Drinking may pack on the pounds even more than you thought.
So I was driving along in my car, listening to National Public Radio, shaking my head at the reports on Afghanistan and the economy, when suddenly I was assaulted with the worst news ever: “Having a mere three ounces of alcohol,” intoned a diet book author being interviewed, “reduces fat-burning by about a third.” Now, if there are two things I love in life, it’s drinking wine and burning fat. Hearing they were in opposition was like when I heard Jon and Kate were splitting up: How could you choose between the two when they’re both so delightful? The author continued, “If you’re trying to lose weight, you probably need to stop drinking alcohol. You booze, you don’t lose.”
It’s not like I thought cabernet was made with Splenda. I knew it was calorific, but the idea that it was double-crossing me by slowing my body’s ability to burn fat was almost too much to bear.
I normally believe anything NPR tells me, but I decided to do a little fact-checking. I mean, beer is among the top 10 energy sources of Americans (right up there with soda, doughnuts, cheese spread, and corn chips—and, no, I am not making that up). Since the majority of Americans need to lose weight (last count, 68.8 percent of us are overweight or obese), and health officials are always looking for reasons to tell people to stop drinking (don’t drink if you’re pregnant, don’t drink if you have breast cancer, don’t drink and drive, nag, nag, nag), wouldn’t we have heard by now if Bud Light were some evil fat-storing demon foodstuff? And beyond that, moderate drinking is linked with lower risk for heart disease and diabetes and increased levels of “good” HDL cholesterol—how could it do that and be working overtime to make you fat, too? As I suspected, the story is more complicated than the diet book author suggested—although, sadly, she was not totally off base. How alcohol affects your figure depends on genetics, your diet, your gender, and your habits.
This is what happens to your body when you drink
When you drink alcohol, it’s broken down into acetate (basically vinegar), which the body will burn before any other calorie you’ve consumed or stored, including fat or even sugar. So if you drink and consume more calories than you need, you’re more likely to store the fat from the Cheez Whiz you ate and the sugar from the Coke you drank because your body is getting all its energy from the acetate in the beer you sucked down.
Further, studies show that alcohol temporarily inhibits “lipid oxidation”— in other words, when alcohol is in your system, it’s harder for your body to burn fat that’s already there. Since eating fat is the most metabolically efficient way to put fat on your body—you actually use a small amount of calories when you turn excess carbs and protein into body fat, but excess fat slips right into your saddlebags, no costume change necessary—hypothetically speaking, following a high-fat, high-alcohol diet would be the easiest way to put on weight.This does not mean that you cannot drink moderately and lose weight.
In a 2010 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the drinking habits of 19,220 U.S. women aged 39 or older with “normal weight” (based on BMI) were tracked for 13 years. 60 percent were light or regular drinkers, while 40 percent reported drinking no alcohol. Over the course of the study 41 percent of the women became overweight or obese, but the nondrinkers were the ones who ended up gaining more weight. Meanwhile, the risk of becoming overweight was 30 percent lower for women who limited themselves to one or two alcoholic beverages a day.
Still, alcohol is not a diet food: A 5-ounce glass of wine has around 150 calories, a 1.5-ounce shot of vodka or 12 ounces of light beer, 100. For every drink you have, you have to subtract something else from your diet or log another mile on the treadmill— or risk weight gain. Further, people eat about 30 percent more food when they consume alcohol, possibly because alcohol interferes with satiety or simply because it makes your judgment fuzzier about whether or not you should have a second helping of doughnuts or potato skins.
On the other hand, when you look at the epidemiological data, alcohol consumption doesn’t seem to correlate with excess weight among women. Numerous studies have found that women who are light drinkers tend to have a more stable and lower body mass index over time than their teetotaling or heavy-drinking counterparts (the same does not appear to be true for men, who seem to steadily gain weight with increasing alcohol consumption). You have to take epidemiological data with a grain of salt—it could be that women who drink moderately have scads of other healthy habits that keep their weight in check despite their drinking, but it could also be that drinking alcohol keeps other appetites in check.
Using data from nearly 90,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study, Harvard researchers found that women who drank between two and four drinks a day had lower BMIs and they seemed to eat fewer carbs, particularly in the form of candy, than their counterparts on either end of the spectrum. The authors also noted that “[a]mong alcoholics, newly sober patients appear to develop a carbohydrate appetite, or sweet tooth,” and that perhaps alcohol suppresses the yen for carbs (or carbs suppress the yen for alcohol).
The case with abusive drinking
Scientists have long noted that alcoholics aren’t as portly as you’d expect, given the staggering number of calories they consume in alcohol. Metabolic studies of chronic alcohol abusers have turned up something interesting: If you drink enough, you pass a threshold after which a certain portion of your alcohol calories are “free.” Basically, you do so much damage to your liver that it can’t efficiently process alcohol anymore and you “waste” the calories or store them in your liver, giving yourself a disease called fatty liver, which can lead to cirrhosis and death if you keep at it.
“It’s similar to the way you make foie gras,” says Marc Hellerstein, MD, PhD, professor of human nutrition at University of California, Berkeley. “You stuff a goose with carbohydrates, the liver stores it as glycogen and fat, then they kill the goose, and it’s full of fat and sugar, so it tastes really great—that’s foie gras.” And that’s an alcoholic’s liver. Yummy!
Still, even if abusive drinkers do get a few rounds on the house, calorically speaking, it doesn’t add up to a knockout figure. Habitual excessive alcohol consumption has long been linked to an increased waist-to-hip ratio (a fancy term for a beer belly). Research shows, however, that even infrequent binge drinking can thicken your midsection.
In a large as-yet unpublished study of more than 28,000 middle-aged men and women in Eastern Europe, Martin Bobak, MD, PhD, professor of epidemiology at University College London, found that men who drank 100 grams of alcohol (about seven drinks) and women who drank more than 60 grams (about four drinks) on one “drinking occasion” at least once a month had larger waists than did moderate drinkers.
Meanwhile, a 2013 study found that men consume an additional 433 calories (as many as a McDonald’s cheeseburger) on days they drank only a moderate amount of alcohol. Women consumed an extra 300 calories on light-drinking days. As you can guess, more calories = wider waistline.
So what’s a girl to think if she wants to have her wine and her waist, too? You have to consider your genetic risk for heart disease versus cancer (even moderate drinking has been shown to increase cancer risk, particularly for breast cancer), whether you’re willing to make the necessary calorie cuts in your diet to make room for alcohol, and if you’re truly able to drink moderately (how often does one drink turn into four or five? Be honest with yourself). “Here’s the truth serum answer: If you want to drink moderately, you will improve your HDL cholesterol, but you will get those calories,” Hellerstein says. “If you want to be a really heavy drinker, you may not get as many calories stored but you probably won’t get the benefits to the heart.”
I’ve always gone with my heart, so I’m sticking with my glass-or-two-a-day habit.