Can you drink alcohol and still lose weight?
When you're on a diet, you know you should probably pass up the dessert menu, but what about the cocktail menu?
It's a question researchers and dieters alike have grappled with for years, usually while clinging to a bottle of booze. In the end, the answer isn't all that different from any other solid weight-loss tip out there: Everything in moderation.
That's because, while overdoing it on alcohol is a surefire way to pack on the pounds, research published in The Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that responsible drinkers are thinner, on average, than people who lay off alcohol altogether.
The Downside of Your Drink
As anyone who has tried to drink a few glasses of wine with that salad can attest, alcohol makes you want to eat everything. But that's not just because alcohol throws inhibition out of the window. Alcohol also reduces your body's levels of leptin, a hormone responsible for telling your body "we're full." Just three glasses slash levels by 30 percent, according to research published in Alcohol & Alcoholism. That's more than enough to make you feel ravenous and follow up your salad with a burger and some ice cream.
That may be why a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that men consume an extra 168 calories from food on the days they drink. They also eat more fat and fewer fruits and veggies on drinking days, says lead researcher Rosalind Breslow, an epidemiologist with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research.
To add insult to button-popping injury, alcohol doesn't allow your body to burn those calories as it should. That's because when you drink alcohol, your body goes on alert to break down the toxin immediately, ignoring calories from sugar, fat and whipped cream until after all of the alcohol is cleared from your system, explains Dr. Randy Wexler, a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. So rather than being burned for energy, those calories are stored around your middle as fat.
Something to Toast About
So what's this about drinkers being thinner than teetotalers?
Well, while red wine's heart-health benefits are acknowledged, all alcohol (again, in moderation) might promote weight loss. For instance, one 12-year Harvard School of Public Health study of 46,892 men found that having one to two drinks of beer, white wine or liquor per day reduced men's risk of developing diabetes by 36 percent, by improving insulin sensitivity and regulating blood sugar levels.
Meanwhile, moderate drinkers may just lead slimmer lifestyles than people who shun the sauce. "People may compensate for calories consumed when drinking by eating less for the next day or so," Breslow says. And the Archives study found that women who drink moderately exercise more than their sober counterparts.
So What's "Moderate," Anyway?
"For most people, the hardest part of incorporating alcohol into a healthy diet is knowing when to stop," says board-certified weight-loss physician Dr. Caroline Cederquist, creator of the weight-loss program bistroMD and author of "The MD Factor."
According to the NIAAA, men should stop at four drinks a day or 14 drinks per week, and women should pump the breaks at three drinks a day or seven drinks per week, whichever they hit first. Sounds like a pretty hefty dose of alcohol – until you consider how much is actually in a drink.
The NIAAA defines one drink as a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine or 1 1/2-ounce shot of an 80-proof spirit. The average U.S. watering hole serves up 22 to 43 percent more, according to one Alcohol Research Group study.
But while the size and number of drinks you toss back certainly impact your weight-loss results, so can the contents of your glass. Those standard servings of beer, wine and spirits, for instance, will only set you back somewhere between 100 and 145 calories, but the average martini, daiquiri and margarita contain about 275, 675 and 750 calories, respectively, says Cederquist. And remember what we said about how calories consumed when drinking end up as fat?
So skip the sugar-packed cocktails, and stick with (a moderate amount) of the straight stuff.