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 http://www.bengreenfieldfitness.com.

Until then, train smart!

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

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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