Alcohol: Fat Loss Enemy or Friend?

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If you glanced at the title of this article, you might have cringed at the thought of even potentially giving up your alcohol. Thoughts of social suicide and/or constant restriction may arise in your mind. This article is not going to say no or yes with a black and white mentality, I’m going to stay in the grey, outside of the boxed wine!

When it comes to fitness, nutrition, weight loss, and overall health, each woman has what I like to call their “biggest stressor.” Think of a big stressor as a question to ask yourself: “What is the ONE biggest thing preventing me from losing weight, creating health, and/or burning fat?”

It’s like trying to find out why your car won’t start: maybe you need gas, maybe you can’t find your keys, maybe you need to call a mechanic (or ME in this case). If your car needed gas, that was the biggest stressor preventing your car from starting.

If you think or know that alcohol might be inhibiting your fat loss goals, this is the article for you.

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What type of Drinker Are You?

Do you “just have a glass of wine with dinner”?

Do you “just have a glass (or two) of wine every OTHER night”

Do you drink “just when you are stressed out?”

Do you not drink during the week, but once Friday happy hour hits, it’s on until Sunday at brunch?

Do you not drink for 2 or 3 weeks, then have a weekend binge of a few dozen drinks?

Finally, there is the NON drinker who may not find this article useful or relevant, but I encourage you to read and share with anyone who MIGHT be drinking their fitness away!

Does alcohol contribute to fat gain?

So…how does alcohol make you fat, especially when it doesn’t have any fat in it? To understand how this process occurs, let’s examine the consumption of a glass of red wine by a fictional character named Nicole.

Nicole takes a drink and as it enters her stomach it goes directly to the liver, where it patiently waits to be converted to acetate. The acetate is released into your bloodstream and takes precedence over the metabolism of protein, carbohydrate, and fat.

If you take anything away from this article, read that last sentence again. The acetate is used as Nicole’s primary energy fuel. This means that rather than burning carbohydrates (glucose) or free fatty acids as fuel Nicole’s body relies on the acetate for energy. It completely stops burning anything else.

But that’s not the only effect on Nicole. Alcohol also acts as a potent appetizer. Ever heard of an aperitif? It’s an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to increase the appetite, and many restaurants realize that this is a great way to get you to order more food! Several studies show a sharp increase in caloric intake when an alcoholic drink is consumed before a meal (compared to a glass of water, or even a soda!).

So now Nicole, either drinks more wine or orders something with carbs and unsaturated fat…

Let’s say that Nicole finishes the bottle. Just a single bout of heavy drinking will vastly increase the levels of the hormone cortisol and estrogen .

In addition to a future headache (from metabolism of acetaldehyde) , here’s why Nicole should be concerned: Cortisol causes the body to breakdown muscle and suppresses recovery from exercise, while low testosterone makes the body less likely build lean muscle or to burn fat as a fuel.

And estrogen in large amounts blocks thyroid function and increases fat storage, as estrogen acts as an fat secreting gland.

A “cocktail” for fat gain and muscle loss. 

Calories Matter?

Let’s consider the actual caloric content of the glass of red wine. A typical glass of red wine is about 6-8 ounces, so Nicole’s glass of wine contains about 110 calorie, conservatively.

For purposes of comparison, this glass of wine has about the same amount of alcohol and calories as a 12 ounce light beer or a shot of 80 proof alcohol (yes, that means a shot of tequila = about a whole glass of wine). A regular, non-light beer, is even higher in calories, since it contains over twice as many carbohydrates as light beer.

But realize that alcohol itself contains about seven calories per gram, making it almost twice as calorie-laden as carbohydrates or proteins, which contain only four calories per gram. However, these calories contain no beneficial nutrients, vitamins, or minerals. Sure – Nicole gets some benefit from the compounds present from the grape skins and grape juice, but if she drinks a big glass of red wine every night with dinner, she consumes over 1000 additional calories per week, and gains a dozen extra pounds of fat a year!

*Note: Mixed drinks with added high fructose corn syrup increases the negative effects of alcohol.


A few other reasons alcohol inhibits your weight loss goals:

1.)    Alcohol consumption increases insulin sensitivity, which increases your chances of obesity and diabetes

2.)    Affects the hormone ghrelin, causing increased hunger

3.)    Alcohol inhibits lipolysis (the breakdown of fat)

Now, the BIG question everyone wants to know (or not know):

Should I cut out the alcohol?

I personally do NOT….give up alcohol completely and don’t recommend you do either, UNLESS you are struggling with your thyroid, digestion, liver, and/or other major organ system.

I believe in taking aggressive action when it comes to your health and if sometimes that involves restriction for a certain period of time, then so be it!

Here a few strategies to reduce the negative consequences of alcohol:

1.)    Dilute alcohol with mineral water or club soda. This will aide in hydration and keep your overall calorie consumption low

2.)    Limit your carb intake when drinking.

3.)    Consume saturated fats and high quality protein before your bouts of drinking.

4.)    Reduce your OVERALL consumption of unsaturated vegetable oils, processed foods, soy, and gluten.

5.) Stick to high quality spirits, wine, and gluten-free beer.

6.) Avoid corn syrup laden mixed drinks, large amounts of beer, and poor quality corn based spirits.

The KEY to reducing the negative effects of alcohol consumption is to eat and live amazingly ALL the time.

Don’t concern yourself with having a few drinks if you know you are going to be eating, drinking, and living healthy the next 6, 8, or even 4 days!

You can live a FIT for life lifestyle and enjoy the occasional alcoholic drink with the AWARENESS that it is not ideal and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Remember, don’t drink because you need to “relieve your stress” drink because it’s something you enjoy doing, for fun, NOT for the reduction in stress, because ironically, it does the opposite inside!

If you have any other questions about alcohol or think you might be in a position where a complete elimination of alcohol is a good idea, ask me in the comment section!

-          Nick

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