Alcohol is produced through the fermentation of products like grain, fruit, or other sugar sources, and alcoholic beverages fit the description of what we commonly refer to as “empty calories”[i]. That means your body doesn’t depend on alcohol intake, and alcohol is not a good source of essential nutrients. Alcohol consumption is linked to a variety of health conditions from cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. For some conditions such as breast cancer there is no safe amount of alcohol intake: any level of alcohol consumption has been associated with increased risk of breast cancer[ii].
For many of us, though, alcohol is culturally and socially important: we use it to relax or celebrate special occasions. Even though eliminating alcohol from our diet may be the healthiest option we can also practice harm reduction: limiting the servings we consume, reducing the frequency of consumption, opting for lower carbohydrate and lower calorie choices, incorporating nonalcoholic substitutes, and making sure to hydrate adequately!
Why is it hard to lose weight when consuming alcohol?
A big part of the answer as to why alcohol may slow weight loss or even lead to weight gain is the calorie content. A regular beer contains on average 150 calories, but the higher the percent alcohol by volume the higher the calorie count, with many craft beers clocking in over 200 calories[iii]. Red and white wines often have around 120-130 calories per serving, but dessert wines will come out closer to 150[iv]. As for liquor, a 1.5oz serving is going to come out at 100+ calories[v]! The average calorie count on your favorite cocktails might surprise you[vi]:
Bloody Mary: 120 cal
Cosmopolitan: 146 cal
Margarita: 168 cal
Pina colada: 526 cal
But it isn’t just the calories in alcohol hindering your weight loss – because of the way alcohol is made it is often a high carbohydrate beverage. Reducing your carbohydrate intake can lower insulin levels and trigger fat burning[vii]. If your weight loss plan involves being in a state of ketosis, then having that beer on the weekend or a cocktail at happy hour can knock you right out of ketosis and set back your weight loss efforts.
A final piece of the puzzle is that alcohol is also dehydrating[viii] and studies demonstrate a link between hydration and weight[ix]. Given what we know about the importance of water to your overall health this is no surprise: your body needs water to carry oxygen and nutrients to your cells, flush out metabolic waste, support organ health, and regulate your body temperature[x].
We’ve seen items in the news about certain amounts or types of alcoholic beverages being healthy, what’s the truth?
Here’s what we know for sure: alcohol is linked to a variety of short- and long-term health risks ranging from breast, colon, and liver cancer to high blood pressure, to motor vehicle accidents[xi]. Alcohol is responsible for an estimated 88,000 deaths in the United States annually, making it one of the leading causes of preventable deaths[xii]. While some studies have shown benefits from consuming moderate amounts of certain types of alcohol, they have not been conclusive. As far as the stories you have seen in the news regarding drinkers having better health outcomes than abstainers, take those results with a grain of salt. The category of study participants in these papers defined as abstainers or non-drinkers often includes people who have reported conflicting information regarding their alcohol use history, or who may be in recovery from substance use disorders, as well as folks who may not be drinking due to chronic illness or because they are on medications that interact with alcohol, which skews their level of risk for negative health outcomes[xiii],[xiv],[xv]. These factors are often poorly controlled for in population studies, and not always represented accurately in the news.
How do I make healthier choices with alcohol, or participate when people around me are drinking?
Watching the amounts you drink, and how often, is a good first step in making healthier choices with alcohol. The CDC recommends that if you are going to consume alcohol, women should limit themselves to one drink, and men to two drinks[xvi]. When choosing an alcoholic beverage consider steering towards lower calorie, lower carb options like a vodka and diet soda, a wine spritzer made with club soda, or a light beer. If you’re going to drink, be sure to up your water intake to help your body replace the fluid lost due to alcohol.
When getting together with friends and family consider shifting the focus away from alcohol – meet in the park for a picnic, take a walk together, go for coffee, or enjoy a bike ride! If your goal is to consume in moderation making sure you aren’t setting up events at locations where you will be prompted to drink will help your stick to your resolutions.
To reduce your alcohol consumption, consider trying a mocktail in place of an alcoholic beverage. That way you can enjoy a fun, tasty option without compromising your goals for your health! You can make your mocktails as basic or as fancy as you like: for an easy option, consider a simple lime or lemon twist in zero calorie sparkling water, or try mixing one of our H2O enhancers with a diet soda. Check out our custom mocktail recipes for more creative ideas: