How Alcohol Contributes To Weight Gain

Whether it's a glass of wine, a pint of beer, or a fruity cocktail, alcoholic beverages add empty calories that can make it harder to lose weight. Here’s how you can stay on track to your weight loss goals and still enjoy alcohol responsibly.

two people toasting with wine over dinner

Alcoholic drinks tend to be very high in sugar and calories, which means they can easily contribute to elevated blood sugar levels and unhealthy weight gain. Drinking alcohol can also increase your risk of liver disease, which can also lead to weight gain: as toxins and fat accumulate in the liver, the metabolism slows drastically.1

Calories in Alcohol 

You’ve probably heard the term “empty calories,” which refers to energy-dense (high-calorie) foods and drinks with little or no nutritional value. At seven calories per gram2 (almost as high as fat, which has 9 calories per gram), alcohol is one of the biggest empty calorie culprits, and one of many factors known to contribute to weight gain

Caloric Content of Different Alcoholic Beverages 

  • 5 oz of red wine has 125 calories
  • 1 can of regular beer has 150 calories4
  • 1 flavored martini (appletini or chocolate martini) has 227 calories5
  • 1 piña colada cocktail has 340 calories6 

With sugar weighing in at 4 calories per gram, the sweeter the drink, the more calories you can expect to consume, which can contribute to weight gain. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/foods-to-avoid-for-weight-loss">more foods to avoid for weight loss</a></p>

How Alcohol Causes Weight Gain

There are direct and indirect ways that alcohol contributes to weight gain. Directly, we’ve seen that alcohol can be high in empty calories which your body probably does not need. Not only are calories from alcohol devoid of nutrients, they’re burned before other calories you consume. While your body is using alcohol for fuel, fats and carbs from food get stored as fat.9

Alcohol and Food Choices

Indirectly, alcohol can cause weight gain when you consider which other foods are typically consumed with alcohol. 

Carbonated beer is often paired with pizza or deep-fried wings. Wine is often the drink of choice along with large portions of steak or pasta, and cocktails at happy hour are often accompanied by fried appetizers. 

Alcohol has also been shown to lower inhibitions and stimulate appetite7, which can make it harder to stick to your weight-loss diet.

bar food and beer
Lowered inhibitions and the type of foods commonly eaten with alcohol can both lead to weight gain.

Alcohol, the Liver, and Fat Metabolism

The liver not only filters alcohol from your blood, it metabolizes macronutrients (fats, carbs, and proteins). Drinking too much alcohol can lead to fatty liver disease8, which changes how your body stores fat.9

Alcohol Hurts Your Digestion

From a culinary standpoint it may seem like alcohol enhances the enjoyment of food, but science has shown that drinking alcohol can promote intestinal inflammation and lead to organ damage.11

When your digestive tract can't work right, nutrients aren't broken and absorbed properly, which can work against your weight loss efforts.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/topics/foods-to-eat">the best foods to eat for weight loss</a></p>

Alcohol, Sleep, and Weight Gain

Excess alcohol consumption is linked to poor sleep habits, and insufficient sleep is linked to weight gain.10  Not only does alcohol lead to getting less sleep, your quality of sleep suffers as well. 

Getting enough quality sleep on a regular basis is important to help you reach your weight loss goals and support overall health.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/sleep-and-weight-loss">getting a good night's sleep</a></p>

Alcohol Can Reduce Testosterone Levels

Even low alcohol consumption has been shown to reduce blood testosterone levels in both men and women.12

A clinical study review published in 2014 showed that testosterone therapy in men with testosterone deficiency resulted in "sustained and significant weight loss."13

Testosterone also plays a key role in gaining lean muscle and burning fat. If your weight loss plan includes strength training to boost your metabolism, alcohol could be working against you.

woman doing bicep curls in a gym
Heavy drinking works against the benefits you get from exercise.

Does Alcohol Promote Weight Gain on Specific Parts of the Body? 

No. There is no way to determine where excess weight will accumulate on the body. People have said drinking too much beer can give you a larger stomach (or a “beer belly”), but there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. 

There are certain parts of the body that are more susceptible to showing weight gain. These areas include your stomach, arms, thighs, and hips. Your genetics will dictate which spot on the body will accumulate weight, not your nutrition choices! 

You can not control where your weight gain will land on your body; but you can control the lifestyle factors that will help you move forward in your weight loss journey. Be kind to yourself, eat well, and stay on top of your physical activity goals. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/sustainable-weight-loss">the benefits of sustainable weight loss</a></p>

How Much Alcohol Leads to Weight Gain

An updated review from 2015 states that heavy drinkers are more likely to experience weight gain from alcohol.10

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has classified heavy drinking14 as:  

  • Men who drink more than 4 servings in one day or more than 14 drinks per week 
  • Women who drink more than 3 servings in one day or more than 7 drinks per week

Light or moderate drinking does not have a clear link to weight gain.15 In fact, researchers find it very difficult to determine the quantity of alcohol that can directly lead to increased fat stores because there are so many different factors across individuals. 

A person who is regularly physically active and eats a balanced diet will metabolize five glasses of wine differently than an individual who is mostly sedentary and who consumes a highly-processed diet. 

Although both people may have five glasses of wine, researchers anticipate the effect on their weight would be different. 

How Quickly Does Alcohol Lead to Weight Gain?

A 2011 study followed approximately 9300 people and measured their alcohol intake and weight changes every two years, over a six-year period. 

The findings suggest that the type of alcohol consumed as well as the frequency of intake were the most important variables that influenced any changes in weight.

People who consumed more than seven alcoholic drinks a week (beers and spirits) showed the most significant increase in weight, a modest 91 grams per year. After the six-year study this would account for 714 grams, which is less than a kilo.16 

Interestingly, the researchers did not observe changes in weight in participants who drank wine. There are too many variables to understand why wine-drinkers did not see a weight change over six years, and deeper research is required.

The takeaway: alcohol is unlikely to cause a significant weight gain overnight, but it can lead to weight gain over time

Does the Time of Day You Drink Alcohol Influence Your Weight? 

Indirectly, the timing of alcohol consumption may affect your total calorie intake and potentially your weight. If you start drinking early in the day, you can potentially drink more empty calories from alcohol than if you started later in the day. 

The same principle applies to people who drink alcohol late at night. They are awake longer and have more opportunities to eat compared to someone who is asleep; therefore they are more likely to gain weight. 

man pouring red wine for woman at dinner table
While red wine has been associated with certain health benefits, there’s no amount of alcohol consumption that improves your health.

What About the Health Benefits Of Alcohol?

A gut reaction after reading about the risk factors of alcohol could be: “but I thought red wine was healthy?” 

Red wine contains polyphenols, a powerful group of antioxidants which include resveratrol. These molecules are actively researched for their health benefits, which have been linked to improved cardiovascular health,17 including improved serum levels (aka cholesterol levels).18 

However, this does not mean drinking red wine will always be healthful. Researchers are still trying to understand exactly what role red wine plays in overall health.18 And don’t forget, red wine still has empty calories that can impede your weight loss efforts. 

Although certain types of alcohol may potentially have health benefits, they are still at the bottom of the priority list for managing your health. If you really want to get enough polyphenols and antioxidants, focus on proven heart-healthy foods such as fresh fruit and colorful vegetables. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/fruits-vegetables-colors">eating colorful produce for optimal health</a></p>

Is It Possible to Include Alcohol in Your Diet and Still Lose Weight?

Yes, you can absolutely include alcohol in your diet and still stick to your weight loss goals. The most important takeaway from learning more about nutrition is finding ways to include your favorite foods and meals in a way that aligns with your health goals

Choose Lite Options 

There are plenty of beer products and mixed drinks that offer lite options (light in calories). For reference, a lite beer has 29 calories compared to a regular brew that has 150 calories. 

Avoid Sugary Drinks 

Tropical mixed drinks are very high in sugar. Some of the sweetness comes from fruit juice, but the majority comes from added sugars in syrups and nectars. 

You may consider opting for a mixed drink that has little to no added sweetness like a vodka soda or regular martini. If you like bubbles, try a gin and soda (tonic water is full of added sugar) with a squeeze of fresh lime juice. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/alcohol-and-blood-sugar">how alcohol impacts your blood sugar</a></p>

Track Your Intake 

Whether you choose a low-calorie alcohol or not, you should still keep track of your total alcohol intake. The adage ‘everything in moderation’ applies to alcohol, too. 

To help keep your intake low, consider dedicating a few nights a week to going dry. There are plenty of studies that show a low alcohol intake is recommended for overall health.19

When to Talk to Your Doctor About Alcohol Use

If you have concerns about your alcohol intake, you should always follow up with your doctor. No health concern is too small to address with your healthcare provider. 

Warning Signs of Alcohol Abuse Include: 

  • Hiding alcohol intake and drinking in secrecy
  • Drinking alcohol has become a coping tool for low mood or trauma 
  • Prioritizing drinking alcohol over work and responsibilities
  • Lab results show elevated liver enzymes 
  • Massive mood swings/Not feeling like yourself 

This list is a guide, it is not exclusive.20 Even if you suspect something is off with your relationship to alcohol (or any substance), you should reach out to your doctor. 

Key Takeaways

If you are trying to lose weight, decreasing your alcohol intake is a worthwhile change. 

Alcohol directly and indirectly affects your weight in multiple ways. Heavy drinking can increase your risk of liver disease and cancer.21

If you want to include alcohol in your diet while staying on top of your weight loss plan, choose calorically lite options and decrease how often you drink. Try to choose low-sugar alcoholic drinks whenever possible, or try going dry a few nights of the week. 

It can seem hard to avoid alcohol at social gatherings and parties. A good trick is to order one drink and carry it with you throughout the night. This will dissuade others from fetching you another round.

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References

  1. Zhang, W. J., Chen, L. L., Zheng, J., Lin, L., Zhang, J. Y., & Hu, X. (2014). Association of adult weight gain and nonalcoholic fatty liver in a cross-sectional study in Wan Song Community, China. Brazilian journal of medical and biological research = Revista brasileira de pesquisas medicas e biologicas, 47(2), 151–156. https://doi.org/10.1590/1414-431X20133058
  2. Merz, B. (2015) Should alcoholic drinks come with calorie labels? Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/should-alcoholic-drinks-come-with-calorie-labels-201505017971
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Resource Service, FoodData Central. (2019) Alcoholic beverage, wine, table, red. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173190/nutrients
  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Resource Service, FoodData Central. (2019) Alcoholic beverage, beer, regular, all. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168746/nutrients
  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Resource Service, FoodData Central. (2019) Martini, flavored. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1104422/nutrients
  6. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Resource Service, FoodData Central. (2019) Alcoholic beverage, pina colada, prepared-from-recipe. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168752/nutrients
  7. Lloyd-Richardson, E. E., Lucero, M. L., Dibello, J. R., Jacobson, A. E., & Wing, R. R. (2008). The relationship between alcohol use, eating habits and weight change in college freshmen. Eating behaviors, 9(4), 504–508. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2008.06.005
  8. Antunes, C., Azadfard, M., Hoilat, G.J., & Gupta, M. (2021) Fatty Liver. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441992/
  9. Cederbaum A. I. (2012). Alcohol metabolism. Clinics in liver disease, 16(4), 667–685. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cld.2012.08.002
  10. Traversy, G., & Chaput, J. P. (2015). Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update. Current obesity reports, 4(1), 122–130. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-014-0129-4
  11. Bishehsari, F., Magno, E., Swanson, G., Desai, V., Voigt, R. M., Forsyth, C. B., & Keshavarzian, A. (2017). Alcohol and Gut-Derived Inflammation. Alcohol research : current reviews, 38(2), 163–171. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513683/
  12. Sarkola, T. and Eriksson, C.J.P. (2003), Testosterone Increases in Men After a Low Dose of Alcohol. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 27: 682-685. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1530-0277.2003.tb04405.x
  13. Traish A. M. (2014). Testosterone and weight loss: the evidence. Current opinion in endocrinology, diabetes, and obesity, 21(5), 313–322. https://doi.org/10.1097/MED.0000000000000086
  14. Drinking Levels Defined | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (n.d.). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved June 2022, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking 
  15. Wang, L., Lee, I. M., Manson, J. E., Buring, J. E., & Sesso, H. D. (2010). Alcohol consumption, weight gain, and risk of becoming overweight in middle-aged and older women. Archives of internal medicine, 170(5), 453–461. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2009.527
  16. Sayon-Orea, C., Bes-Rastrollo, M., Nuñez-Cordoba, J. M., Basterra-Gortari, F. J., Beunza, J. J., & Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A. (2011). Type of alcoholic beverage and incidence of overweight/obesity in a Mediterranean cohort: the SUN project. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 27(7-8), 802–808. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2010.08.023
  17. DELLAGLI, M. (2004). Vascular effects of wine polyphenols. Cardiovascular Research, 63(4), 593–602. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cardiores.2004.03.019 
  18. Castaldo, Narváez, Izzo, Graziani, Gaspari, Minno, & Ritieni. (2019). Red Wine Consumption and Cardiovascular Health. Molecules, 24(19), 3626. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules24193626 
  19. Burton, R., Sheron, N. (2018) No level of alcohol consumption improves health. The Lancet, 392(10152), 987-988. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31571-X
  20. Alocohol Rehab Guide. (2022, May 16). Signs of Alcoholism - Know the Warning Signs of Alcohol Abuse. Retrieved June 2022, from https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/alcohol/warning-signs/#:%7E:text=Experiencing%20temporary%20blackouts%20or%20short,over%20other%20responsibilities%20and%20obligations 
  21. Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet. (2021, July 14). National Cancer Institute. Retrieved June 2022, from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet#what-is-the-evidence-that-alcohol-drinking-can-cause-cancer 

About the Author

Julia Zakrzewski Headshot
Julia Zakrzewski is a Registered Dietitian and nutrition writer. She has a background in primary care, clinical nutrition, and nutrition education. She has been practicing dietetics for four years.
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