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FAQs about Alcohol Consumption and Weight Gain

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Dietitian nutritionist Marianna Dayre

Celebrations like New Year's Eve and other holiday parties are commonly associated with drinking alcohol. Eggnog cocktails and champagne are traditional festive drinks.

Alcohol — the intoxicating ingredient found in beer, wine, and liquor — is produced by the fermentation of grains, fruits, or other sources of sugar.

Whether a holiday party or not, alcohol consumption is very popular in the United States. In fact, it's fair to call it a favorite national pastime.

According to a study published last year in JAMA Psychiatry, more Americans are drinking alcohol than before, and they are drinking greater amounts than before (see abstract).

Some people say alcohol consumption causes weight gain, and others say that's a myth. Some even say drinking alcohol actually causes a decrease in weight.

There are websites claiming that alcohol is an energizer that can help burn calories, and be a practical way to achieve weight loss.

The many medical problems associated with having too much weight are well known. So, understanding the relevance of drinking alcohol and gaining weight makes a lot of sense.

Here, bariatric registered dietitian nutritionist Marianna Dayre, MS, RD, CDN, CDE, of the Stony Brook Bariatric and Metabolic Weight Loss Center, answers frequently asked questions about alcohol consumption and weight gain.

Q: Does drinking alcohol affect your weight and shape?

A: Yes. If you are drinking more than the recommended one alcoholic drink per day for a woman and two alcohol drinks per day for a man, the additional calories consumed could lead to weight gain.

If you've had one too many drinks, this can lead to poor decision-making when it comes to meal and snack choices. Studies show that those who engage in heavy drinking tend to consume diets higher in calories, sodium, and fats than those who do not drink.

Excessive drinking could cause an individual to develop more of an "apple" body shape, where a higher level of body fat is distributed in the abdominal region.

Having an increased amount of belly fat is associated with a higher risk of developing chronic health problems down the road, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancers.

Dietitians at the Stony Brook Bariatric and Metabolic Weight Loss Center tailor diets for the individual based on their health needs, dietary preferences, and weight loss goals.

Q: Some scientific studies say alcohol consumption decreases body mass index. How can this be, if increased BMI is associated with weight gain?

A: Increased BMI is not necessarily associated with weight gain. Many individuals that engage in muscle building activity have above-normal BMIs due to the fact that they have higher percentages of muscle mass.

Chronic alcohol use has been linked to reduced protein synthesis which in turn leads to reduced muscle mass leading to a lower BMI. Even though someone who engages in heavy drinking could be gaining weight, specifically, fat mass, they can also be losing muscle mass, which will lower their BMI.

Q: What does alcohol do to the body that's related to weight gain?

A: When you drink alcohol, it's broken down into acetate which the body will burn before any other calorie you've consumed or stored, including fat or even sugar.

So if you drink and consume more calories than you need, you're more likely to store the fat from the pizza you ate and the sugar from the Coke you drank because your body is getting all its energy from the acetate in the beer you sucked down.

Further, studies show that alcohol temporarily inhibits "lipid oxidation" — in other words, when alcohol is in your system, it's harder for your body to burn fat that's already there.

Q: What are the lowest-calorie alcoholic drinks?

A: 1) Rum: 98 calories in 1.5 ounces; 2) vodka: 100 calories in 1.5 ounces of distilled 80 proof; 3) whiskey: 100 calories in 1.5 ounces of 86 proof; 3) gin: 115 calories in 1.5 ounces of 90 proof; 5) tequila: 100 calories in 1.5 ounces.

Cocktail tip: Choose low-calories mixers such as club soda with lemon or lime, and avoid overly sugary juices and mixers.

And here's a beer tip: look for "light" or low-calorie options.

If you are someone who engages in drinking and want to lose weight, our dietitians will help you find a way to incorporate drinking into your lifestyle without sabotaging weight loss goals.

Q: What are the highest-calorie alcoholic drinks?

A: 1) Long Island iced tea: serving size of 7 ounces = up to 780 calories; 2) margarita: serving size of 8.5 ounces = up to 740 calories; 3) piña colada: serving size of 6 ounces = up to 644 calories; 4) mai tai: serving size of 9 ounces = up to 620 calories; 5) mudslide: serving size of 12.5 ounces = up to 594 calories.

Remember that the highest-calorie drinks are usually those concentrated sugar mixers and fruit juices.

Q: Are darker beers and other drinks higher in calories?

A: This is actually a myth. Most people believe that the darker the color a beer is the more calories it is, but, believe it or not, some darker beers are actually lower in calories than your traditional "lager."

For example, a 12-ounce bottle of Guinness has 125 calories. This is actually lower in calories than most beers like Bud, Miller, and Coors, which have closer to 150 calories for the same serving size.

Remember to read nutrition facts labels if printed on the box or bottle when selecting a beer.

Q: What's the best way to drink when trying to lose weight?

A: Moderation is key. Sticking to the recommended guidelines of one drink per day for a woman and two drinks per day for man is ideal if you are a drinker.

However, if you are someone who is really looking to lose those extra pounds, it is advised that you enjoy an alcoholic beverage no more than 1-2 times a week.

When selecting an alcoholic beverage, opt for a lower calorie option cocktail, glass of red wine, light beer, and avoid drinks made with sugary mixes.

Q: How can the Stony Brook Bariatric and Metabolic Weight Loss Center help someone who likes to drink to stay on the path to any necessary weight loss?

A: The dietitians at the Stony Brook Bariatric and Metabolic Weight Loss Center tailor diets for the individual based on their health needs, dietary preferences, and weight loss goals.

The dietitians at the center believe that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss.

If you are someone who engages in drinking and want to lose weight, the dietitians will help you find a way to incorporate drinking into your lifestyle without sabotaging weight loss goals.

For consultations/appointments with the dietitians and other specialists at the Stony Brook Bariatric and Metabolic Weight Loss Center, please call 631-444-BARI (2274).