Can you still have a drink and lose weight?
We get this question a lot. Clients who sign up to a weight loss programme want to know if they can still have a drink. You can tell by the question that they are hoping the answer is yes, but they will begrudgingly give it up if we tell them they must.
But we also get clients for whom it’s more important. “I’m not going to stop drinking. I just want to put that out there before we start,” they will say, in a slightly confrontational way. Or they won’t even come and have a consultation because they ‘know’ we’ll ask them to give it up or reduce it.
Do you need to give it up? Yes and no. Can you still have a drink and lose weight? Yes, you can. Will you be the best version of you by the end of it? No, you won’t. Will you even get the results you were seeking? Probably not.
The path you choose very much depends on your priorities and the pros and cons of having a drink, as you see them. If you like a drink, but would also want to lose weight, this article will contain a good deal of information to help you think about it.
You may feel you’re in for a self-righteous lecture from a boring tee-total fitness fanatic with unrealistic expectations of others. Before you roll your eyes at me, have a read of the next section.
If I had carried on behaving the way I did in my late teens and early twenties, I’m pretty sure I’d have been six foot under for a good 15 years by now. I was the epitome of everything that gives students a bad name.
I was a heavy drinker. How heavy? In my second year as an undergraduate, I averaged 50 pints a week. That’s 100 units. That’s over seven times the current UK government safe limit. On two occasions I hit 70 pints. That’s ten a day for seven days. It barely seems possible.
How do I know that? Because I kept a score. I had an immature pride in being a ‘good drinker’ and would compare numbers with my drinking buddies. I wasn’t alone. All my friends from back home, from the football club, from lectures; we all drank a lot. Not quite as much as me, but several times over the recommended limit I’d say.
I was probably both naïve and complacent about the health risks. And at that time, body composition was not a concept I knew about, so I didn’t even recognise myself as wobbly. It was only because I played a lot of football and squash that I managed to avoid being obese.
I continued drinking a lot through my post-graduate days until my mid-twenties. As a student, I didn’t have the pressure of needing to get up early and present myself well. I got enough sleep, and I don’t ever remember feeling tired. I probably looked awful a lot of the time but, like a stereotypical academic, my appearance wasn’t at the top of my worry-list.
By the time I got a job, I’d reined it in a little. That said, I was still having a couple of beers a night and a couple of big blow-outs at the weekend. But the beers were affecting the quality and quantity of my sleep. The difference though, was that if I slept poorly, that was just tough luck. I still had to get up when the alarm went off. It impacted my performance at work, and I didn’t look the part either.
So, I had to rein it in even further, and I became a ‘weekend drinker’. That was still my mindset, though – weekends were for going out and getting drunk. I couldn’t bring myself to stay in on a Saturday night; it just seemed wrong. Go to the cinema? That was a waste of drinking time!
No more drink!
Even that mindset changed eventually, with the arrival of little human alarm clocks. Suddenly, staying in on a Saturday night and getting an early night seemed like a great idea! A couple of beers on a Friday and Saturday – that would do.
Ultimately, as I got more into fitness and health, that reduced my tolerance to alcohol to virtually zero. A blow-out would have killed me. Even the Friday night beer was giving me a headache the next morning. What was the point? I might as well give up drinking altogether!
And give it up I did. It didn’t fit my changing priorities, and it certainly was not compatible with appearing on a bodybuilding stage.
So, you see, I’m not about to preach to you about alcohol consumption. I do get it. And I’m certainly not a born-again teetotaller: I won’t sneer at you for having a drink. I’ve been there. But knowing what I know now, and with my current lifestyle, I’ll never go back there. Let’s find out why.
Alcohol and weight loss
Of course, part of the reason why I no longer drink is because I did this research many years ago. I discovered that drinking was incompatible with my aspiration of getting ripped and appearing with some credibility in my budgie-smugglers on a bodybuilding stage. I’ve never taken the time to write it out, though. So here goes.
First of all, I’ll simply say that you can have a drink and lose weight. But it’s going to be more challenging. And you may not get the look you were hoping to achieve. Of course, the more you drink, the harder it will be. Here’s why; this is what alcohol does:
Increases fat synthesis
Alcohol stimulates lipogenesis – that’s the synthesis of new fatty acids, especially in the liver. Fatty acids and cholesterol are also by-products of alcohol breakdown.
Inhibits fat oxidation
This is a double whammy. Not only does alcohol encourage the formation of new fat, it inhibits its disposal for energy via oxidation. That means fatty deposits are more likely to accumulate and can cause, for example, a fatty liver.
That’s a fancy word for glucose synthesis. One of the jobs of the liver is to make some more glucose when blood sugar goes low. It will do this between meals to maintain blood glucose in a tightly defined range. If it failed to do so, then a hypoglycaemic – low blood sugar – episode (a ‘hypo’) might be the result.
Have you ever been ravenously hungry after a drink on an empty stomach? Have you ever had the munchies after a drink? You were experiencing low blood sugar. You might even have felt light-headed and felt a cold sweat. That was a proper hypo, and it was the result of alcohol inhibiting gluconeogenesis in your liver.
Why does that affect weight loss? Because it heavily influences feeding behaviour. Let’s be honest; you’re not going to gorge on salad when you’re feeling like that. You’re going to raid the crisps and nuts, the biscuits, get a bag of chips or a greasy kebab.
Negatively affects some important hormones
Both acute and chronic alcohol consumption
- Lowers testosterone.
- Inhibits growth hormone.
- Increases cortisol.
- Increases oestrogen.
- Lowers thyroid hormone.
All of these are bad for weight loss and body composition change. In one way or another, they will reduce muscle synthesis and increase fat storage.
Disturbs your circadian rhythm
The effect of alcohol on the circadian rhythm has been likened to that of jet-lag. That’s a pretty severe disruption, and it’s bad news if you’re trying to lose weight.
Your daily rhythm, or circadian rhythm, is tightly coupled with many physiological processes. Disruption of this rhythm by night shifts, poor sleep, time zone travel or alcohol can trigger metabolic disturbances causing weight gain, insulin resistance and liver diseases.
So, if you’re a regular drinker, your sleep is disturbed, and your circadian rhythm is out of kilter, then you’re going to stifle your efforts to lose weight.
Sitting down and having a drink triggers the release of dopamine in the reward centres of the brain. It’s a pleasurable experience; it’s relaxing. And it’s something that you’ll seek out again.
But it’s not just the alcohol; it can be the habit. You can derive a lot of pleasure from the ritual of coming home, slipping off your shoes, changing into comfy clothes and having a glass of wine. That’s something you’ll look forward to all the way home. It’s an important habit for you, and it would be not easy to break.
But is it helping you in the long run? After all, it increases your stress hormones such as cortisol. It disturbs your sleep. And it disrupts your circadian rhythm. You may be more tired and more stressed than you would otherwise be.
Suppresses your immune system
Both acute and chronic alcohol consumption will impair your immune response. I know this from experience. There was a time when I had reduced my alcohol intake to virtually nothing, but I would still have one or two big corporate drink-ups leading up to Christmas. That was the only time I ever got ill, two to three days after the booze-up.
Illness will stop you exercising, and it may prevent you getting out and about. You’ll be sedentary for a few days. What’s more, when your body is under attack, and your immune system is working hard, it has an increased need for protein. If you’re not feeding, you’ll scavenge your own muscle tissue. I’ve gone back to the gym after illness and found that my strength was a lot lower than should be expected by the length of the lay-off. It then took me several weeks to get my strength and fitness back.
So, to be clear, being ill is not good for your health and weight loss journey. You may not put weight on, but you’ll lose muscle and fitness and, ultimately, lose ground.
And let’s not forget the calories
There are so many weight-loss-affecting properties of alcohol; it’s easy to forget it has calories. Quite a lot of them! Seven calories per gramme, to be more accurate. That compares with protein and carbohydrate at four calories per g, and fat at nine. So, it’s closer to fat than it is to protein.
It’s a myth that by switching from beer to vodka, you’re going to save yourself a lot of calories. You’ll save some, but most of the calories are in the alcohol itself.
A typical glass of wine will give you around 150 calories. Let’s say you’re on a 1500 calorie allowance to lose weight. You have two glasses of wine with your dinner. You’ve got 1200 left for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any snacks. It’s not a lot; it’s below your Basal Metabolic Rate, the number of calories you need to keep yourself alive. It may not be enough for you to get all the nutrients you need to be healthy. Indeed, you’ll need to make sure everything you eat is packed with nutrients – there’s no room for processed food.
Alcohol and health
Aside from the implications for weight loss, there are also health concerns associated with alcohol.
- Accumulation of fat in the liver.
- Disturbances of circadian rhythm and immune system, as mentioned above.
- Detrimental changes to the microbiome. If you read our article on fibre, you’ll understand the importance of your gut microbes to your health. You’ll also know that they are hypersensitive to what you feed them. If you encourage an unhealthy microbiome through poor diet and alcohol, it can lead to chronic inflammation and a variety of health complications.
- Contributes to heart disease and type 2 diabetes for heavy drinkers. Note, though, that there is a U-shaped distribution for both these conditions. In other words, moderate drinking is associated with a reduced risk compared to no alcohol or heavy drinking.
- Increases the risk of cancer. The initial breakdown of alcohol produces a toxic chemical and known carcinogen, acetaldehyde. Alcohol consumption has been associated with several cancers.
A recent review paper suggests that the safe limit for alcohol consumption should be zero. A major contributing factor to this assessment is the association with cancer.
How to include alcohol on your weight loss journey
You can have a drink and still lose weight. Here are our tips to make it work for you or merely to drink less.
Set your expectations
You may lose weight, but:
- You may not lose as much as you hoped.
- Your body composition changes will not be as good as you might expect. That’s because there are so many ways in which alcohol tips the balance towards fat accumulation and muscle loss.
Expect these things, and ask yourself whether you’re happy to accept them.
Drink in moderation
Most studies show that binge drinking has far worse consequences than having one or two units a day. Enjoy the odd glass of wine with your meals and stay within government guidelines of 14 units a week.
Count the calories
You must factor the calories in your drink into your overall calorie allowance. An excess of just 200 calories a day could lead to weight gain of a stone and a half in the space of a year. And that’s only factoring in the calories, not the effects of hormonal changes, alcohol-driven hunger, sleep disturbances and so on. Count your drink, take it away from your allowance and see what’s left. The remainder is what you can have as food or non-alcoholic beverages.
Count the opportunity cost
Every time you have a drink, you’re stealing a part of your calorie allowance. That represents reduced opportunity to take in some healthy nutrients, to trigger muscle protein synthesis, to burn some fat and stimulate positive body composition changes. It’s also an increased risk of health disturbances.
Think about the cost when you are about to have a drink. It may make you think twice about whether you want the drink.
Drink with meals
If you drink on an empty stomach, you’ll absorb the alcohol much quicker, and you’re more likely to experience ravenous hunger caused by a hypo. That will affect your eating behaviours. Avoid the pre-meal drink and instead enjoy a glass of wine with a meal.
Exercise as soon as you can
If you’ve had a few drinks, it may take a while for your physiology to return to normal. As I’ve got older, people my age tell me it takes them the best part of the next week to get over it. Exercise can be a great way to clear the cobwebs and reset your physiology and return to normal sooner.
Alternate your drinks
If you have to go out on a social, try alternating drinks. Have a glass of water every other round. People will see you having a drink, so you shouldn’t get the peer pressure. But you’ll also get to stay hydrated and drink half as much as you would have done. You’ll feel better in the morning.
If you’re going to a social event, drive there. You then have a great excuse, and you won’t be dependent on someone else to get you home.
Choose your drinks wisely
Contrary to popular belief, you won’t save many calories by switching from beer to vodka. That’s because most of the calories are in the alcohol itself. But you will save a lot by choosing your mixer wisely. Steer clear of juices and full-sugar soft drinks like coke. You’ll put away hundreds of extra calories if you have a few of those.
Break a habit
Do you need the drink, or do you love the ritual of unwinding at the end of the day? Sometimes it’s the habit that triggers the reward centre in the brain, rather than the actual alcohol. Remember, despite what you may feel, alcohol isn’t doing you any favours in the pursuit of your goals. If you can derive pleasure by keeping the habit but swapping out the drink, then you’ll benefit in lots of ways.
So, can you still have a drink and lose weight? Sure, you can. But,
- You’ll find it harder.
- You won’t achieve the body composition changes you were expecting.
- The more you drink, the less likely you are to succeed.
Are you serious about losing weight well, maximising positive body composition changes and achieving the best body you possibly can? Then the safest thing to do is to keep off the alcohol.
You should quickly find that you can live without it. You’ll feel healthier, fitter, stronger, more alert, more positive and, ultimately, you’ll be more successful.