Alcohol and Weight Loss

Dr. Christopher McGowan
June 10, 2021

Most people have been on a diet at one point or another during the course of their lives, and that usually means starting a process of figuring out what they’re “allowed” to eat and drink while on the diet. Some foods with high fat or sugar content, like cakes and cookies, are pretty clearly not compatible with trying to lose weight. Beyond those obvious food choices, though, it can be a little more complicated. And one of the biggest questions is: can I drink alcohol while on a diet (and if so, which type)?

How Do Alcoholic Drinks Affect Weight Loss?  

Since alcoholic drinks are such a common and often integral part of many cultural experiences, it can be hard to think of totally cutting them out of one’s diet; birthdays, holidays, celebrations, and even romantic encounters can all involve alcohol as an enhancing feature. The unfortunate truth is, though, that drinking alcohol is generally counterproductive to weight loss goals. So even though you can drink while on a diet, doing so will be working against what you’re trying to accomplish. 

Alcohol (or, more accurately, ethanol) is a substance that is subject to an effect called first pass metabolism; when alcohol is ingested, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream through blood vessels in the mouth, stomach, and small intestine. As part of the body’s natural defense against toxic substances, the majority of the alcohol is metabolized by the liver at a rate of 10g per hour. This metabolic process breaks down the alcohol into smaller molecules that can be used for the body’s energy needs. 

It is the first pass metabolism effect that is at the heart of the negative impact alcohol has on the weight loss process. In short, drinking alcohol essentially pauses the metabolism of all other substances until it has been cleared from the bloodstream; which, depending on the amount of alcohol (and a variety of other factors), can take hours to complete. But that isn’t the only way alcohol affects weight loss: 

  • Metabolism: As noted above, alcohol consumption causes the body to burn the alcohol before any other substances in the digestive tract.
  • Empty Calories: Because alcoholic beverages have very little nutritional value, the vast majority of the calories consumed are “empty.” In other words, drinking alcohol means adding to your daily allotment of calorie intake without any benefit. 
  • Liver Problems: Any time you drink more alcohol than your liver can process at one time, the excess floats around the bloodstream until it can be broken down. Over time, though, toxins can build up and cause a negative impact on the way the liver metabolizes fats and carbohydrates. 
  • Food Choices: Alcohol is, of course, often paired with different types of food, but the truth is that those foods are rarely healthy or diet-friendly. Food served at bars or during holidays is often high in calories, sugar, and fat. Moreover, drinking alcohol typically inhibits normal judgment about things like healthy food choices. 
  • Sleep: In recent decades, studies have indicated that not getting sufficient sleep can have a negative effect on weight loss and even lead to weight gain. Yet even though alcohol has traditionally been linked to causing drowsiness, research also shows that it can actually lead to uneasy sleep or periods of wakefulness.
  • Digestion: For many people, alcohol can be an irritant to the stomach and the walls of the intestines. So when too much alcohol is consumed, it can actually inhibit proper digestive function and make it more difficult to lose weight.    

What Alcohol is Best for Weight Loss?   

Although alcohol is pretty clearly not helpful for losing weight (or maintaining one’s health), that doesn’t mean that a drink every once in a while will totally disrupt your weight loss goals. When consumed in moderation, alcohol can still be a minor part of your diet. The trick is to make the right choices. Below are some helpful tips for selecting alcoholic beverages beverages that will have the least impact on weight loss: 

  • Count Calories: Most hard liquors have about 95-110 calories per serving (10g), while a beer or a glass of wine contains upwards of 125 calories per serving. So whatever alcohol you choose, it’s important to keep in mind the minimum calorie content of every drink you consume. 
  • Beware of Mixers: A shot of rum contains about 97 calories, which is manageable even for someone on a diet. But if some kind of juice or soda or some other mixer is added to it, the extra calories can very quickly add up. 
  • Consider Whiskey: Whiskey isn’t the lowest calorie count (105 calories), but it is a beverage that appeals to many without the need for mixers. 
  • Don’t Overdo Wine: It is popularly known that red wine has valuable antioxidants that bring numerous health benefits; while this is true, the benefits of a glass of wine (or white wine) can be almost negated by drinking excessive amounts of wine. 
  • Vodka: With one of the lowest calorie counts (97), vodka is a classic choice for drinking while on a diet. When mixed with soda water (the classic “vodka soda”) or tonic, you can mind your calories while still hanging out with your friends. 
  • Modify Ingredients: Instead of Coke, choose Diet Coke. Instead of juice, use club soda. Instead of a sugary fruit mixer, use muddled fresh fruit or lime juice. By making some simple substitutions, you can enjoy your drink while still reducing the overall calories. 
  • Low-Calorie Beer: In addition to the empty calories of alcohol, beer also includes calories from carbs. This makes beer one of the least friendly drinks for a diet, but if you have to have a beer, switching to a light beer or low-carb beer will have around 50 fewer calories per drink. 
  • Avoid Complex Cocktails: Usually, the most “fun” mixed drinks at a party or a bar are the kinds with multiple (sometimes unknown) ingredients. When drinking while on a diet, simplicity is key; after all, a frozen margarita or pina colada, for example, can easily have more than 250 calories in one 5oz drink. 
  • Mocktails: If you just want to avoid being the one person not drinking in a social situation, you might also consider a “mocktail,” a mock cocktail that has no alcohol. You’ll still have to plan for any added sugar in the other ingredients, but it’s an easy way to shave off 100+ calories from the beverage. 

Bottom Line: Avoid Alcohol 

The bottom line is that our bodies treat alcohol as a toxin, so we would all be better off in terms of dieting and overall health if we never drank at all. But as alluded to earlier, alcohol is a normal part of the human experience and isn’t particularly harmful when done in moderation. If you don’t want to totally avoid alcohol, the tips above are a good starting point for how to modify the way you drink. That said, be aware that if you have had an endobariatric procedure, True You Weight Loss recommends that alcohol be avoided for at least one year after the procedure takes place.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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