Alcohol and Weight Lossby Laura J Hieb, ND on May 11, 2022
Okay....this is a big one for a lot of people. When embarking on a weight loss diet, one of the first things we're told to avoid is alcohol. Largely because we are told that alcohol calories are empty calories--and this is true. But sometimes we want to have a drink or two and we tell ourselves we'll just eat fewer calories later on to make up for those empty alcohol calories. But, it's not that simple.....
Below I'll explore some of the other ways that alcohol sabotages our weight loss goals and affects our health.
Now I enjoy a glass of red wine as much as anyone, so I don't like this information, but I also believe that knowledge is power. Knowing more about alcohol helps me, and hopefully you, be more mindful of alcohol. If you don't drink alcohol, you can skip this blog if you want.
First of all, alcohol is a fuel. A fuel that cannot be stored by the body--it must be used right away. So when you have an alcoholic beverage with food, your liver (the largest metabolic organ in the body--meaning it has a lot to do with weight loss) has to burn off those calories before the calories from the food you consumed are burned! I was really shocked to learn this.
So should we drink on an empty stomach to lower how many calories we take in?
NO! Alcohol, like sugar, is absorbed directly into the blood stream. If we have food in our stomach, then the alcohol is more slowly absorbed, so eating when drinking alcohol helps us to be responsible drinkers. Maybe having a snack that contains protein and fat along with a drink would be best.
Second, alcohol is a form of sugar that acts a lot like fructose in the body. Fructose (and alcohol) are metabolized differently than sugar (glucose). The liver is responsible for metabolizing both fructose and alcohol. Metabolizing fructose is typically not an issue for the liver---as long as it comes from whole fruit. But when fructose comes in the form of high fructose corn syrup, agave syrup, table sugar (which is half glucose and half fructose), or even fruit juice (yes, like that pint of orange juice so many people drink to start their day), it starts to cause problems for the liver.
Alcohol is toxic to the liver (and to the heart, and to the brain, etc) and can cause damage that, over time and in large amounts, can become irreversible. This is known as "end stage liver", what is commonly called cirrhosis of the liver. But the liver has a huge capacity for regeneration before it gets to this stage, which is good news for all of us.
When the liver becomes damaged, enzymes in the liver will be elevated on blood tests. At this point, an ultrasound may show fatty deposits in the liver. This is known as fatty liver disease, which formerly was due to excess alcohol, but now can also be due to too much fructose (as in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease).
So how much alcohol is appropriate for a person to drink? Well, for weight loss, the answer would be none.
Otherwise the latest guideline is 1 unit of alcohol (1.5 ounces of hard alcohol, 5 oz of wine, or 12 oz of beer) per day for women and 2 for men.
What is the best type of alcohol to drink if you want to lose weight AND drink alcohol? Typically tequila or gluten-free vodka, straight-up, on the rocks or with water or sparkling water, and a squeeze of lemon or lime. Next would be red wine. Not so good is white wine because it generally has a higher sugar content. Least good is beer because of its higher carb and calorie content.