How Alcohol Makes You Fat

If you glanced at the title of this article, you might have cringed. When it comes to fitness, nutrition, weight loss, and overall health, many of us have trouble areas. There are some individuals who have a glass of red wine with dinner every night. Others skip the drinking completely on the weekdays, then start throwing a few back on Thursday or Friday night, and keep it up until Sunday. Still others won’t drink for two to three weeks, then have a weekend binge of a few dozen drinks or so (you know who you are!). Finally, while there are scores of individuals out there who don’t drink any alcohol at all and really won’t find this article personally useful, I encourage you (if you are one of those people) to read it anyways, and share the information with someone you think it might help.

So…how does alcohol make you fat, especially when it doesn’t have any fat in it? To understand how this process occurs, let’s examine the consumption of a 5 ounce glass of red wine by a fictional character named Vinny.

Vinny takes a drink. As the alcohol enters into digestion, it is split into two compounds: fat and acetate. The fat is taken through the bloodstream and stored wherever Vinny tends to deposit fat. The acetate is taken into the bloodstream and used as Vinny’s primary energy fuel.

If you take anything away from this article, read that last sentence again. The acetate is used as Vinny’s primary energy fuel. This means that rather than burning carbohydrates, protein, or fat as a fuel, Vinny’s body relies on the acetate for energy. It completely stops burning anything else. Suddenly, Vinny has a surplus of carbs, protein, and fat circulating in the body with nowhere to go. So where does it all end up? You guessed it…it’s converted to fat and deposited on Vinny’s waistline.

But that’s not the only effect on Vinny. Alcohol also acts as a potent appetizer. Ever heard of anapertif? It’s an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to increase the appetite, and many restaurants realize that this is a great way to get you to order more food! Several studies exist that show a sharp increase in caloric intake when an alcoholic drink is consumed before a meal (compared to a glass of water, or even a soda!). So now Vinny wants either:  A) another glass of wine or B) food (probably something salty or greasy).

That’s not all! Let’s say that Vinny succumbs to his appetite and finishes the bottle. Just a single bout of heavy drinking will vastly increase the levels of the hormone cortisol, while significantly decreasing the levels of the hormone testosterone. In addition to his headache, here’s why Vinny should be concerned: cortisol causes the body to breakdown muscle and suppresses recovery from exercise, while low testosterone makes the body less likely build lean muscle or to burn fat as a fuel. So Vinny’s getting a big belly, and skinny arms and legs.

Now let’s consider the actual caloric content of the glass of red wine. Before we begin, bear in mind that at most parties, social gatherings, and restaurants, a typical glass of red wine is really more like 6-8 ounces. But we’ll be conservative. So Vinny’s glass of wine contains about 110 calories. Contrary to popular belief, there are very few carbohydrates in the wine – only about 5 grams. This is because when grapes are made into wine, most of the fruit sugars are converted into alcohol. For purposes of comparison, this glass of wine has about the same amount of alcohol and calories as a 12 ounce light beer or a shot of 80 proof spirit (yes, that means a shot of tequila = about a whole glass of wine). A regular, non-light beer, is even higher in calories, since it contains over twice as many carbohydrates as light beer.

But realize that alcohol itself contains about seven calories for gram, making it almost twice as calorie-laden as carbohydrates or protein, which contain only four calories per gram. However, these calories contain no beneficial nutrients, vitamins, or minerals. Sure – Vinny gets some benefit from the compounds present from the grapeskins and grapejuice, butif he drinks a big glass of red wine every night with dinner, he consumes over 1000 additional calories per week, and gains a dozen extra pounds of fat a year!

I haven’t really discussed mixed drinks and won’t say too much. If you read my article on how sugar makes you fat, you know about sugar’s potent effect on fat levels in the body, and if you’ve read the label lately on any soda or mixer, you know how much sugar it contains. A ton! Basically, you can take everything I just illustrated in the case of Vinny, and multiply by 4-5. Margaritas, Long Island Iced Tea, Mudslides, and other sweet mixed drinks can do more damage to your diet than a Big Mac with cheese.

So let’s be practical and assume that you are not going to completely give up drinking but want some tips for your next social event. Here’s some ideas:

  • Dilute alcohol with diet soda. While there are health problems with the artificial sweeteners and chemicals in diet soda, this will reduce your overall caloric intake.
  • Use lots of ice. It makes your drink seem bigger without adding actual calories.
  • If you have to choose between fruit juice and soda in a mixer, choose fruit juice.
  • Avoid the salty snacks. They’ll make you want to drink more.
  • At the bar, restaurant, or grocery store, try to find a top shelf product or good wine that you enjoy, then pay those extra bucks and sip it slowly. Savoring a drink will reduce overconsumption.
  • Drink as much water as possible.  Try to have two drinks of water for every one drink of alcohol.

I frequently perform nutritional evaluations for my clients, as well as anyone else who wants to have a fitness professional look at their diet. Greenfield Fitness Systems offers a complete and detailed nutritional evaluation for $49.99 (less than a personal training session!). Using a convenient online log that I will provide you with, you will write down everything in your diet for 3 days – amounts, times, descriptions, extenuating circumstances and food details. I will then sit down with your diet, perform a complete evaluation, then give you a detailed e-mail on exactly which changes you should make to get the results you desire. For a more personalized online fitness coaching, fat loss, human performance or nutrition consulting, please visit http://www.pacificfit.net.

If you’d like my FREE newsletter and weekly audio podcast, simply visit https://bengreenfieldfitness.com.

Until then, train smart!

Ben Greenfield
M.S. PE, NSCA-CPT, CSCS

25 Responses to “How Alcohol Makes You Fat”

  1. marge thiessen May 23, 2015 at 4:12 am #

    Hello

    I'm writing on behalf of my husband. He doesn't know I'm doing this.

    In the last year or so my husband has gained a lot of weight around his middle. He drinks a glass of red wine every morning. (apparently his mother says its good for the heart) Is it good for the heart and will drinking the wine be what caused his big weight gain?His food intake is way less than what most men eat. He is very depressed that he can't lose any weight. Can you help please?

    Sincerely Marge

    • Nat February 2, 2016 at 1:43 am #

      Hi Marge,

      I certainly believe this article is correct. I’ve always trained an hour a day (intense), 7 days a week, and ate reasonably well. I used to binge drink once a week on Friday nights. I didn’t drink at all on any other nights. I was 74 kilos and I couldn’t get my weight down no matter what I did. Then I just cut out that night of drinking and dos nothing else. Dropped 8 kilos. I really do believe that alcohol is the devil with regards to weight. Trial him to cut the drink out and see what happens.

    • Sud February 14, 2016 at 10:30 pm #

      must try to do some physical exercises like push-ups , running etc etc.

    • Engy Ibrahim May 18, 2016 at 10:31 am #

      Dear Marge,

      Main causes of weight gain is depression. Finding a hobby or something physical to do can release fatty depression molecules. Let him drink that glass of wine, but make him realize that he needs an active daily routine.

      Yours Truly,

      Engy Ibrahim (NoojaDaily)

  2. nick May 31, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    The problem is the fact that he is drinking in the morning. By drinking in the morning, he is ruining his metabolism and ruining his liver to properly take care of the toxins in the body. It also increases insulin level to get rid of the glucose and thereby making him lethargic as well. Alcohol also stop his metabolism from using fat as energy and stores everything he eats into fat and uses the glucose that is broken up for energy instead. So, if he really wants to drink, tell him to drink about couple hours after a meal.

  3. Boris June 4, 2015 at 10:40 am #

    He should try the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle program, by Tom Venuto.

  4. Jay July 25, 2015 at 8:22 am #

    There are a couple of factual errors in this article, but the information is still correct: There isn't much fat in alcohol, alcohol is converted to Acetylcholine in the body, which goes directly into the TAA cycle or, if energy needs are met (i.e. there is sufficient ATP, which inhibits the TAA cycle), acetylcholine makes its way to fatty acid synthesis in the cytosol. Also, "anapertif" does not exist, it is "an apéritif," which is an alcohol typically served before or in between meals.

    The overall information is correct, but these discrepancies made me giggle.

    • Julia January 20, 2016 at 6:55 am #

      “Anapertif” I laughed when I read that. As someone who grew up in Europe, I knew what she meant but also giggled at the spelling. This article REALLY did help me though. I dropped 10lbs immediately by JUST cutting alcohol out of my diet. Now with exercise and eating right. The weight is falling off! I’m finally not dreading my wedding!

      • Lola March 27, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

        When you say the weight dropped off how long did this take?

  5. HALIFAX July 28, 2015 at 4:17 pm #

    Please i want to be fat,so is there any drug or drink that i will take and gain weight?

  6. tye August 10, 2015 at 11:56 pm #

    one glass of red wine is beetween 120-300kcal depending on the size thats no much as the average man needs 2500kcal a day ,could he be eating more than he thinks or drinking , i am a recovering alcoholic i had no want to eat at all and lost mega weight! mainly as i had nill intrest in food. I surjest he has his thoroid checked as 1 glass is nothing really ! all the best Tye xx

  7. Loopy70 August 28, 2015 at 8:32 am #

    My word that is so interesting and makes complete sense. A brief history. I have been drinking wine and vodka and diet coke and gin and tonics and enjoyed them since I was a young adult. I'm now 44. In the last 3 years I have put on a lot of weight around my midriff. I have been eating less and less but I have not wanted to lower my alcohol intake because it just relaxes me when i'm tense and makes me sleepy when it is time to sleep. BUT I do not like the way my tummy pops out and ruins every feel good moment as soon as I see myself in the mirror. My husband says it is the drink that makes my tummy big. I looked up calories in alcohol and sugar free mixers and I allowed for the calories in my diet yet I still have a big tummy. My husband also has a protruding tummy, despite his 3 strenuous tennis sessions a week. He was also diagnosed with diabetes 2 a couple of years ago. He has lost weight but not around his tummy. I tell him if he stops eating so many sticky toffee puddings and biscuits, I will stop drinking so much. He says it is not the same. He says drinking will kill me, puddings will not. However, thanks to this forum it would seem that fructose IS similar to alcohol, and he may well have the fatty liver that I have recently been diagnosed with, hence our matching belly bumps! When he gets in from work I feel suitably armed with this new knowledge to set him a double challenge. He and I need to both abstain from our vices. Am I on the right track, or is fructose different to sugars in biscuits and puddings. Whether he listens or not I am feeling quite positive about trying the no alcohol for two weeks and then counting 3oz carbs for each drink thereafter, based on a 25 – 50oz carbs a day, and only drinking alcohol two hours after a meal. That is what I have read on other sights this evening. Does anyone have any other ideas except from stop drinking altogether and for husband to stop eating puds and biscuits altogether.

  8. Oliber September 17, 2015 at 6:38 am #

    Hi I've been drinking alcohol continuously for over a couple of months now. I also take anti depressants, I've always been the skinny guy with that strong metabolism. Recently in the last 2 months or so I've put on some weight (which is good because I wanted too anyway) but I was wondering if this is due to my alcohol binging?. I was 135 and now I'm around 150 I'm 5"11 btw.

    • Ben Greenfield January 15, 2016 at 1:43 am #

      It could be, but its hard to know without more detail.

  9. bobby September 27, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

    I have this same problem. Anything I eat after drinking alcohol gets turned into instant fat around my belly. I can gain a pound in one day if i eat something as simple as a banana after drinking alcohol. I have to eat a meal and wait 2 hours before I can drink alcohol so that I don't gain weight. I also can't eat food for the rest of the night until I wake up the next morning as well. I learned this trough a LOT of trial and error. I wonder what is wrong with my liver as this doesnt seem to happen to other people. If there is a fix for this I would love to know.

  10. Jit January 17, 2016 at 9:38 am #

    I want to gain weight my weight is low.. can you please tell me which is best beverages for gain weight

    Beer or whisky or scotch which one is best for weight gain..and what time it will be drink for best result…!!

  11. JD February 17, 2016 at 8:10 am #

    “Dilute alcohol with diet soda. While there are health problems with the artificial sweeteners and chemicals in diet soda, this will reduce your overall caloric intake.”

    Monday night: I have 6 oz of vodka that I have allotted for the evening and I do them as shots.

    Wednesday night: I have 6 oz of vodka that I have allotted for the evening and I do them as mixed drinks with a zero-calorie mixer.

    How did I just end up with fewer calories? Is the implication that I’ll be less thirsty and won’t drink as much?

    • Ben Greenfield February 24, 2016 at 4:13 pm #

      I wouldn't use diet soda, period. Use stevia, for example, along with sparkling water and fresh juiuce like lemon. And for cying out loud…6oz of vodka is ALOT! Try backing off.

    • Amanda April 6, 2016 at 10:31 am #

      No. They are implying that using diet INSTEAD of non diet, you will have consumed less calories. They just word things oddly.

  12. leslie May 18, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

    Awesome information, thanks a million.

  13. jamal June 30, 2016 at 8:36 pm #

    Calorie intake is imperative to keep track of. But what about brain cells, we lose them when we consume alcohol. That is a sad reality. I think man made drugs is killing our great societies, we can learn a whole lot from countries, who do not consume alcohol to have a good time.

    Why is it that we need alcoholic beverages to socialize and have fun? I think the idea is absurd, where gatherings must take place, contingent on what drinks will be in there. I think manufacturers of alcoholic beverages have done a great job in making their products part of our culture.

    Here is an article a 4 minute read, on why we should steer away completely from alcohol.

  14. jamal June 30, 2016 at 11:38 pm #

    I like the article very informative.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why Fructose In Soft Drinks Make You Fat | Alkapedia - March 31, 2014

    […] A lesser known fact is how similar fructose is to alcohol. The two are both produced from sugar plants, both perform like toxins in the liver, and both produce fat way faster than other nutrients. Unfortunately, we can’t get drunk from drinking grape soda, but we can still get a beer belly. […]

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