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Does Alcohol Prevent Weight Loss?


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Alcohol weight lossDid you know that alcohol consumption can decrease testosterone in men by 23%? What about how alcohol directly affects your ability to lose fat?

Alcohol is deeply entrenched in our culture as a way to have fun, let loose, and be social. Companies that market alcohol from vodka, to whiskey, to beer know the right buttons to push. Our brains are seemingly wired to desire a cold refreshing alcoholic beverage after a tough day at work.

But, the truth is that alcohol, when not consumed in moderation (1-2 drinks a few times per week) has very negative effects on weight loss. This article will delve into the physiology of how alcohol affects your ability to successfully lose weight and keep it off for good.

What is a “Drink” of Alcohol?

Alcohol weight lossResearch considers an alcoholic drink to be about 15 grams of ethanol alcohol. Fifteen grams of alcohol is found in 5 ounces of wine, 1 1/2 ounces of an 80 proof/40% drink such as vodka or whiskey, and 12 ounces of beer. Because these are general guidelines, clearly some drinks may be stronger than others. For example, light beer is slightly weaker than regular beer. Most restaurants and bars serve 16 oz beers (making it one and a third drink) while pouring more than 1 1/2 ounces in a mixed drink.

Every gram of alcohol that you drink counts for 7.1 calories. However, because you burn up some of those as your body processes them (thermic effect), the total calorie per gram is closer to 5.7.

Let’s say you order a beer at dinner. With 20 grams of alcohol x 5.7 calories + the total amount of carbs, you end up with a drink that contains 150 calories. The range of caloric intake for beers ranges from 64-250+. Wine and shots also average about the same amount of calories. Watch out for mixed drinks, because besides the alcoholic calories they inherently have, depending on what’s mixed in, you could be drinking an excessive amount of calories in just one drink.

Alcohol & Weight Loss | After Your First Two Drinks

After your first drink, your body starts to get rid of the alcohol quickly using the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) pathway.1 In this pathway, ADH converts the alcohol into acetaldehyde, which gets further broken down to acetate. These by-products (acetaldehyde and acetate) are considered to be highly reactive and can increase oxidation throughout the body, but especially in the liver.

Because your body sees these by-products as dangerous, it wants to use them as fuel. This means your body will significantly blunt fat-burning close to 75% after just one and a half drinks.2 And it will stop using carbs for energy. Therefore, although very little alcohol will be stored as fat (less than 5%), the fat and carbs you are eating have an increased risk of being stored as fat.

Your liver can process these toxins through the increased use of certain vitamins, such as the water soluble vitamins B1, B3, B6, folate and C, while also possibly depleting some of the fat-soluble vitamins, A, E and K1. Over-time these decreases in vitamins can play a secondary role in loss of motivation, energy, and well-being.

After your first couple of drinks, your brain also starts to increase its usage of GABA. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain and is a large reason why alcohol is known as a “depressant.” Over time, the GABA receptors get used to the effects of alcohol, which is a reason why people may need more and more alcohol to feel the effects from alcohol consumption.3 GABA is also the neurotransmitter, principally responsible for allowing you to stay asleep. Therefore when your brain uses more of it before you go to sleep, you have less while you’re actually sleeping, causing a disruption in restful sleep.

Alcohol also affects the higher processing areas of the brain, the cerebral cortex, while leaving the lower areas of the brain somewhat unaffected. This leaves you more emotional than you would normally be. If you’ve ever experienced “drunk logic” while doing or saying things you would never think to do sober, then you’ve experienced the inhibitory effects of having your cerebral cortex taken out of the equation.

While your body has started to use the alcohol as energy, your body releases anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) to help your body rid itself of the alcohol. This basically means that your urine volume increases significantly (about 100 ml per 10 grams of alcohol).4 If you’ve ever “broken the seal,” you know that the more you continue to drink, the more frequently you use the restroom.

Since your kidneys are working over-time, your body releases an increase in certain minerals and electrolytes especially calcium, magnesium, copper, selenium and manganese. All of these play important roles not only in blood volume, but in bone health, blood pressure and the anti-oxidant pathways.

In addition to everything above, a small increase in cortisol typically occurs with moderate drinking while testosterone levels will drop about 6.8% in men (not so much in women).5 Aromatase will also increase. Aromatase is an enzyme that helps to convert testosterone to estrogen and is obviously not something that is welcomed by many guys.

Alcohol & Weight Loss | After Six to Eight Plus Drinks

If you’re drinking a moderate amount of alcohol, those things listed above are the main effects, at least short-term. If you drink heavily and drink often, another system called the Microsomal Ethanol-Oxidizing System (MEOS) system kicks in at the point when the ADH pathway becomes overwhelmed.

This system is interesting because it causes your body to generally burn off more energy as useless heat and probably saves your life from too high of a blood alcohol level. It is primarily controlled by a special enzyme that plays an important role in utilizing certain medications and the metabolism of fatty acids. This increased rate of medication breakdown can decrease their effectiveness, while the incomplete breakdown of fatty acids can cause an increase in oxidation. This increase in oxidation becomes exacerbated as the body’s main anti-oxidant (glutathione) is also impaired, decreasing your ability to fight the oxidation.

As your drinking levels continue to increase, testosterone levels drop from 6.8% with 4 drinks to 23% with 8 drinks.6 This drop, combined with a slowdown in protein synthesis, can cause havoc when trying to recover from a workout.

In addition to that, fluid loss will generally become more significant, causing dehydration that might affect you for days afterwards. Finally, with heavy drinking, the breakdown of alcohol can occur for up to 48 hours after your last drink. This means less glucose is reaching your brain and working muscles, making you both more tired and quicker to fatigue if you do exercise.

If You’re Going to Drink Alcohol, Drink in Moderation and Not Too Often

You would think after listing all that happens in your body after consuming alcohol, the no-brainer suggestion would be to not drink. What is missing though are some of the benefits from consuming moderate amounts of alcohol.

Alcohol is shown to increase insulin sensitivity, which basically means that your body needs less insulin to do its job. In addition to that, research has shown that women who drink a moderate amount will have the same or slightly lower BMI, as those who don’t drink.7 The same effect is not seen in men. Those who moderately drink are also at less risk of dying from heart disease and cancer while decreasing one’s risk of Alzheimer’s8 and even slightly improving your immune system.9

In other words, complete abstinence may not be needed while trying to lose fat as long as it’s done in moderation and not very often (think one time per week). If you don’t drink, obviously don’t start, but if you want to have a couple of drinks on the weekend, there is nothing necessarily wrong with having one or two. In future articles, I will list some of the best and worst drinks to have when going out and 5 strategies you can implement to decrease the deleterious effects of having a night of heavy drinking.

Alcohol & Weight Loss | Wrapping It Up

In any fat loss plan, there are three main components that should be priority: Diet, Exercise, and Sleep.

As stated throughout the article, a moderate amount of alcohol can increase total calories, decrease your motivation for exercise, and negatively affect your sleep. Despite this, many people can enjoy a drink or two, without throwing those three components completely out of whack.

On the other hand, drinking heavily can significantly derail energy levels, has a larger influence on dehydration, negatively impacts hormonal levels, and can significantly disrupt your sleep. Therefore, limit your overall levels of alcohol and put yourself in the best position to reap some of the benefits of alcohol consumption, while not derailing your overall progress.

What do you think of the article? Anything new that you learned? Have any questions?

References

  1. Lieber, Charles S. Relationships Between Nutrition, Alcohol Use, and Liver Disease. National Institute of Health: NIAAA (2004).
  2. Siler, S.Q., Neese, R.A., & Hellerstein, M.K. (1999). De novo lipogenesis, lipid kinetics, and whole-body lipid balances in humans after acute alcohol consumption. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70, 928-936
  3. Available at: http://chemcases.com/alcohol/index.htm. Accessed November 10, 2012.
  4. Eggleton MG. The diuretic action of alcohol in man. J Physiol. 1942 Aug 18;101(2):172-91.
  5. Sierksma A, et al. Effect of moderate alcohol consumption on plasma dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, testosterone, and estradiol levels in middle-aged men and postmenopausal women: a diet-controlled intervention study. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2004 May;28(5):780-5. Hat-tip: Alan Aragon
  6. Välimäki M, Tuominen JA, Huhtaniemi I, Ylikahri R. The pulsatile secretion of gonadotropins and growth hormone, and the biological activity of luteinizing hormone in men acutely intoxicated with ethanol. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 1990;14(6):928-31
  7. Flechtner-Mors, M., Biesalski, H.K., Jenkinson, C.P., Adler, G., & Ditschuneit, H.H. (2004). Effects of moderate consumption of white wine on weight loss in overweight and obese subjects. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 28, 1420-1426
  8. Letenneur L. Risk of dementia and alcohol and wine consumption: a review of recent results. Biol Res. 2004;37(2):189-93.
  9. Romeo J, Warnberg J. (2007). Moderate alcohol consumption and the immune system: a review. Br J Nutr. 2007, Oct; 98 Suppl1: S111-5
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23 Responses to “Does Alcohol Prevent Weight Loss?”

  1. November 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    John, you really did an awesome job with this article, congrats. It has a lot of detail, but is still very consumable and I think anyone who reads it will learn at least a few great nuggets of info.

    • Dave
      November 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

      Alcohol ? How about ambien ??? anyone know ??

  2. Sam
    November 26, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    Good information. I think a bigger effect of the alcohol, at least for me, is that it breaks down my ability to resist eating more and less quality food than I should. I would not be surprised if the additional food consumption is at least equal to the calories in the alcohol consumed.

    • Eric
      November 26, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

      Yes, Sam, now thinking about it, you brought up a really good point, because I know if I have 2+ drinks my ability to resist eating is greatly diminished!

      Today, I set a personal goal to abstain from Alcohol until I at least get down to 225 and break this current plateau I’m struggling with.

  3. Eric
    November 26, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    Hi John,

    I’m glad I stumbled on your article originally shared to my Facebook wall.

    I have lost 50 lbs so far, and recently have plateaued at 231 lbs, while I have been keeping up my routine of working out and taking long walks (the past 4 days I walked nearly 40 miles).

    Recently I had increased my alcohol intake – figuring since I had already lost 50 lbs, its okay to “splurge” a little.

    However, with that, I noticed that despite my workouts, I had stopped losing weight as I should have, in fact I gained back a few lbs.

    I had started suspecting that my increase in alcohol was affecting it, but I had not nailed it down until I read your above article, which clarified my notions!

    I believe the biggest mistake I had taken was having either a straight shot of scotch, or a vodka & (low sugar) orange juice “screwdriver” right after my long walks or work outs!

    I still plan to lose another 30 lbs to get myself down to a much more healthy 200 lbs range, so I just wanted to thank you for the extra insight and guidance to confirm my suspicions of what those drinks were doing to inhibit my weight losses.

    From now on, I will make sure there is plenty of recovery time before I have a drink. :-)

    Sincerely,
    ~ Eric

    • John Leyva
      December 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

      @Eric – I’m Glad you enjoyed the article and that you’ve set up new habits to achieve it. Best of luck going forward.

  4. uncadonego
    November 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    In questionnaires about “How Long Will You Live?, I always had to deduct time from life expectancy because I didn’t drink enough. Regardless, since BUILTlean, I’ve just plain gone dry. It’s not worth the calories when I could use them to eat something better.

    I figure in the long run, the whole foods and exercise, and the resulting weight loss since BUILTlean will more than compensate for any potential benefits I could have gained from drinking more than I was.

  5. Maria
    November 30, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    Thank you for the article, John. Not sure if there’s an answer for this, but I am wondering whether having two drinks (3 oz total whiskey) in one night, once or twice a week but not every week, cause negative or positive results since I’m a woman. Your article lists the negative effects that happen after two drinks, but the recommendation for woman is typically one drink a night. I didn’t find an answer to this in the references cited. I am mainly wondering if I should always stick to just one drink or would having two on occasion not sabotage my fat loss goals? I have lost 20 lbs (with the help of this site, thank you Marc!) but I’m trying to lose 10 more, while maintaining muscle and building strength. Do you have either of you have different recommendations on alcohol limits for women in terms of fat loss goals? Thanks again.

    • December 1, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

      @Maria – The recommendation for women is 1 drink per night, but within the research women having 2 drinks didn’t show any difference in terms of weight loss. With that said, three things:
      1 – Although there wasn’t any difference in total weight loss between the women consuming alcohol and those not consuming any, there was a difference in the waist-to-hip ratio indicating that the women who drank stored more fat in their stomachs.
      2 – I advise my clients to drink as little as possible when trying to lose fat. Once you have achieved your goal weight and body fat, then you can add in more alcohol while maintaining and factoring in cutting calories elsewhere.
      3 – If you are going to drink more, there would be other suggestions I would make, that you can find in this article: http://www.builtlean.com/2012/11/19/without-gaining-fat/
      Although it’s title is about not gaining for Thanksgiving, it’s really an article about what to do if you’re going to imbibe in too much alcoholic shenanigans.

      Hope that helps and overall in the grand scheme of things, having 1 extra drink every once in a while shouldn’t be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. As long as you’re taking care of the larger things (working out consistently, eating correctly, watching calories, etc), you should be fine.

  6. Russella
    November 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    I am continually impressed with the wealth of information that this website produces. Your staff and team are gold standard, Marc Perry. Accolades to you, John, for a well-researched and well-written article explaining in detail the specific physiological systems impacted by the consumption of alcohol and also including information on the benefits of consuming *moderate* amounts of alcohol.

    This is valuable information and a public health service for consumers everywhere, in my opinion, because this economic downfall period has seen rising amounts of alcohol consumption, and the consequences of this are important from a health perspective as well as contributing to chronic disease and further obesity.

    • November 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

      @Russella – Thank you very much for the comment! Means a lot to us and I’ll be sure to share it with our team.

    • December 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

      @Russella – Thank you for the comment and I’m glad you appreciated the article!

  7. Rahul
    November 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    Hi John,

    Very well written and detailed article, great job! I just have one confusion/doubt regarding lumping Wine into the same category. Red wine to be more specific.
    Red wine has decent levels of a anti-oxidant compound called Resveratrol which has anti-aging, anti-cholestrol, hearth-healthy properties besides a few more. I got highest levels of recommendation from a prolific scientist recommending moderate usage of red wine. Please note, its red and NOT any other wine.
    I would be very interested to know what you may have to say on that.

    • December 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

      @Rahul – A lot of the research on alcoholic consumption and fat loss has been done with other alcohols, such as white wine for increased insulin sensitivity, beer and testosterone levels, etc. With that said Resveratrol is a potentially exciting part of red wine. Most of the current research in regards to resveratrol though are currently in super-mega doses and done on mice. For example, some of the anti-aging research was done on giving the animal an equivalent of 30 cases of red wine worth of resveratrol. In addition to that, grape juice has about the same amount of resveratrol as does red wine, so it’s hard for me to write on the benefits specifically of red wine. With that said, of all the alcohols I do recommend, red wine is usually one at the top of the list. Hope that helps.

  8. Pam
    November 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    As always, fantastic content Marc.

    About the testosterone reduction … we ladies already knew that ;-)

    • December 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

      @Pam – It’s always good to see the research being applied “in the real world” ;)

  9. jeff
    November 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    Very informative. However, this article got me so bummed out about the effects of alcohol, I gotta go out and have a drink :)

  10. Jeff Toscano
    December 1, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Wow, very informing article. Will definitely keep in mind and pass along.
    Thanks

  11. Dave
    December 1, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Everyone in NYC should read this article, it’s amazing

  12. neil thomas
    December 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    I alway quit drinking in the month of january. I am of average weight age 66, but I
    do not lose 1 lb. I continue to ride my mountain bike and workout 3 times a week..What’s up????…neil

  13. David
    December 6, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    It is still possible to drink and be in phenomenal shape. The only kicker is that you have to work that much harder if you do decide to drink. Also, there is always the danger of blacking out the day after if you decide to lift heavy.

    Interesting facts about GABA!

  14. December 8, 2012 at 7:35 am #

    Hi John,

    I know some of the benefits of wine.. Yeah, it does lose your weight..
    It also lowers risk of heart diseases, reduces high blood pressure, improve brain functionality, reduces risk of cataracts, and even prevents sunburn…

    Anyways, thanks for the detailed post :)

  15. Landon
    December 13, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    I do a fair amount of reading and up until now have not seen such a thorough article on the subject. Thanks for the great job you all do at BuiltLean.

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