across an excellent TedTalk by Jolene Park, a nutritionist who talks about gray area drinking. With this type of drinking, there is no “rock bottom.” Gray area drinkers use alcohol to manage anxiety or to “wind down” after a long day. Mostly, this group includes very high-functioning people, including those who are health-conscious. Check out her TedTalk and ask yourself if you are a gray area drinker.
To sum it up, eliminate alcohol completely if you want to lose weight and keep it off permanently. Drinking, even a few cocktails on occasion just ends up setting you up for fat loss failure. Keep this in mind as we head into the holiday season.