Does Alcohol Make You Gain Weight?

Authored by Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC

Does alcohol make you gain weight? The Effects of Drinking on Body Composition

Has alcohol been fueling groggy driving activity and weight gain since the dawn of man? Well, yes and no. In excess, the empty calories of alcoholic drinks can undoubtedly cause weight gain. But alcohol consumption doesn't intrinsically make you gain weight; rather, it can indirectly influence your body composition by altering appetite, cognition, and insulin sensitivity.

Like anything else, the amount (dose) of alcohol you consume is what determines if it's "good" or "bad." Contrary to popular belief, drinking alcohol in moderation may encourage weight loss and improve metabolic function. (We'll touch more on the science behind this later.)

So, there is a happy middle-ground if you're trying to lose weight and don't want to cut out the nightly glass of wine or beer. Naturally many people wonder, "How much alcohol can I drink and still lose weight?" Let's see what science has to say about this topic.

Ethyl alcohol and weight gain consumption and adiponectin

Let’s face it: alcoholic drinks are almost always a centerpiece of get-togethers and social outings. Whether you're kicking back to watch a gridiron battle on a fall Sunday or out on the town, most people figure a beer or two (or 10...) won’t hurt, and they may be onto something with that supposition.

Now, what's all the buzz about adiponectin? Well, there appears to be an interesting association between moderate ethanol consumption and a lower risk of type-2 diabetes; adiponectin, an adipokine (fat-derived peptide) might be the molecular reasoning for this phenomenon according to the literature [1].

A study conducted by Beulens et. al in 2007 analyzed adiponectin levels in 19 male subjects, 11 of whom had a “healthy body weight” (i.e. their BMI was between 18-25 kg/m^2); the remaining 8 subjects were “overweight” by BMI standards (i.e. BMI > 26kg/m^2) [2].

After 4 weeks of “moderate” alcohol consumption (100 mL of whisky yielding ~32 g of ethanol), subjects exhibited a 12.5% increase in total adiponectin levels (p<0.001) compared to those who drank mineral water. In addition, high-molecular-weight (HMW) adiponectin increased 57% more in those who drank alcohol.

It appears that the respective oligomers of adiponectin each have a distinct role in preventing metabolic abnormalities [3]. It’s not surprising then that studies consistently find those with low levels of HMW adiponectin are more prone to metabolic syndrome [4].

Curiously, the increase in adiponectin after alcohol consumption did not significantly alter insulin sensitivity, but there was a decrease in intramuscular triglyceride (IMTG) content of ~15-20% (despite failing to reach statistical significance). This could signify a potential mechanism for how adiponectin reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome since high IMTG content is correlated with impaired glucose disposal/insulin resistance [5].

What Is "Moderate" Alcohol Consumption?

The studies discussed herein were giving subjects roughly 32 grams of alcohol per day over the 4-week testing period. To convert this into more practical quantities, let’s assume you’re a beer drinker and that the average beer is 5% ethanol by volume:

12 oz = 355 mL x .05 = 17.75 mL of ethanol per beer.

Since the density of ethanol is ~1 g/mL, we can reasonably estimate there are 17-18 g of alcohol in one 12 oz can of beer (that is 5% ethanol by volume). Therefore, 1-2 cans of beer per day would be considered "moderate" alcohol consumption. Alternatively, red wine is about 13-15% ethanol, so drinking an 8-oz glass of wine daily is sensible.

You can certainly drink alcohol and still lose weight, but don't use this article as an excuse to overlook the calories and macronutrients in wine, beer, and liquor. Ethanol contains roughly 7 calories per gram, and most wine and beers also have sugar/carbs. Be sure to track your alcohol consumption so you don't overshoot your calorie needs. And of course, avoid getting hammered if your goal is to lose weight/not gain weight.

How to Lose Weight While Drinking Alcohol: Limit the Libations!

Alcohol won't make you gain weight in and of itself. It may have even support weight loss by elevating the necessary highly bioactive HMW oligomer of adiponectin and reducing IMTG content. That being said, don’t get too carried away with drinking since alcohol is not an essential nutrient and the empty calories in mixed drinks and beer can add up quickly.

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