Drinking alcohol is a popular pastime. A lot of people like to unwind at the end of the day with an alcoholic drink or two, and wine is a common accompaniment to meals. A beer with friends can often lead to a fun night out, and what celebration is complete without champagne?
Moderate alcohol consumption, i.e., 1-3 drinks a couple of times a week, is generally considered healthy. However, binge drinking or drinking too often is not. The list of the possible side effects of alcohol consumption is long and quite sobering – pardon the pun.
The risks of long-term and excessive drinking include:
- Accidents and injuries
- Alcohol dependence
- Alcohol poisoning
- Brain damage
- Congenital disabilities
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Various cancers, including mouth, throat, liver, and colon
- Weakened immune system
Alcohol can also lead to weight gain and interfere with weight loss. Unfortunately, many dieters fail to appreciate just how much drinking can affect fat burning.
In this article, we discuss how alcohol makes it harder to burn fat and lose weight.
How Alcohol Affects Weight Loss
It’s easy to think that a couple of beers or glasses of wine won’t cause any harm. And, from a health perspective, that’s probably true. But even the occasional drink can make losing weight far harder than it needs to be.
Reasons for this include:
1. Alcoholic beverages contain a lot of calories
Protein contains four calories per gram, as do carbohydrates. Fat has nine calories per gram. Alcohol contains seven calories per gram, so close to double that of carbs and protein and only slightly less than fat.
As such, a couple of alcoholic drinks could easily wipe out your calorie deficit for the day, making weight loss slow, if not impossible.
Here is a chart showing the caloric value of some of the most popular alcoholic drinks. Bear in mind that these are standard bar measures, and people who drink at home may pour more generous amounts:
|Beer (light)||12 oz (355 ml)||103|
|Beer (regular)||12 oz (355 ml)||153|
|Beer (strong)||12 oz (355 ml)||170 to 350|
|Gin||1.5 oz (45 ml)||116|
|Rum||1.5 oz (45 ml)||116|
|Vodka||1.5 oz (45 ml)||116|
|Whiskey||1.5 oz (45 ml)||116|
|Coffee liqueur||1.5 oz (45 ml)||160|
|Coffee liqueur with cream||1.5 oz (45 ml)||154|
|Crème de menthe||1.5 oz (45 ml)||186|
|Bloody Mary||4.6 oz (136 ml)||120|
|Cosmopolitan||2.75 oz (81 ml)||146|
|Daiquiri||2.7 oz (80 ml)||137|
|Highball||8 oz (235 ml)||110|
|Hot buttered rum||8 oz (235 ml)||292|
|Mai Tai||4.9 oz (145 ml)||306|
|Margarita||4 oz (120 ml)||168|
|Mimosa||4 oz (120 ml)||75|
|Mint Julep||4.5 oz (135 ml)||165|
|Mojito||6 oz (177 ml)||143|
|Pina colada||6.8 oz (200 ml)||526|
|Rum and Coke||8 oz (235 ml)||185|
|Tequila sunrise||6.8 oz (200 ml)||232|
|Vodka and tonic||7 oz (207 ml)||189|
|Whiskey sour||3 oz (89 ml)||125|
|White Russian||8 oz (235 ml)||568|
|Burgundy||5 oz (145 ml)||122|
|Cabernet Sauvignon||5 oz (145 ml)||122|
|Chardonnay||5 oz (145 ml)||128|
|Chenin Blanc||5 oz (145 ml)||129|
|Claret||5 oz (145 ml)||122|
|Dry dessert wine||3.5 oz (90 ml)||157|
|Merlot||5 oz (145 ml)||122|
|Muscat||5 oz (145 ml)||129|
|Pinot Grigio||5 oz (145 ml)||128|
|Pinot Noir||5 oz (145 ml)||121|
|Red dessert wine||3.5 oz (90 ml)||165|
|Red table wine||5 oz (145 ml)||125|
|Riesling||5 oz (145 ml)||129|
|Sauvignon Blanc||5 oz (145 ml)||128|
|White table wine||5 oz (145 ml)||128|
Depending on your chosen beverage, “going out for drinks” could easily add up to several thousand additional calories, leading to weight gain rather than fat burning and weight loss.
2. Alcohol can contribute to belly fat
While it is impossible to spot-reduce fat from your abdomen, drinking alcohol can cause you to spot gain. Go to any bar, and you’re sure to see at least a few beer bellies.
Excess calories from alcohol have a nasty habit of migrating toward your stomach, even if the rest of your body is relatively slim. Belly fat is not just unsightly, but it’s a leading cause of diabetes, heart disease, gallbladder disease, and premature death (1).
A lot of exercisers want to lose belly fat but sabotage their progress by consuming too much alcohol. It’s almost impossible to get six-pack abs if you regularly put away a six-pack of beer, or any other alcoholic beverage, every night.
3. Alcohol makes it harder to make good nutritional decisions
Even a small amount of alcohol can impair your judgment, making good nutritional decisions harder to make. For example, if you have wine with dinner, you may also have a dessert when, sober, you would have sent the sweet trolley away.
While the occasional treat probably won’t hurt your weight loss too much, habitual cheating will wreak your diet and make it impossible to lose weight.
Alcohol can also cause carvings, especially for salty and savory food. A few drinks often lead to a bag of chips, a plate of French fries, a burger, or some other high-calorie indulgence.
Add the calories from your dietary slip-ups to the calories in the booze, and it’s easy to see why alcohol and dieting don’t make good bedfellows.
4. Alcohol can interfere with your workout routine
Eating less is only one part of the fat and weight loss equation. You also need to burn more calories, which most people do through exercise.
Drinking alcohol can rob you of the energy, motivation, and willpower you need to work out regularly and consistently. A night of drinking can make getting up the next day a challenge, let alone dragging your tired, hungover butt to the gym!
In addition, alcohol can interfere with muscle protein synthesis, or MPS for short (2). So, even if you DO manage to make it to the gym, your workouts will be less effective, and you won’t recover as well as you would if your body was alcohol-free.
Related: Does Alcohol Affect Muscle Growth?
5. Alcohol reduces sleep quality and duration
While alcohol can make you drowsy and even fall asleep quicker, the duration of quality of your sleep will probably be lower than usual (3).
As such, when you wake up, you’ll still feel tired. Feelings of tiredness can make it harder to stick to your diet and workout regimen. Your body will drive you to fuel up on fast-acting carbs because it needs energy and doesn’t care that you’re supposed to be on a diet and cutting down on sugar.
Alcohol-induced sleep deprivation, like anything else that stops you from getting a restful night of sleep, is not conducive to weight loss and fat burning. In fact, not getting enough sleep is often linked to weight gain (4).
6. Alcohol puts the brakes on fat burning
Your body views alcohol as a priority fuel and will burn it before using fat for energy. So, if you have a drink and have alcohol in your system, fat burning stops until all the alcohol is metabolized and used up (5).
The duration of this fat-burning stoppage depends on how much alcohol you have consumed, your body size and weight, and your gender.
However, it can take as long as 24-48 hours for fat metabolism to return to normal. During this time, you won’t be burning much, if any, fat for fuel, and your weight loss progress will grind to a halt.
Unfortunately, and contrary to many old wives’ tales, there is nothing you can do to make your body burn alcohol faster. Drinking lots of coffee or eating a meal to “soak up the alcohol” doesn’t work. You’ll just have to let nature (and your liver) take its course.
And if blocking fat burning wasn’t a big enough problem, during this time, your body also increases lipogenesis, which is the act of creating and storing more fat (6). Food consumed during this time is much more likely to be converted into and stored as fat.
So, no fat burning but increased fat storage – talk about a lose-lose situation!
In summary, consuming alcohol makes it harder to lose weight because:
- It contains a lot of empty calories
- It can lead to increases in belly fat
- It makes it harder to make good nutritional decisions
- It interferes with your workout routine
- It reduces sleep quality and duration
- It blocks fat burning
How To Drink Alcohol and Still Lose Weight
Even though drinking alcohol can interfere with fat burning and weight loss, it is still possible to reach your weight loss and body composition goals while sensibly enjoying alcohol.
Here are some tips on how to drink alcohol and still lose weight:
1. Drink in moderation
Small, occasional quantities of alcohol should not impact too greatly on weight loss. So, if you want to enjoy a drink or two a couple of times a week, there is probably no reason not to indulge. It’s generally best not to drink every day, and you should also avoid binge drinking.
However, you still need to account for the calories in your alcoholic beverages when calculating your calorie intake. You may have to forgo a snack to maintain a calorie deficit. Considering that a glass of wine contains about 150 calories, and a large beer has as many as 300, you may prefer to eat your calories instead of drinking them.
2. Choose lower-alcohol beverages
The lower the alcohol content of your drink, the shorter and less pronounced its fat-burning blocking effect will be. As such, you should avoid strong beers, fortified wines, and most cocktails. Instead, choose light beers and regular wine. Lower alcohol beverages will have less of a negative impact on your fat-burning efforts.
3. Avoid high-calorie mixers
In some instances, most of the calories in a drink come from a non-alcohol mixer rather than the alcoholic beverage itself. For example, many drinks also contain full-sugar Coke or lemonade, sweetened fruit juices, sugar syrups, or even cream.
Make sure your drinks contain as few high-calorie extras as possible. Ask for diet Coke in your vodka or rum, have soda water instead of lemonade, and skip the sweet or creamy cocktails.
4. Alternate alcoholic drinks with water
Nights out can involve consuming many alcoholic drinks over several hours. This can lead to consuming a large quantity of alcohol and a lot of calories. You can half your caloric intake simply by alternating between things like beer or wine and water.
Water is calorie-free, and halving your alcohol intake means you’ll imbibe far fewer calories. Diet sodas also have the same effect. Water is also hydrating and will help counter the dehydrating action of alcohol. The lower alcohol intake will also have a less detrimental effect on fat burning.
5. Be mindful of what you eat while drinking
Alcohol can increase your appetite. It causes your blood glucose levels to drop, making you feel hungry. Alcohol also tends to lower your inhibitions and willpower, making you more inclined to give in to that hunger. Cravings can be a problem, too.
So, be extra mindful of what you eat when you are drinking. Do your best not to give in to hunger and cravings. Combined with the calories from alcohol and its fat-burning blocking effect, breaking your diet will surely derail weight and fat loss.
6. Weigh up the pros and cons before drinking
Getting fit and losing weight involves making a lot of choices. You need to choose between going to the gym and staying at home watching Netflix, eating a salad or binging on pizza, and going to bed early or staying up all night playing Call of Duty.
Ultimately, it’s these decisions that determine your weight loss success.
In the same way, you can choose to drink or choose to abstain in the name of fitness and weight loss.
So, consider the pros and cons of drinking and decide if you want that beer or glass of wine. After a few minutes of contemplation, you may discover that you can do without a drink and would rather be lean and healthy instead.
Do you have a question about alcohol and fat loss? No problem, because we’ve got the answers!
1. Will I lose weight if I quit drinking?
You will lose weight if you quit drinking if doing so creates a calorie deficit that forces your body to burn more fat for fuel.
For example, suppose you currently drink three beers a night, and your weight is stable. In that case, ditching those beers will probably create a 400-500 calorie shortfall, leading to weight loss. However, if you eat more to compensate, you won’t lose weight and could even gain it if you create a calorie surplus.
4. I want to drink less, but I feel pressured by my friends to drink more. What can I do?
Peer pressure can be hard to resist. It’s often easier to go along with the crowd than go your own way. If you find yourself in a group of friends who drink more than you want to, try the following strategies:
- Volunteer to be the designated driver
- Avoid buying rounds of drinks and just buy your own
- Drink smaller measures
- Alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks
- Suggest alternative activities where alcohol is not available
- Arrive late and leave early to shorten your drinking window
- Ask your friends to be more supportive of your choices
- Get new friends
While the final point may seem drastic, if you are serious about not drinking but your friends continue to pressure you, they clearly don’t have your best interests at heart.
3. Which alcoholic drinks have the least calories?
Alcohol contains seven calories per gram, and most alcoholic drinks also contain sugar. As such, the best alcoholic drinks are both low in ethanol and sugar. You can find a comprehensive list of calorie values for popular drinks elsewhere in this article. However, five of the least calorific alcoholic beverages are:
- Light beer
- White/red table wine
4. Is there anything wrong with drinking every day?
The negative effects of alcohol increase the more you drink. So, in theory, you could just have 1-2 drinks a day without affecting your health. Daily, moderate drinking is usually considered healthier than consuming the same amount of alcohol in one session, i.e., binge drinking.
Remember, too, that alcohol contains calories and blocks fat burning. So, when you’re trying to lose weight, you’re better off minimizing your alcohol intake.
Finally, if you feel you must have a drink each day, maybe to unwind, you may have a dependency even if you don’t drink excessively. Try going dry for a few weeks to see how you feel. If you crave alcohol, you may need help to overcome your dependency.
5. Isn’t moderate alcohol consumption good for you?
For many years, it was thought that consuming alcohol in low to moderate amounts offered protection against heart disease and other chronic illnesses. This, in part, was due to something called the French Paradox, which describes how France has a lower incidence of heart disease despite a somewhat less healthy diet.
More recent studies have dismissed the French Paradox, suggesting that no amount of alcohol will improve health, and that drinking should not be recommended as a health intervention (7).
So, while the occasional drink or two probably won’t hurt you, it can’t be considered healthy or necessary.
Drinking alcohol can undermine your fat-burning and weight-loss efforts. Alcohol contains almost twice as many calories per gram as protein and carbohydrates. It is treated as a priority fuel, meaning it will always be metabolized before fat for energy.
Giving up alcohol could make losing weight and keeping it off easier.
That said, many people enjoy drinking and don’t want to quit. In that case, it’s worth limiting your intake to 1-3 drinks a couple of times a week and mainly consuming low-calorie beverages. Light beer and refined spirits are good choices, as is red and white wine.
However, even small amounts of alcohol can interfere with fat burning, so if you do decide to drink, you’ll also need to accept that you might not lose weight as fast as you’d like.
- Pi-Sunyer X. The medical risks of obesity. Postgrad Med. 2009 Nov;121(6):21-33. doi: 10.3810/pgm.2009.11.2074. PMID: 19940414; PMCID: PMC2879283. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2879283/
- Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, Burke LM, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, Coffey VG. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 12;9(2):e88384. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088384. PMID: 24533082; PMCID: PMC3922864. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24533082/
- Roehrs T, Roth T. Sleep, sleepiness, and alcohol use. Alcohol Res Health. 2001;25(2):101-9. PMID: 11584549; PMCID: PMC6707127. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11584549/
- Cooper CB, Neufeld EV, Dolezal BA, Martin JL. Sleep deprivation and obesity in adults: a brief narrative review. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2018 Oct 4;4(1):e000392. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000392. PMID: 30364557; PMCID: PMC6196958. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6196958/
- Cederbaum AI. Alcohol metabolism. Clin Liver Dis. 2012 Nov;16(4):667-85. doi: 10.1016/j.cld.2012.08.002. PMID: 23101976; PMCID: PMC3484320. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3484320/
- Baraona E, Lieber CS. Effects of ethanol on lipid metabolism. J Lipid Res. 1979 Mar;20(3):289-315. PMID: 87483. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/87483/
- Chiva-Blanch G, Badimon L. Benefits and risks of moderate alcohol consumption on cardiovascular disease: current findings and controversies. Nutrients. 2019 Dec 30;12(1):108. doi: 10.3390/nu12010108. PMID: 31906033; PMCID: PMC7020057. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7020057/