Everything you should know before your next happy hour.
If you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight, the first step is to look at what you’re eating regularly and assess whether it helps you meet your nutritional goals. But it’s not just about food. What you drink is a big factor as well, and that includes the beer you might pop open during a summer cookout or the bottle of wine you share with a friend over dinner.
Weight is certainly not the be-all and end-all when it comes to health, but if you think booze may be coming into play when it comes to yours, there are a few things you may want to know about alcohol intake and body composition, straight from experts.
Alcohol keeps your body from burning fat
You might have heard the term “empty calories” used in relation to alcohol. This means your body can convert the calories from alcohol for energy, but those calories contain little to no beneficial nutrients or minerals, Krissy Maurin, MS, ACT, lead wellness coordinator at Providence St. Joseph Hospital’s Wellness Center in Orange County, California, tells Health.
“Alcohol isn’t treated like other nutrients in food; in fact, the digestive system works extra hard to eliminate it from the body, prioritizing the elimination of alcohol ahead of all other nutrients,” Maurin says. “If you were to have a meal with your alcoholic beverage, the nutrient uptake from the meal would be greatly decreased due to the body working so hard to eliminate the alcohol from the body.”
Typically, carbohydrates are the body’s first choice to digest for energy from food, but that completely changes when alcohol is consumed. “The body recognizes alcohol as toxic and shuts down its ability to access all other stored macronutrients—carbs, proteins, and fat—in order to utilize and burn off the alcohol first,” Maurin explains.
Though you may have heard the term “beer belly” before, Maurin says the belief that alcoholic beverages cause increased fat stores around the stomach area actually isn’t accurate. In fact, a very small percentage of the calories you drink from alcohol itself are turned into fat. “The main effect of alcohol is to reduce the amount of fat your body can burn for energy,” she explains. “You are basically shutting down your metabolism, which then leads to weight gain.”
It’s high in calories
In general, alcohol is high in calories. “Protein and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 but alcohol has 7,” Ginger Hultin MS, RDN, and owner of ChampagneNutrition in Seattle tells Health. “When you look at mixers like juices, soda, syrups, cream, whipped cream, or coconut milk, the calories in an alcoholic beverage can be really high.”
Speaking of syrups and whipped cream, some cocktails can be sneakily high in calories. “Some margaritas, daiquiris, and pina coladas can be very high in added sugar and saturated fat,” Hultin adds.
If you want to drink alcohol and are keeping your weight in mind, Hultin recommends sticking to lower-calorie options. Her recommendations include beers with a lower ABV (alcohol by volume), like Pilsners or Lagers (which are around 100 calories per bottle, compared to 150 calories in a “regular” beer), and dry red or white wine (which are around 120 calories per glass). “Aim for 4 to 5% ABV in beer and 10 to 12% in wine,” Hultin says.
If beer and wine don’t get your taste buds going, spirits mixed with water or soda water can also be a low-cal option, like vodka and soda, which contains 133 calories per standard 225-gram glass.
It messes with your hormones
Hormones play a crucial role in the healthy functioning of all the body’s tissues and organs. “When the hormone system is working properly, the right amount of hormone is released at exactly the right time, and the tissues of the body accurately respond to those messages,” explains Maurin.
Drinking alcohol can impair the functions of the glands that release hormones and the functions of the tissues targeted by those hormones, which can result in a range of health issues. “Alcohol consumption causes increased levels of the hormone cortisol, which has been linked to weight gain,” says Maurin.
Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how much alcohol causes this increase in cortisol. “There’s no black and white answer here; everyone is unique in how their bodies react and break down alcohol,” Maurin explains. She notes that many studies on this topic include an “intoxicated” study group and/or alcohol-dependent individuals, who may require a larger amount of alcohol to be affected.
Alcohol makes it harder to get quality sleep
It’s not unusual for people to use alcohol as a sleep aid. “Since alcohol has sedative effects that can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, it can help an individual unwind and get settled for bed,” explains Maurin. However, she points out that consumption of alcohol––especially in excess––has been linked to poor sleep quality and duration. “In fact, individuals who are dependent on alcohol commonly experience insomnia symptoms,” she says.
Again, there’s a link with hormones—in this case, melatonin, which has long been associated with control of the sleep-wake cycle. “Many people find their sleep is quite disrupted after drinking alcohol, and sleep deprivation is strongly linked to weight gain over time,” Hultin says.
It can make you feel hungry
After a couple of drinks, the munchies often kick in—meaning you’re more likely to grab whatever quick and easy snack without really thinking about it.
Those hunger pangs are caused by a couple of different things, Hultin explains. First of all, alcohol can cause blood sugar levels to dip. “This can trigger hunger cues and sometimes cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods,” she says.
Also, researchers have found that alcohol affects an area of the brain that controls appetite and this can cause intense hunger, especially the day after drinking. One study found that nerve cells in the brain’s hypothalamus that are generally activated by actual starvation can be stimulated by alcohol. Those intense hunger cues can make you reach for high-calorie foods, like pizza and burgers.
There’s also evidence that alcohol can influence hormones linked to feeling full, such as leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), which inhibits food intake. One study found that the ingestion of “moderate” amounts of alcohol inhibits leptin secretion in healthy subjects.
“This is paired with the fact that alcohol lowers inhibitions, meaning many people reach for foods that they’d normally avoid, such as those high in fat or sodium,” Hultin adds.
Remember, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025, recommend that if you drink alcohol, do it in moderation—that’s no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, mental illness, and dementia, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).