What is the relationship between alcohol and weight loss? Can you enjoy a glass or two of wine (or your tipple) and still lose weight? Or do you need to acquire a taste for sparkling water?
Perhaps you loathe to even look at how alcohol may be getting in the way of your weight loss because after a long, hard day at work, you ‘need’ a glass or two of wine to unwind and relax? Or would weekends without your favourite drink be so dismal?
Although I ask everyone who does a Body Cleanse as part of one of my EatWell.BeWell programs to give up alcohol for 2–5 weeks, I know that most people enjoy alcohol and would not wish to give it up permanently. So that brings up the question: ‘Can you STILL drink and lose weight?’ Hmm… sadly it’s not straightforward as it is dependent on so many things including your age, health and current weight and your body’s ability to process alcohol: for you the answer might be; yes, no, or just a little! Let’s begin by looking at what happens when you drink alcohol.
HOW ALCOHOL IMPACTS ON YOUR WEIGHT LOSS
When you drink your favourite tipple it very quickly reaches your stomach where 25% of the alcohol is absorbed into your blood stream. The remaining 75% takes slightly longer as it has to travel through your small intestines before it enters your blood stream. Your blood transports the alcohol to your liver where 90–98% is broken down into sugars where it can be used by your body as a source of energy or stored as body fat — energy reserves for later use. The final 2-10% of alcohol is sweated, urinated or breathed out of your body.
The speed at which your body can metabolise (break down) alcohol depends on the proof of the alcohol, your age, your health, your enzyme make-up as well as whether or not you consume it with food. Carbonated drinks like Champagne and spirits with mixers are absorbed more quickly, whilst drinking alcohol with food slows down the process. Typically, every unit of alcohol takes an hour to process, so one 175 ml glass of 13% proof Shiraz (slightly more than 2 units) will take more than 2 hours to clear your system. If alcohol is taken in faster than your liver can metabolise it, this leads to being and feeing drunk anything from slightly merry to totally inebriated, and in varying degrees your body and mind are temporarily impaired.
The first issue then around drink and weight loss is the strong likelihood that your body will convert alcohol into stored body fat. This is because most alcohol is drunk in the evenings, when your energy requirements are lower than earlier in the day.
LESS SMART WITH EVERY GLASS DRUNK
Almost 8 years ago, I decided to stop drinking alcohol altogether. I wasn’t a heavy drinker, but I enjoyed wine at the weekends and when socialising. I also recognised that I sometimes drank to ease my pain (overwhelm, stress, loneliness) and in this way I was ‘using’ alcohol. And I think a lot of women do this too—despite not wanting to admit it.
Going to parties as a non-drinker is very enlightening. Perhaps you have witnessed the same if you’ve been the designated driver. Typically at the beginning of a party, I have interesting and meaningful conversations, but as the evening progresses, I hear the same story told over again – often embellished! —and their words are ever-so-slightly slurred. People’s behaviour subtly (and sometimes not so subtly!) changes too. When I used to drink, I never realised the extent of these changes in people which makes me realise I was just like that too.
At home, you may be perfectly happy to have just one small glass, but very few will take this approach at a party or an evening out. Going out is associated with having several or even drinking a lot. Alcohol stimulates the pleasure/reward areas of your brain whilst it diminishing the rational, cognitive abilities of your brain. Whether at home, or when out, an intention of having ‘just one glass of wine’ of wine will often be ‘overwritten’ by your brain’s desire to experience pleasure. In this way it’s so very easy to drink 1, 2 or more glasses after you have drunk your first glass. And this is the second issue of drinking and weight loss: can you find ways to have, enjoy and be satisfied by having just have one drink?
UNITS AND CALORIES
If you know me already, you know I believe counting calories for weight loss is a complete and utter waste of time: calories alone will never help you be healthy – in fact choosing processed foods with the lowest calorie content will almost guarantee you will put on weight! (breathe Jennie, breathe!) BUT just occasionally using calories as a measure to see what is happening in your body is useful. Using the Drink Aware Calculator I put in my old pattern of wine drinking which typically amounted to one-and-a-half bottles of red wine a week. In the calculator, I chose Shiraz and one week’s worth equals 16 units of alcohol – just within the ‘acceptable’ amount but as most of it was drunk on Saturday night, my two-thirds of a bottle counts as binge drinking! I would have never considered my former drinking as ‘binge’ drinking.
In terms of calories the wine I drank equated to almost 1,100 calories week. This is more than half of the mythical average woman’s daily requirement of 2,000 calories. If I was that mythical woman, this would be akin to me eating 26 extra days of food in one year and no real nutrients to boot! And even if my daily needs are/were more, it would still be a lot of extra energy that my body would store as body fat. If you are drinking more than the equivalent of one bottle of wine a week, you could so easily begin to gain weight and/or have difficulty in losing it.
DRINKS AND NIBBLES
When you drink, especially in the evening when not accompanying a meal, do you also desire nibbles? The answer for most people will be ‘yes’. I don’t have the science to prove this , but whilst the brain is getting it’s pleasure high and becoming less smart, I believe the body’s own wisdom sends cravings for starchy foods so the alcohol will be processed more slowly, giving it chance to ‘catch-up’ with the processing it’s valiantly trying to do. Next time you have wine in the evening, try it without nibbles. Is this an easy or challenging thing to do?
FIVE TIPS FOR CHANGING ALCOHOL HABITS FOR EASIER WEIGHT LOSS
As you can see there are many pitfalls when drinking alcohol and trying to lose weight. I know though that very few of you will want to follow in my footsteps and stop completely, so these are my 5 Tips to help you moderate your alcohol intake and diminish the risk of self-sabotaging your weight loss:
- Find out your true alcohol consumption by using the DrinkAware Calculator and from this make a decision whether you need to cut down the volume or what alcohol choices might be better for you. This calculator includes specific brands so it is an excellent tool.
- Find out whether or not you really like the taste of alcohol. When I drank, I tried to develop a ‘nose’ for wine, distinguishing the different undertones and so forth, but did I actually like the taste? No! This more than anything made me realise that I really drank wine for the effect it had on me!
- Make a contract with yourself about WHAT you will drink and WHEN it’s OK (and not OK) for you to drink. For example you might say it’s OK to have one glass of wine when at home per evening but that at least 2 days a week you will not have any alcohol. Or that you will only drink on Friday and Saturday. And/or when at a party every other drink will be a soft drink, and/or you will limit it x number in the evening. Decide what feels right for you—then stick to it.
- Write down your intentions about alcohol on notes and put them in places you will see them regularly because a written note will have more power than just a thought. Good places include on the inside your wardrobe door, in your knickers drawer, in jacket pockets and if appropriate on the fridge and beside your bathroom mirror. Each time you read them, it ingrains the message into your subconscious, and more importantly helps take away the need for willpower in the moment you need it because you have already made the decision (see my earlier article on Willpower).
- Try out different non-alcoholic drinks—you might be pleasantly surprised. See my mocktails article I wrote for some inspiration.
Eat Well—Be Well 🙂