Will giving up alcohol help you lose weight?

If you’re wondering whether drinking alcohol can affect weight loss, consider this: According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), alcoholic beverages contain calories but not nutrients. That is why calories from alcoholic beverages are often called “empty calories.” These calories don’t properly fuel your body and can hinder weight loss.

If you’re trying to lose weight and eat in a health-conscious manner, it’s good to start by cutting sources of empty calories, like alcohol.

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In 2015, Current Obesity Reports published a comprehensive review of research on weight loss and alcohol. The authors found that light to moderate alcohol intake (two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women) was not associated with obesity.

Binge drinking (defined as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting) and heavy drinking (more than four drinks per day for men, and more than three for women) were another story. These behaviors were associated with weight gain and obesity risk. The review also noted that alcohol and weight gain were strongly linked in certain populations, like adolescents and older adults.

So how does alcohol affect weight? While moderate alcohol consumption won’t cause weight gain, heavy drinking likely can. People who want to lose weight should calculate how many calories alcoholic beverages add to their diet.

Why Can Alcohol Cause Weight Gain?

According to a New York Times article on alcohol and weight loss, alcohol is a toxic substance that isn’t stored in the body in the same way as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

When alcohol calories are used for fuel, it decreases the body’s use of other sources of calories. People who drink must eat less or exercise more to maintain their weight. That means some people may need to choose between weight loss and alcohol.

What Is the Average Calorie Count in an Alcoholic Beverage?

According to the NIH’s alcohol calorie calculator:

  • One 12-ounce beer usually contains 153 calories.
  • A 12-ounce light beer contains around 100 calories.
  • Distilled spirits, like gin, rum, vodka, whiskey, or tequila, contain about 97 calories per 1.5-ounce shot.
  • Liqueurs have 165 calories per 1.5-ounce shot.
  • Wines have around 120 calories per 5-ounce glass.

Adding a mixer like orange juice to your alcoholic drink will add more calories than the number noted above.

If you’re trying to lose weight, here’s how the calories in alcohol stack up against some foods. A medium apple has about 70 calories, a banana has about 105 calories, and a large egg has about 102 calories. Do the math and you’ll see that drinking one beer is equivalent to eating about two apples, a glass of wine has a few more calories than a banana, and an egg has about the same calorie count as a shot of gin. But the difference is that an apple, a banana, or an egg provide your body with important nutrients, while alcohol does not.

Can I Lose Weight by Cutting Back on Alcohol?

The NIH recommends losing weight slowly, aiming to drop one-half to two pounds per week. To lose about one pound per week, you’ll likely need to consume 500 fewer calories per day than your body typically burns — meaning that alcohol and weight loss are tough to combine. Ultimately, the best way to achieve a sustainable calorie deficit is to exercise more and eat (and drink) a bit less. Instead of the empty calories you get from alcohol, filling up on nutrient dense foods can help keep your weight in check.

For diet and nutrition information and counseling, schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian at Nutrition Services at UPMC.