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Why drinking alcohol makes you fat

To lose weight is simple.

Just burn more calories than you consume. Right? Wrong! It’s a lot more complicated than that. There are many other factors that affect weight gain. For example, your body produces different hormones in response to different types of food and drink. Some of these are fat-making and water-retaining hormones, while others are fat-burning hormones. So, it ́s not only about how many calories you consume, but also about the type of food and drink you consume. One of the worst types of fat-makers is alcohol because it causes weight gain in four different ways:

Alcohol contains almost as many calories as fat

Alcohol contains almost double the number of calories contained in sugar and almost the same calories as oil and lard. One 200ml glass of dry white or red wine (13% alcohol) contains as many calories as almost five teaspoons of butter.1 Beers, semi-sweet wine and alcohol combined with sugar-containing mixers, like lemonade or tonic water, supply even more calories, because they contain both alcohol and sugar. Unlike cold drinks where drinking glasses of alcohol is like eating blocks of butter by the teaspoonful. Also remember that alcohol contains empty calories: it contains no vitamins, minerals, fibre, protein, or omega-3s. It only supplies calories, that’s all.

Alcohol blocks the body from burning fat

Alcohol slows down fat metabolism and encourages fat build-up and storage. Alcohol is converted by your liver into something called acetate which your body uses to make energy and fat. One study showed that the body’s fat-burning metabolism dropped by 73% for several hours after two drinks.2 Another study has shown that a fat-burning nutrient called L-carnitine, when taken at the same time as alcohol, reduces acetate levels.3 So, if you’re overweight and going to drink, then taking L-carnitine at the same time to help reduce the alcohol-induced blocking of fat metabolism is probably a good idea. Vegetarians may be deficient in carnitine as it’s present in only very few vegetables.

Alcohol boosts cortisol, a fat-making hormone

Even only occasional binge drinking increases the body’s release of cortisol, the hormone that breaks down muscle and retains fat.4,5,6 Since muscle cells have 13 times the energy requirements of fat cells, a loss of muscle can result in a huge slowdown in your metabolism, making weight gain even easier. Alcohol also causes a drop in testosterone in men.7 Testosterone’s an important hormone for muscle tone and definition. It also helps burn fat, not to mention maintaining sexual function. The result: an ever growing belly, and skinnier and skinnier arms and legs.

Alcohol stimulates your appetite for up to 24 hours after drinking

Alcohol is a powerful appetiser. That’s why it ́s often used before a meal as an aperitif to stimulate appetite. Studies show a correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed before a meal, and the amount of food eaten.8,9 The more you drink, the more you eat. Once the alcohol is out of your body a few hours later, you’d hope that you’d eat less at subsequent meals to compensate for the increased eating caused by alcohol. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Research shows that alcohol increases food consumption and that there’s no compensatory reduction at subsequent meals.10 Alcohol also causes the brain to release dopamine, the pleasure and addiction hormone.11 More alcohol stimulates more dopamine release. The result is often an addictive desire for more alcohol and food, creating a vicious circle, since more alcohol creates more pleasure and a heightened addictive desire. So you’re hit with a double whammy threat to your waistline: firstly from all the calories from the excessive amounts of alcohol you are drinking, followed by an increased appetite and resultant food intake.

Alcohol and weight loss don’t mix

If you want to lose weight, then it’s best to avoid alcohol altogether. But for many people, that’s not going to happen. So, if you insist on consuming alcohol, then moderation is the key. Never binge drink, at least not if you want to lose weight. Low alcohol consumption won’t cause the metabolic and hormonal fat-making catastrophe that binge drinking causes. Drink light beer and wine, and limit drinking to just one or two days a week, with a drinking limit of only two drinks on each of those days. To slow down your alcohol consumption, sip from a large glass of water between drinks. But be clear on one thing: a weight loss programme that involves drinking every day isn’t a weight loss programme at all.


1 Nutrient Data Laboratory: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Nov 2011
2 Scott Q Siler, Richard A Neese and Marc K Hellerstein; De novo lipogenesis, lipid kinetics, and whole-body lipid balances in humans after acute alcohol consumption; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Nov 1999;70(5):928-936
3 Adamo S, Siliprandi N, et al. Effect of L-carnitine on ethanol and acetate plasma levels after oral administration of ethanol in humans. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. Oct 1988;12(5):653-4
4 Besemer F, Pereira AM, Smit JW. Alcohol-induced Cushing syndrome; Hypercortisolism caused by alcohol abuse.Neth J Med. Jul-Aug 2011;69(7):318-23
5 Kaplan NM. The adrenal glands. In Griffin JE, Ojeda SR (editors), Textbook of Endocrine Physiology (3rd Edition). Oxford University Press, New York, USA. 1996:295
6 Ottosson M. Effects of cortisol and growth hormone on lipolysis in human adipose tissue. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2000;85(2):799-803
7 Noth RH. The effects of alcohol on the endocrine system. Med Clin North Am. 1984;68(1):133-146
8 Tremblay A, St-Pierre S. The hyperphagic effect of a high-fat diet and alcohol intake persists after control for energy density. Am J Clin Nutr. Apr 1996;63(4):479-82
9 Buemann B, Toubro S, Astrup A. The effect of wine or beer versus a carbonated soft drink, served at a meal, on ad libitum energy intake. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. Oct 2002;26(10):1367-72
10 Caton SJ, Ball M, et al. Dose-dependent effects of alcohol on appetite and food intake; Physiol Behav. Mar 2004;81(1):51-8
11 Bowirrat A, Oscar-Berman M. Relationship between dopaminergic neurotransmission, alcoholism, and Reward Deficiency syndrome. Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. Jan 2005;132B(1):29-37

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