Is Alcohol Bad for Weight Loss?

Published On: September 6, 2022

We’ve all felt the obvious physical effects of alcohol before, usually in the form of an unwelcome hangover the morning after a heavy night out.

Alcohol can make us feel cheerful, giddy, relaxed, and more sociable, but it can also make us feel worse for wear.

For some, this heavy drinking has a direct link to future health problems, including those commonly associated with drinking: such as alcohol-related liver disease and heart problems.

According to NHS surveys, over 400,000 people spent time in hospital last year for alcohol-related heart disease, and nearly 100,000 adults received an alcoholic liver disease diagnosis.

Alcohol can stop us from leading a healthy life: playing a part in over 200 health conditions and diseases that cause people harm across the world.

Outside of these diseases, however, many people aren’t aware of how alcohol impacts our weight and all the processes associated with it.

So, when asking the question “is alcohol bad for weight loss?”, there are several things to consider.

Alcohol and Calories

Beer in kitchen

A huge part of dropping the pounds and keeping a balanced diet is ensuring we don’t consume more calories (the amount of energy in an item of food or drink) than our bodies need to function.

Calories from the various meals and drinks we consume are used for a variety of processes: from digestion and metabolism to providing our organs with the energy they need.

After these basic needs have been met, our leftover energy is stored for future use. While some enter the body as glycogen (carbohydrate) to power our muscles and liver, the rest of it will be stored as fat.

On top of this, it’s crucial to absorb nutrient-rich calories and get the most bang for your calorie buck.

Consuming too much of the wrong food or drink, and too little of the right kind will mean your body can’t perform as well as it should.

Frustratingly, eating more calories than your body needs often leads to weight gain, mostly from fat stores.

As such, most people are aware of the term “counting calories” and the role it plays in weight management.

With all this in mind, one of the main ways alcohol impedes someone’s weight goals is by loading their body with “empty” calories.

This is a phrase that often floats around weight loss and nutritional forums, but the exact meaning can be hard to pin down.

Essentially, it means that whatever you’re eating, or drinking is providing you with calories but giving you little nutritional value along with it. This is why searching google for “the nutritional benefits of alcohol” yields few results.

Cosmopolitan cocktail on a napkin

Let’s use one of the most popular cocktails: a cosmopolitan, as an example. This fruity beverage consists of water, pure alcohol ( known as ethanol), and variable amounts of sugars and carbohydrates: making it completely devoid of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Another useful example is the pub-lunch favourite and post-work treat: the humble pint of beer.

Just one pint of beer contains roughly the same number of calories as a slice of pizza (with 4 pints a day equating to around 1,460 slices of pizza per year). But there’s a crucial difference.

Despite its sodium content and slatherings of cheese, a pizza slice still contains some vitamins, minerals, and calories the body can use for energy, while a pint of beer has no nutritional value.

And it isn’t just the alcohol itself enhancing the liquid calorie content. Drinks such as margaritas, daiquiris, and pina coladas can be very high in saturated fat, while many beers and wines come pre-packaged with added sugars.

While spirits like vodka, gin, and whiskey pack a lower-calorie punch, they often come with sugar-loaded mixers.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Alcohol and Food Cravings

Queue at a kebab shop

When asking “is alcohol bad for weight loss?”, it’s important to note the extra calories you might consume because of alcohol, aside from the calories already in your beverage.

Whether it’s piecing together the events of a night out with some morning-after pizza, or stumbling with conviction towards the kebab shop, we’ve all experienced the food cravings that come with drinking alcohol.

As it happens, these alcohol-induced munchies have their grounding in science. UK researchers found in 2017 that alcohol switches the brain into starvation mode, increasing appetite and leading you straight to join the McDonald’s queue.

The switch to starvation mode and the hunger pangs that follow are caused by dips in blood sugar, changes in the brain, and even hormone changes.

Even just one alcoholic drink will lower blood sugar levels which, as someone sinks more pints, triggers hunger cues and a craving for carb-rich foods.

Essentially, alcohol affects the part of the brain that controls appetite: causing intense hunger.

One study found that the part of the brain that alerts us when we’re starving to death is also stimulated by alcohol.

Cue the intense hunger pangs causing us to reach for pizza, burgers, burritos, and anything in sight.

But it doesn’t stop there – alcohol influences the hormones that are released to tell us we’ve eaten too much, such as leptin, and those that stop us from wanting to eat more, such as glucagon-like peptide-1.

Alcohol blunts these signals: causing us to gorge on food, and when this is combined with lowered inhibitions, any form of self-restraint goes out the window and we forget our sober dietary plans within seconds.

And then, there’s the morning after – the incessant desire to binge on sodium-rich and fatty foods to satiate the hangover.

The day after a night out stimulates poor food decisions for several reasons: all of which can mean your weight management plan flies out the window.

In the hours after we drink, the body is hard at work metabolizing the alcohol, which is burned in the body ahead of other food.

This drains us of our energy resources overnight, meaning that we wake up not just with a pounding headache, but with the urge to replenish our energy reserves. The quickest way to do this? Through carbs and sugar, naturally!

This is exacerbated by the fact that the day after drinking, you’re very unlikely to want to go out for a run, or hit the gym to burn off those excess calories from the night before.

You might feel too rough to consider moving from the sofa or feel tempted to hide under a blanket of “Hangxiety”: a condition caused by a spike in cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Alcohol, Hormones, and Weight Gain

People seated at table drinking beer

When we think of hormones, we rarely think of their relationship to alcohol and weight gain: instead attributing them to certain times of the month or their sexual functions.

In truth, hormones are complex chemical messengers influencing how our tissue and organs function: and it’s a delicate system.

A certain hormonal system is needed to maintain a weight that’s healthy for our unique bodily makeup.

Therefore, if certain hormones are off-kilter, weight gain is often the result, and alcohol loves to disrupt this balance.

The first way that alcohol does this is to mess with the cortisol hormone –  essentially nature’s built-in alarm system.

It’s responsible for the fight-or-flight response and helps the body use glucose, proteins, and fats while regulating blood sugar.

So, you can imagine what happens when alcohol, a substance that spikes cortisol levels, enters the mix – we experience raised levels that encourage the metabolism to store more fat in the body, particularly around the middle section, from which weight is notoriously hard to shift.

These elevated cortisol levels can increase your appetite and lead you to wolf down more food than you usually would – especially snacks that are high in sugar.

But it doesn’t end here: this stress hormone also hinders your body’s ability to send the “I’m full” signals to your brain, leading to a vicious cycle of increased appetite and being unable to feel satisfied after you eat.

Not only does alcohol elevate cortisol levels to keep the body in fat-storing mode, but it also reduces the amount of testosterone we produce: a process that limits our ability to burn fat.

Aside from being a major sex hormone in the male body, testosterone has a powerful fat-loss effect which, when limited, can have dire consequences for someone’s weight-management routine.

Testosterone is also an important part of achieving your desired “gains” at the gym: being a top contributor towards muscle mass.

When alcohol lowers our testosterone, this hinders muscle development, and less muscle means a lower metabolic rate (our general level of calorie burning).

This means if you’re trying to manage your weight alongside drinking, the lowered metabolic rate makes the job of shedding fat all the harder.

This is because the rate at which the body uses energy decreases because the fat-burning effects of testosterone have been reduced.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Slowing Down the Fat-Burning Process

Jogger running in the distance of a dark, wet track

For this part of answering the question “is alcohol bad for weight loss?“, it’s time to cast your mind back to school science lessons.

In these classes, you probably learnt that the liver is responsible for processing and storing all the fat, carbs, and protein we consume: breaking them down and storing them as energy.

However, because our bodies can’t store alcohol, the beer, wine, cocktails, and occasional Jager bomb that we guzzle down must be broken down ahead of everything else.

While this is our body’s way of trying to efficiently process the alcohol and use it for some good in our system, it has the opposite effect.

In our alcohol-free times, the body burns fat reserves to get the energy it needs, which is exactly what we want it to be doing to maintain an ideal weight.

The problem that arises when alcohol enters the equation, is that the body will choose it as an energy source over fat, any day of the week.

Unfortunately, booze provides a more accessible form of energy than fat does – plus, it’s available as soon as it enters the bloodstream.

Our bodies essentially want an easier life, and will always go for the easiest and quickest source of energy.

While the body is processing alcohol, other functions such as blood sugar regulation fall by the wayside.

With the liver being hard at work, it fails to produce the glucagon hormone: another major player in breaking down fat.

This contributes to excessive fat build-up and, since it takes an hour to process a single unit of alcohol, it’s unlikely that you’ll be shifting those pounds any time soon.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Alcohol and Sleep Disruption

Man in bed on his phone

In recent years, there’s been a lot of research into how alcohol affects our slumber: including how it impacts weight loss goals.

Despite the tempting concept of a “night cap”, drinking even just a small amount of alcohol before hitting the hay can disrupt your sleep and, in turn, lead to weight gain.

From increasing the time that you’re awake during the night, to disrupted patterns of sleep, alcohol has a variety of impacts on your ability to get a good night’s rest.

We all know that groggy, misty-eyed feeling the day after not getting enough sleep, and alcohol sure won’t help us in that department.

Drinking is often used to unwind before bed, so it’s no surprise that alcohol initially acts as a sedative.

As a result, it increases the proportion of deep sleep that we experience at the beginning of the night.

As the alcohol wears off, however, the body spends more time in light sleep, which explains why we frequently wake up after a few hours of heavy, booze-induced slumber.

Woman in striped light of shutters, lying in bed at night

Frequent awakenings mean that overall, we clock fewer hours of sleep after drinking, and tend to feel worse the next day.

In 2018, a study monitored 4,098 adults to measure how alcohol before bed affected their sleep: and their findings weren’t so positive.

While a low alcohol intake caused a 9% drop in sleep quality, high quantities of alcohol worsened sleep quality by a whopping 39.5%.

So, what does this mean for weight management goals, and how does it answer the question: “is alcohol bad for weight loss?”.

To put it simply, losing weight becomes even harder if you’re a moderate to heavy drinker and, by extension, aren’t sleeping well.

Firstly, poor sleep and the resulting fatigue may mean you have less energy for exercise and physical activities.

By feeling tempted to lounge around the house instead of attending your pilates class, the fat being stored by your body (and added to by the calories in alcohol) is unlikely to go anywhere.

Two cheeseburgers

This is backed up by numerous clinical trials: one of which showed that when people were sleep-deprived they ate significantly more calories and had a preference for fatty foods.

The participants of this study ate 300 extra calories per day when sleep-deprived and most of this extra intake was accounted for by fats, sugars, and everything else present in the unhealthy bracket.

However, while participants took in extra calories when deprived of sleep, they did not expend any extra energy: meaning that they lazed around.

When this pattern continues for several days, the net result is weight gain.

The study found that taking in as little as 200 extra calories a day can lead to meaningful weight gain: a situation that alcohol makes far more likely.

It’s at this point that we return to hormones and their impact on weight loss.

While alcohol affects the hormonal balance all on its own, its ability to affect sleep puts them even further off-kilter.

A good night’s rest helps to regulate our hormones, and when we don’t get enough of it, our hormone levels can become out of whack.

This can lead to increased hunger and cravings, as well as decreased metabolism.

Woman under a blanket, lounging on the sofa

For example, when we don’t get enough sleep, our levels of ghrelin: a hormone that makes us feel hungry, increase, which can make us more likely to eat more than we need.

And it doesn’t stop there! Lacking in quality sleep after a boozy night causes a significant drop in leptin: another important hormone in the weight loss process.

Leptin is produced by fat cells in the body and it works to regulate our fat levels by controlling our appetite.

When we get enough sleep, leptin levels increase steadily during the night, peaking around 2 am.

This gradual rise during the night has evolved so that we don’t wake up feeling ravenously hungry when we should be sleeping.

So, when alcohol prevents our leptin levels from rising gradually, our brains are tricked into believing that the body needs to take in more energy.

The brain then sends hunger signals and we end up eating — even though we don’t need the energy and if anything, should be laying off the snacks.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

How Much Alcohol is Too Much?

Table of smiling people clinking alcoholic beverages

When planning a diet or ways to lose weight, it can be useful to note the official UK drinking guidelines: informed by scientific research.

The most easily accessible and widely known tool comes straight from the NHS website. In 2016, the UK’s chief medical officer reviewed the outdated alcohol guidelines issued in 1995.

After considering new scientific reports, it was decided that the maximum weekly alcohol units should be reduced: for both men and women.

The guideline states that anyone (regardless of age, sex, and race) consuming alcohol should avoid drinking more than 14 units per week.

To bring this back to reality, one unit of alcohol is the same as drinking a small glass of wine or half a pint of beer.

As such, the recommended 14 units of alcohol across seven days is the same as drinking:

  • A bottle and a half of wine, or specifically: nine and one-third 125ml glasses of average-strength (12%) wine, seven 175ml glasses of average-strength (12%) wine, or four and two-thirds 250ml glasses of average-strength (12%) wine.
  • 6 pints of beer, lager, or cider. For low-alcohol lagers (3.8%) is equal to just over eight 440ml cans, or five and a half 660ml bottles. For high-alcohol lagers (5.2% ABV), 14 units equal six 440ml cans – around four and a half pints, or just over four 660ml bottles.
  • 14 shots of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%).

A mocktail with a slice of orange and straw

Following this guideline might lower your chances of developing alcoholism and other health problems, but it doesn’t remove the risk entirely.

As such, the NHS has published their guideline as a “low-risk”, but not a risk-free option. Before 2016, UK adults were told they could safely drink 21 units of alcohol; so, what changed?

The first alteration was to change daily drinking advice to a weekly guide: a decision made based on the nation’s drinking habits.

Secondly, it was decided that the NHS drinking guideline should give both men and women the same advice.

This is because, while women have a higher chance than men of experiencing long-term health problems, men are more likely to injure themselves due to alcohol.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Tips for Reducing Your Drinking

Person sitting down with a coffee and notepad

Answering the question “is alcohol bad for weight loss?” can lead to some sobering revelations, and you may be wondering how you can cut back on your drinking habits.

Fortunately, making these key lifestyle changes and achieving your weight management goals is easier than you might think.

From receiving social support to tracking your intake, here are some helpful strategies to use:

1. Start keeping track of how much you drink

As the weekends and work drinks blur together, it’s easy to lose track of how much alcohol you’re consuming, let alone how it’s affecting your weight management.

But fear not: now you know the answer to “is alcohol bad for weight loss?”, it might be easier to motivate yourself to monitor how much you’re drinking.

Regardless of whether you’re used to drinking in the pub or at home in front of the TV, it’s important to take note of quantities and serving sizes: essentially, undertaking basic bartender training.

For example, those who enjoy a few glasses of wine after a busy day can take a measuring cup and fill it with five ounces of water before pouring it into their wine glass.

This represents a medium serving of wine and can be a great starting point for tracking their future intake.

It’s also useful to know your units and to use the NHS guideline that’s mentioned above as a recommendation to work towards.

For example, drinks with one unit include half a pint of regular beer, lager or cider, a small glass of wine, or a single measure of spirits.

After you’ve familiarised yourself with the mathematics part, you can begin tracking your drinking habits by using one of the various apps that have recently emerged.

One of the most popular is the DrinkAware app: a free option that can be used to track your alcohol consumption and spending over time, calculate units and calories and set goals to help you moderate your drinking.

2. Consider how drinking impacts your life, health, and relationships

A man and woman by the sea, smiling and looking at a camera screen

While this article has specifically answered “is alcohol bad for weight loss?”, drinking doesn’t just affect our physical health, but impacts all areas of our lives.

With this in mind, an effective way of cutting down your drinking can be to look at each part of your life: and see if alcohol is having an effect.

A useful way to begin this process is by asking the question “what is my drinking preventing me from doing?”.

For problematic drinkers, posing this question often creates a snowball effect: prompting them to realise just how much of their life has been absorbed by drinking and therefore, how important it is for them to cut down.

For example, binge drinking on a Friday night won’t only stop you from processing the calories you had that day or even the next.

It might also stop you from enjoying a Saturday morning with your family as you whither in bed, or mean that once again, you don’t make it to that painting class you’ve been meaning to go to.

One simple activity that can help you do this is to find a pen and paper (or open the notes app on your phone) and write down some things you want to achieve, however big or small. Then, write them down again in order of importance alongside your alcohol use.

This might deliver some home truths, and show you that you’re emphasising drinking at the expense of hobbies you once had, activities you want to try, or even spending time with those important to you.

3. Let your friends and family know

A man and woman talking, wearing warm coats looking over city lights at night

While drinking is often a social event, learning to cut back on these behaviours can be pretty isolating.

You might feel you need to miss out on certain events or avoid hanging out with certain people that you know have a habit of binge drinking.

At times, it can seem like your friends simply won’t understand if you tell them you’re trying to cut down.

However, finding someone to confide in is important to make these changes to your health permanent, and it isn’t as difficult as you might think.

Many people in your life, be it family, friends, or your partner, will be more understanding than you give them credit for.

If you let your friends and family know you’re cutting down on drinking and that it’s important to you and your weight management goal, you could get support and encouragement from them.

It might also be that they wanted to do the same but like you, feared being judged.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Is Alcohol Bad for Weight Loss? The Bottom Line

Shot of lower legs with person wearing trainers climbing steps

While alcohol won’t contribute to weight gain in the same way that eating a burger or binge-eating pizza will, it can hamper the weight-loss process in many ways.

Drinking messes with our appetite-controlling hormones impact our decision-making and lowers our metabolism.

On top of this, alcohol produces additional anxiety and ensnares us in a vicious cycle of Netflix-infused binge eating and glueing ourselves to the sofa.

If you’re ready to reduce your alcohol intake and create meaningful changes to your body and health, now’s the time to contact a professional.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with alcohol.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.


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