Does alcohol make you fat?

Does alcohol make you fat? Not necessarily, through its direct consumption; but it can as a result of its consumption.

Alcohol is a toxin containing calories

Alcohol is a toxin for the body. When ingested, the body tries to get rid of it quickly. Alcohol has no nutritional benefits unlike carbohydrates, fats and proteins. This doesn’t mean it has no benefits at all – it can temporarily lower blood pressure and reduce the release of the stress hormone cortisol – but as a nutritional component (vitamins, minerals and as an efficient energy source) it has no benefit. However, it does still contain calories:

  • Protein – 4 calories per gram
  • Carbohydrates – 4 calories per gram
  • Alcohol – 7 calories per gram
  • Fats – 9 calories per gram

As alcohol isn’t a natural nutritional component for the body, it’s digestion doesn’t occur in the same way as with food.

Alcohol has preferential treatment in digestion

Once ingested, alcohol is absorbed through the walls of the stomach, into the bloodstream and small intestine and then into the liver where it can finally be digested. In contrast, food starts to be digested in the mouth and continues the process efficiently through the stages that alcohol bypasses.

However, because alcohol is a toxin, its digestion gains preferential treatment over natural caloric substances so that the body can rid itself of it as quickly as possible. This comes at the expense of other nutritional components that may need to be digested at the same time the alcohol has been consumed.

The eagerly digested alcohol provides the body with energy. Here is where we see a problem.

Calories without the benefits

Alcohol is providing us with energy but without nutritional benefits. It will allow us to be somewhat active through its energy provision, but it won’t provide with the necessary array of vitamins and minerals that a balanced meal supplies that are fundamental to our lives.

If you consume a balanced meal alongside alcohol consumption, you may think that the nutritional limitations of alcohol are addressed. This is true to some extent. A normal, healthy liver can process about 15 ml of pure alcohol (that’s 170 to 340 ml of beer, 150 ml of wine, or 30 ml of 40% spirit) in an hour. This volume of consumption provides enough time for the body to digest the alcohol and a balanced meal without more than a hiccup in the digestion process.

However, in terms of putting on weight, the calories in alcohol count towards your daily calorie intake. The more alcohol you consume, the longer it takes the body to process it and the more your body will use the calories from alcohol for its energy supply over other foods. Thus, if you don’t take into account the alcohol calories, or you consume a meal that has more calories than you need, the more of an excess you will have. As with all calories consumed in excess of necessity, these can be stored as body fat.

The bitter-sweet nature of sugar

What’s more, alcoholic drinks are never 100% alcohol – you may be rather ill if they were. Thus, the drink will contain other nutritional substances. This is usually sugar, either natural or artificial. Sugar is one of the fastest digesting food substances. With its ingestion, the body looks to shuttle it out of the bloodstream and into cells (muscles, liver or fat) as quickly as possible to ensure that it is diligently reducing the likelihood of allowing toxic levels accumulate in the bloodstream. It is with continual overconsumption of sugar, and the gradual inefficiency of the sugar removal process, that can lead to diabetes.

As you may know from previous articles, high sugar foods are one of the more volatile substances for weight management – only a small amount consumed in excess of what the body needs at a time and it is quickly shuttled into fat stores. Thus, although sugar is one of the fastest digesting components in the body, it still comes second to alcohol. With alcohol taking preference in the digestive process, and giving the body energy, the sugar from the drink, or within the food consumed alongside the alcoholic drink, becomes more and more unnecessary. The sugar’s necessary continues to reduce the more alcohol is consumed. Thus, without immediate digestion and useage, it is more likely that the sugar will be shuttled into fat cells.

Best and worst food-alcohol combinations

The more unbalanced a meal when consumed in conjunction with alcohol, the more likely that body fat will be stored. For example a glass of red wine (13%) consumed with a chicken salad is unlikely to store body fat as long as your calories for the day are not in excess of your total input. However, a Southern Comfort (40%) and Coke (or five) consumed before a kebab-shop-bought burger and milkshake at the end of a night will more likely store body fat as there will be an excess and imbalance of calories for what the body needs.

For comparison, a Southern Comfort and Coke consumed with a chicken salad is also more likely to store body fat than the glass of red wine and chicken salad in relative terms. This is because the alcohol and sugar content of the Southern Comfort and Coke, and thus the total calorie provision, will be greater than the glass of red wine meaning that the calories from food become less of an energy necessity and are more likely to be stored as body fat.

To conclude

The consumption of alcohol doesn’t necessarily provide you with immediate fat gain; however, it will provide you with energy that is digested preferentially to other sources of energy. Alcohol has no nutritional benefits, unlike food substances. Thus, we need to consume food to provide us with an efficient energy source and the micronutrients that allow us to live. But with every drink ingested, the less ‘important’ the calories from the food become for providing us with immediate energy. Moreover, the more alcohol that is consumed, the longer it’ll take to digest, and the longer it’ll take for food calories to gain digestive preference. This means that the nutritional calories become more likely to be stored as body fat.

Take home points:

  1. Drink slowly and irregularly and you will do little damage to your waistline
  2. Consume one alcoholic drink over an hour
  3. Take into account the calories it will provide you towards your daily needs
  4. Ensure the food you ingest around your drink has ‘bang for its buck’ nutritionally (vitamins and minerals) to supplement alcohol’s lack of benefits
  5. However, make sure the food you consume is not calorie high
  6. Finally, the lower the alcohol and sugar content of a drink, the less likely it will see you put on weight

Your best choices in their standard measures that are between 80-150 calories are: dry wines and sparkling varieties; gin or vodka and diet tonic or soda; half a pint of low alcoholic beer.

Drink responsibly. For more information on the effects of alcohol and the legal limits for driving please visit: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/

Chris James MA

Head of Fitness and Nutrition

Fitness Body Pro

Chris James
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