Alcohol and Weight Loss
First, let’s talk about the physiology. Alcohol is a toxin (which is why we say we are “intoxicated” when we drink). Our bodies want to rid themselves of toxins as fast as they can, so when we consume alcohol, it is immediately converted to a quick energy source called acetate. Acetate can’t be stored, so it must all be burned off before our bodies return to burning carbs or fats or proteins. So imagine that the carbs and fats you’ve consumed that need to be burned for weight loss have just been sent to the end of the line. They may end up stored as fat if the body has enough quick fuel from the alcohol/acetate. You can think about drinking as pushing the pause button on your metabolism.
Compounding this problem is that alcohol has more calories per gram than either carbs or proteins, clocking in at 7 per gram. One of my suggestions that really gets people’s attention is to imagine you are actually having a tiny hot fudge sundae for each drink you consume. I say that because the numbers, on paper, can look relatively harmless, but the reality is more complicated than the numbers show.
Here are a few reasons why:
- Dehydration. As your body tries to rid itself of the toxins in alcohol, it sheds both water and vital minerals like potassium, magnesium, and sodium, leaving you dehydrated. Dehydration is often mistaken for hunger the next day. It also makes it harder for the body to access stored energy in the form of glycogen, and that, along with the loss of minerals, drives us to sweet or salty foods, usually high in carbs.
- Loss of inhibition. You already know that after more than one drink, it’s harder to stick to your plans for healthy eating. Several studies point to the fact that alcohol can increase appetite in the short term, and combined with lowered impulse control, the result is often late-night foraging for snacks.
- Lack of good sleep. You may have noticed that drinking allows you to fall asleep quickly and deeply . . . and then you find yourself wide awake in the middle of the night. This is because alcohol disrupts REM sleep, our most restorative rest of the night. Lack of REM sleep has been linked to excess production of cortisol and other hormones that disrupt metabolism. Additionally, waking exhausted can lead to feelings of hunger as your body searches for fuel, avoidance of exercise due to lack of energy, and impaired focus and motivation.
- Sugar cravings. Alcohol causes an increase in insulin secretion, which leads to low blood sugar, which leads to cravings. After a night of drinking or even during, you may find yourself reaching for high-carb treats. Carb cravings are a biological response to low blood sugar and are often stronger than your willpower, they’re designed to be.
All this said, I am not one who believes you have to give up drinking altogether in order to lose weight. We’ve all seen the studies that show wine, in particular, can be practically a health tonic. I’m a big proponent of small indulgences…. Sometimes 😉. As long as you are aware of the challenges posed by alcohol that aren’t reflected by the carb count, there is no reason you can’t continue to enjoy a drink or two.
Here are some guidelines that you may want to consider for losing weight without losing the wine:
Moderation is truly the key—along with self-knowledge. Be honest with yourself about the amount you are consuming and the effect it has on your eating and exercise. Consider one drink a week if I want to lose weight, and I can’t have more than three drinks. Figure out your own equation. Maybe you can have a single glass of wine with dinner. Maybe a single glass of wine makes you feel deprived, and you’d rather have two, but less often. Maybe you find when you drink at home you snack too much, so you decide only to drink when you’re out.
- Eat with your drinks! Look for a protein and fat combo to level blood sugar and help stave off hunger and cravings. Think salami and cheese or hummus and carrots.
- Have a glass of water in between every drink. This will help you avoid dehydration, slow you down, and ensure you don’t gulp your drink because you’re actually thirsty.
- Use others to keep you accountable. I often rely on my husband or a close friend to remind me to drink water and stop after a certain number of drinks. On nights when I can’t afford to drink, I volunteer to be the designated driver. It makes abstaining easy because I would never go back on my promise to get everyone home safely.