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What's the deal with alcohol and weight gain?

How big a role does alcohol actually play when it comes to weight gain?

Written by
Gemma Kaczerepa
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
April 22, 2024
min read
What's the deal with alcohol and weight gain?
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We all know that what we eat plays a huge role in our weight, but what about the things we drink? While a boozy beverage may seem like it doesn’t do much to affect your body weight, the energy in liquid calories can very quickly add up.

So, how big a role does alcohol actually play when it comes to weight gain? Do you need to give up your boozy weekends entirely or can alcohol and weight loss co-exist? Let’s find out.

How does alcohol affect your body?

Aside from potentially inflicting a nasty hangover, what does alcohol do to the body? There are both short and long-term effects of alcohol consumption — depending, of course, on how much you drink and how regularly. 

Shortly or even immediately after drinking alcohol, your body may react in the following ways:

  • Feeling chattier and more confident
  • Poor balance, speech, coordination and vision
  • Nausea, potentially accompanied by vomiting
  • Blacking out
  • Memory loss
  • Trouble breathing
  • In extreme cases (where blood alcohol content reaches at least 0.30) coma or even death [1].

Currently, Australian Government guidelines around alcohol intake recommend drinking no more than 4 standard drinks in a day and no more than 10 in a week [2]. This advice applies to both men and women, but individual circumstances (like health problems or age) also influence how much someone should really be drinking.

Long-term, the effects of alcohol intake tend to come into play among people who drink more than the recommended amount. Continual excessive alcohol consumption can lead to:

  • Mood and behavioural changes, plus a greater risk of mental health issues
  • Alcohol addiction
  • Impaired immunity
  • Sexual problems, like erectile dysfunction
  • Issues with fertility, such as lower sperm count
  • Diabetes
  • Heart problems, high blood pressure and stroke
  • Liver damage
  • Brain damage
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cancer, including throat cancer, mouth cancer, bowel cancer and liver cancer
  • And, you guessed it, weight gain [3].

Does alcohol make you gain weight?

The short answer is yes, excessive alcohol intake does lead to weight gain. But the long answer is a little more complicated. 

Naturally, there’s been a tonne of research on the link between drinking alcohol and weight gain, but it hasn’t yet reached a conclusive finding: there are still a few unknowns as to how it makes you gain weight and who it impacts most. This is because factors like gender, exercise habits and body type make it tricky to produce solid evidence [4].

That being said, there are several things we do know about alcohol and body weight, and how drinking too much can lead to weight gain.

It’s high in (empty) calories

When we consume excess calories on a regular basis, it can lead to weight gain. That means a night out with a few beers every week can quickly turn into several hundred extra calories and, eventually, extra weight. 

Plus, the calories in alcohol are considered empty calories. These are calories that deliver absolutely no nutritional benefit to the body. 

It inhibits your body’s ability to burn energy

Drinking alcohol also affects your metabolism. When you drink, your liver works really hard to get rid of the alcohol — meaning it takes priority over processing everything else, like food.

So, when your body is busy eliminating alcohol from your system, the energy from other things you’ve consumed doesn’t get used up and instead gets stored as fat.

It can lead to poor food choices

Few of us are immune from the munchies when we get home from a night out. Interestingly, this might be to do with alcohol’s impact on the brain: some research shows alcohol can actually spark your brain’s hunger signals [5].

And because alcohol affects your ability to make sound judgements, you may be more likely to reach for something sweet, salty or high in fat — a craving that often continues the next morning when you’re battling a hangover.

Whereabouts does alcohol make you gain weight?

When we gain weight, we don’t have a whole lot of choice about where it goes. Factors like genetics, age, hormones, height, weight and the areas where fat cells are more concentrated all impact where extra weight ends up.

However, men do tend to put on weight around their abdominal area, because it’s the default spot for fat cells to accumulate. This is why you’ll often hear a larger middle referred to as a ‘beer belly’. (Although, there’s not a whole lot of evidence to back up the idea that a beer belly is caused by beer alone — instead, it’s a result of overall weight gain.)

Can I drink alcohol and still lose weight?

You bet. Losing weight doesn’t necessarily have to mean giving up booze entirely — it’s simply about making smarter choices about what and how much you drink. Here are our top tips.

Choose the right booze

Different types of alcoholic drinks contain varying amounts of calories, so simply opting for a lower-calorie alternative can help curb your energy intake.

Cocktails — especially those made with sugary mixers, fruit juices and syrups — tend to be the worst offenders, while beer can also be high in calories. Instead, consider drinks like light spirits (vodka, gin, tequila) with low-calorie mixers (soda water, fresh lemon or lime juice), or low-carb beer.

Pour appropriate portions

When it comes to curbing weight gain, it’s also about how much you drink. A glass of red wine or a beer can definitely be part of your weight loss regimen, but try to keep portions in check. For example, if you want a glass of wine with dinner, go for a half-glass rather than filling it to the brim.

Moderate alcohol consumption also means lowering your overall alcohol intake throughout the week and potentially having a few nights where you don't drink.

Don’t skip meals

It might seem logical to skip meals or decrease your food intake to account for the extra calories in alcohol, but doing so can easily backfire.

If you drink on an empty stomach, you’ll likely get peckish later in the evening and be more tempted to dig into something unhealthy. Instead, load up on a healthy meal before you get your drink on.

Up your H20 intake

Try alternating each drink with a glass of water. Not only will this aid in preventing a hangover the next morning, but it’ll also help you pace yourself while you’re drinking. Over the course of the night, this could mean consuming fewer bevvies and fewer calories.

What's the best way to tackle weight loss without crash dieting?

Crash dieting — where you lose weight very quickly through calorie restriction — isn’t particularly good for your body for a bunch of reasons. 

You’re unlikely to get the nutrients you need because you’re simply not eating enough, you can lose lean body mass (aka muscle and bone), it can affect your organs, and it messes with your metabolism because your body thinks you’re starving.

That last one can actually make you gain weight really rapidly when you up your calorie intake again [6]. Instead of crash dieting, there are plenty of more sustainable ways to tackle weight loss — here are just a few.

Increase your intake of nutritious foods

Cutting a particular food isn’t necessarily the answer. Instead, go for a big range of foods and focus on nutrient-dense ones like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and unprocessed ingredients. These also tend to be higher in fibre, which keeps you feeling full.

Lean protein can help you feel fuller for longer, too, plus it assists in the muscle-building process. You could up your intake of foods like nuts, skinless chicken, eggs and fish, or go for a protein-based meal replacement shake.

Our Weight Reset Shakes are designed to replace up to 2 meals per day with a high-protein shake that’s packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre, and gut-loving pre and probiotics.

Decrease your intake of unhealthy ones

On the flip side, foods high in trans fats, salt and sugar shouldn’t make up a huge proportion of your diet.

Not only will they hinder your weight loss goals and eventually lead to weight gain, but they’re also not great for your overall health — conditions like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure are all associated with excessive consumption of trans fats, salt and sugar.

You can definitely enjoy treats from time to time, but if you want to lose weight, it helps to be mindful of how many you have and how often you consume them. 

Exercise more

Upping the amount of exercise you do can also help avoid weight gain. If you’re new to exercise, you don’t have to do anything overly strenuous — even a 30-minute walk every day can be beneficial.

Alternatively, try to incorporate more incidental movement into your day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, cycle or walk to work, go for a stroll on your lunch break, or suggest walking meetings with colleagues rather than seated ones.

Stress less

When you become stressed, your cortisol levels go up. While there are definitely benefits to raised cortisol levels (namely, your ability to go into fight or flight mode when confronted with a distressing situation) they can actually affect your weight. 

When cortisol rises, so does your appetite, as well as your desire for foods that are sweet, salty or high in fat. This means high-stress situations can lead to some pretty serious junk food cravings. Plus, your body makes less testosterone when cortisol levels are up, hampering its ability to burn calories.

Consider a weight loss program

If you’d prefer a bit of guidance or are having trouble losing weight, a weight loss program may just be the solution. Pilot’s Metabolic Reset Program delivers a multi-pronged approach to weight loss, combining modern medicines and health coaching to help you reach your goals.

After assessing your body’s unique needs, our practitioners put together a treatment plan. You can also chat with your very own health coach who will guide you through the process and get you to your ideal weight.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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