Alcohol and Weight Loss
The most common nutrition-related question we get from clients is, “Can you drink alcohol and lose weight?”
Our brand holds us accountable for living the healthiest life possible, and still, it’s never crossed our minds to give up drinking. Alcohol and weight loss can be friends.
In this in-depth article, we’ll review scientific findings, explain how alcohol affects weight loss, and leave you with six rules to help you reach and maintain your ideal weight with a drink in hand.
alcohol and weight loss
Is it healthy to drink alcohol like the media often claims? Is alcohol as bad for weight loss as that physique competitor on Instagram says?
We get these questions all the time, so we should have a conclusive answer, right?
Unfortunately, no. The best answer is unique to each individual. While we don’t have a final answer (you’ll soon learn that science doesn’t either), we do have a strong opinion.
After reading this article, you will confidently walk away with your own opinion on what healthy drinking means, and our easy-to-follow rules will help you drink smarter to reach your weight goals.
What the Scientific Studies Show
Hundreds of studies conducted over hundreds of years have drawn conclusions that will make your head spin. These studies seek to answer three main questions regarding alcohol consumption and health:
1. Is drinking alcohol healthy?
2. What is a healthy amount of alcohol to consume?
3. Do you have to cut out alcohol to lose weight?
Regarding alcohol being healthy, the World Health Organization says that alcohol is a level 1 carcinogen. Conversely, the Harvard School of Public Health shares evidence that beer and wine are actually good for you.
In terms of how much to consume, one extensive and recent study concludes that the healthiest amount of alcohol to consume is none at all. Then, another study explains that “frequent light to moderate alcohol intake” — at most two drinks a day for men, one for women — “does not seem to be associated with obesity risk.”
Lastly, there’s the question regarding alcohol and weight loss. The confusion continues with studies finding that cutting out alcohol can make you lose weight or gain weight. One study among identical twin subjects showed both.
Okay, so now that the scientific findings have your head spinning, I’ve lost my train of thought, and Jane E. Brody, health columnist and bestselling author of ‘The New York Times Guide to Alternative Health,” is equally flabbergasted. It’s time to look for answers elsewhere.
“Despite thousands of studies spanning decades, I discovered that alcohol remains one of the most controversial and confusing topics for people concerned about controlling their weight.” – Jane E. Brody
Scratch the Science
To summarize, scientists have not been able to prove that alcohol consumption is unhealthy or consistently leads to weight gain. But that’s not surprising.
Scientists have not been able to prove that any one diet consistently leads to better health. We talk about this in-depth in our article about the vegan debate spurred by The Game Changers film.
Scientific studies on human beings are unreliable because our bodies and minds are all unique, we each have our own opinions and bias, and there are thousands of other variables that are impossible to control.
To further complicate studies on alcohol and health, you have the beverage industry working to preserve the reputation of their business to not follow in the tobacco industry’s footsteps. This skews the unreliable data.
I’m sorry, but we have to scratch the science. In the next section, we’ll reflect on our research and experience regarding the topic.
Form Your Own Opinion
When experts on the topic can’t get on the same page, that’s the signal to take ownership and form your own opinion.
For us, that means reading books, learning from experts on both sides, connecting what we learn to our experiences, and self-experimenting with our newly formed opinions. Here is what we have learned about alcohol and our health.
In The History Of The World In 6 Glasses, it was interesting to learn that beer was consumed far more than water because it was safer (no bacteria due to being boiled). Humans have also enjoyed wine since 6,000 BCE.
With such a long history of drinking ingrained in our culture, it seems unrealistic to pull the plug.
The book, The Blue Zones Solution, is the result of in-depth research on the world’s five longest living and healthiest populations. I expected these people to be sober, but most of the centenarians are daily wine drinkers.
Instead, the research recommends social consumption in moderation, to promote community, health, happiness, and longevity.
Both of us are fortunate to still have our 90-year-old grandfathers with us. They have both been drinking brandy at 7:30 PM sharp for as long as we can remember.
According to this study, “Compared with abstention, consumption of 1 to 6 drinks weekly is associated with a lower risk of incident dementia among older adult.” Well done, Grandpas!
Think about the successful people in your life whose behavior you’d want to emulate. What are their drinking habits? Also, what’s your personal experience with alcohol?
When does drinking make you happier and improve the quality of your life? Like at boozy brunch with loved ones, on a boat in the summertime, celebrating a friend’s wedding with college buddies, etc. Let’s call this positive drinking.
When does drinking detract from the quality of your life? Maybe when it impacts your job performance, hurts your digestion, or makes you sleep away half of the day when you could be spending quality time with your nieces. This, we’ll call negative drinking.
Cutting out negative drinking
We have been drinking since we became adults. As we age and become more in tune with healthy lifestyle choices, we drink less and less.
After college, it got to a point where drinking hurt our productivity at work, so we limited weekday happy hours. This was smart, according to an experiment by New Scientist employees, showing that alcohol abstinence for 30 days yielded a 17 percent boost in performance at their jobs.
Eventually, our career became so busy that sleep was precious. While optimizing our sleep, we realized that alcohol reduced the quality of our rest. The book Why We Sleep confirmed that even moderate drinking is terrible for sleep.
Our last straw with negative drinking was crippling hangovers. They would derail our work activities, healthy meals, and exercise routine, preventing us from having an enjoyable next day (or two).
Currently, we drink moderately (1-2 drinks) one to two times per week. We limit drinking beyond moderation (more than two drinks) to once a month, usually less. We never drink mindlessly, and it’s always a positive drinking experience.
Our Conclusion on Drinking and Weight Loss
So, do we think you can drink alcohol and still be healthy? Yes. Can alcohol and weight loss still go together? Yes.
The caveat: you need to drink smart and in moderation. We’ll talk more about what that means soon.
We don’t try to rationalize why drinking is good for us. Yes, drinking alcohol in a social environment can have stress-relieving and community-building benefits. Plus, there are indeed healthy antioxidants in red wine (although, no more than say, grape juice).
However, cooking or going on a bike ride also has stress-relieving and community-building benefits. And, drinking green tea and eating more plants is a much better antioxidant opportunity than drinking red wine.
Instead of rationalizing drinking alcohol, we choose enjoyment over deprivation and follow some simple rules to moderate our consumption.
In this next section, we’ll discuss how alcohol affects our health and weight loss goals.
How Does Alcohol Affect Weight Loss?
It’s true that alcohol does far more bad than good for weight loss. These are the challenges we are up against when we chose to drink alcohol while targeting weight loss or maintenance.
1. Alcohol is calorie dense
Weight loss is simple. You must consume fewer calories than your body burns, creating a calorie deficit.
Ever heard the term “empty calories?” It’s referring to something with a lot of calories and almost no other nutritional benefits. Alcohol undoubtedly qualifies, making a calorie deficit more challenging.
While beer and wine could contain some beneficial nutrients, consider it negligible. Additionally, wine and beer contain carbs. The distillation process makes spirits carb-free.
But don’t worry, carbs do not make you gain weight. Ignore the “low-carb” label on alcohol because it’s just deceptive marketing. Calories in excess, on the other hand, will make you gain weight.
Since your goal is weight loss, it’s critical to pay attention to the calories in your drinks. Calories directly correlate to alcohol content. Generally, a higher alcohol percentage equals more calories.
Look out trendy craft IPAs and syrup-based mojitos or margaritas at your local bar/restaurant.
- Champagne (5 oz): ~90 calories
- White or red wine (5 oz): ~115 calories
- Shot of 80-proof liquor (1.5 oz): ~100 calories
- Light beer (12 oz): ~100 calories
- Regular beer (12 oz): ~150 calories
- Trendy craft IPA (12 oz): ~200 calories
- Bar/Restaurant Mojito or Margarita: ~300 calories
Again, to lose weight, you need to maintain a calorie deficit. If you want to do this right, periodically tracking your calories is required. If you need help, read about tracking calories in our article titled, ‘30-Day Weight Loss Challenge.’
2. Alcohol is dehydrating
Alcohol is a diuretic. That means it encourages the body to excrete liquids. And not just the booze, but any other extra fluids in your body. This is bad for weight loss because our brain confuses thirst with hunger. More dehydration equals more cravings.
Drinking enough water is insanely important. Your brain is 85% water, blood is 92% water, and water is a component of every tissue, organ, and bone. Inside our cells, water is required to spark the energy creation and metabolism processes. Afterward, water carries out the debris and toxins.
My point is, if your body is dehydrated, it has a lot of unnecessary problems to solve. Good luck convincing it to give a crap about burning fat.
Additionally, if you’re dehydrated, your core body temperature increases, which reduces sleep quality. That brings us to another impactful reason why alcohol affects weight loss.
3. Alcohol decreases sleep quality
Alcohol negatively impacts sleep in many ways. Even though a night-cap might help you fall asleep faster, you’ll spend less time in the more restful REM sleep. This sleep cycle is what gives us creativity and memory retention.
Drinking disrupts your sleep more frequently to go to the bathroom. What’s more, alcohol relaxes muscles in your body, making your nose, throat, and mouth more likely to vibrate loudly as you breathe.
So how does a good night’s sleep impact weight loss? In many, many ways, one being that you’ll have more energy and motivation to work out and prepare healthy meals. But most directly, better sleep makes you eat better food. Of course, a bad night’s sleep does the opposite.
According to a study in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, each 30-minute deficit of sleep caused subjects to consume 83 additional calories (mainly because they started craving fat instead of carbs).
That might not sound like much, but over five years, that accumulates into 43 pounds of weight gain! If your goal is to lose weight, it’s not smart to try unless you also focus on great sleep.
Have your drink or two at least 2-3 hours before you go to bed. This gives your body more time to process the alcohol, lessening its impact on your night’s sleep.
4. Alcohol can delay metabolism
Unlike protein, fat, and carbohydrates, the body cannot store alcohol. Additionally, the body treats alcohol like a toxin or foreign invader. Therefore, the body prioritizes burning alcohol as a fuel source, putting other sources, such as fat, on the back burner.
When you drink alcohol, the body burns stops burning fat. Once the booze is used up as fuel, your body goes back to burning other fuel sources like fat, which can lead to weight loss. So, it’s not a major concern, unless you’re drinking too much.
Rules for Drinking Alcohol and Losing Weight
Follow the below six rules to ensure that you achieve your weight loss goals while drinking alcohol in moderation.
Rule #1: Special occasions
Alcohol fits in a healthy lifestyle when you drink for the right reasons. Not for stress relief or because it’s a habit to reach in the fridge after a long day of work.
Instead, only allow positive drinking for celebratory reasons on special occasions. A fun social outing with friends, sunset toast on a family vacation, or preparing a healthy home-cooked dinner after a productive day at work are all good times.
It’s important not to deprive yourself of something you enjoy. Yet, to achieve weight loss, moderation and the prevention of mindless drinking is critical.
How to do it:
Change your environment
We prefer to keep alcohol out of the house unless it’s for a special occasion. After living in Argentina, where the wine was excellent and abundant, we drank mindlessly before, during, and after dinner. To maintain moderation, make alcohol less accessible.
If a drinking activity is unavoidable, empower yourself, and say, “I am not the type of person that drinks beer during the workweek.” I recently did this in our hiking group.
The tradition was to drink beer after the hike, but that left me more dehydrated and exhausted. So, I told myself, “I am not the type of person who drinks just because the rest of the group is.”
Define “special occasion”
For a benchmark, we usually indulge once or twice a week. Make a plan as a couple and decide what’s deemed a special occasion. Then cut out any mindless drinking that doesn’t fit.
If you currently drink every night, start by cutting back to every other and journal how you feel. Chances are you are going to quickly realize that you have more energy and focus when drinking less.
Rule #2: Partner up
If one person is always bringing alcohol into the house, ordering it with dinner, or planning gatherings at the local brewery, this affects the duo. When one person puts the other in a drinking environment, the pressure to drink is much stronger than willpower.
Just as it’s most productive to work out as a couple, it’s also effective to share healthy drinking habits with your partner.
How to do it:
Have an open and honest discussion about your drinking habits. Is one or both of you over the moderation limits of 1-2 drinks twice per week? Why? Is one person drinking far more than the other? Make a plan to close the gap and eliminate mindless drinking.
Along with your partner, set a drinking goal each week and track your drinking habit with our free printable habit tracker.
While drinking together on a healthy date night, set a limit for how many drinks you’ll have together. If you’re drinking with friends or family, plan ahead and give yourself an excuse to decline another round or a late night out.
If it helps, decline with a white lie and say you have an early morning call. Another technique is to order one drink that you’re able to nurse all night, like a glass of red wine. Unlike beer, which warms up, slow your drinking pace, and slowly sip a glass of red.
Rule #3: Control drunk munchies
To drink alcohol and achieve your weight loss goals, avoid drunk munchies. Both the extra calories and the guilt from your weak moment will reverse progress. Although they always seem like a great idea at the time, alcohol-induced munchies will undoubtedly put you at a calorie surplus for the day.
Again, you’re at a considerable advantage when you following these rules as a couple. The added accountability makes all the difference. Together, you can help each other avoid the bowl of chips at a party and pass on late-night pizza.
How to do it:
Don’t skip a meal
Whatever you do, don’t skip a meal to save calories for alcohol. That’s a horrible solution to reaching your weight loss goals. Instead, eat a well-balanced meal beforehand.
A meal of protein and vegetables is best to set the foundation for a few drinks.
Have healthy drunk munchies accessible
Instead of crumbling and eating late-night junk food, keep healthy leftovers in the fridge that you can go home and heat up. We are totally guilty of passing on late-night tacos and opting for the cauliflower fried rice at home in the fridge.
Follow the drink-water-drink rule to stay alert and hydrated. Again, our brains are not skilled at discerning hunger from thirst. Munchies are caused by dehydration.
This rule will also help you prevent hangovers. While you’re at it, put an orange or lemon in your drink if one is available. Why not capitalize on that immunity-boosting opportunity.
Rule #4: Drink clean
When people ask us what it means to eat clean, the most straightforward response we have is, “Eat what your great-grandma’s grandma would have eaten.”
That also applies to alcoholic drinks by forcing you to cut out sweet syrups and give up the mixed drinks containing soda. We gave up the sugary syrup-based margaritas and mojitos a long time ago due to sugar shock and incredibly high amounts of empty calories.
Drinking clean is essential to achieving your weight loss goals. For Alex, one of those restaurant margaritas is about 30% of her daily caloric intake. That’s insane if you’re trying to lose or maintain weight.
If you’re wondering what the healthiest alcohol to drink is, that’s a dark, dry, red wine. But again, let’s just assume that no alcohol is “good” for us and enjoy the wine, beer, or spirit that brings you the most joy.
How to do it:
If you’re a wine drinker, find the grape and a few brands that make you feel best. Grapes are typically grown with a lot of chemicals. Therefore, if you have weird allergic reactions, stomach aches, or worse than usual hangovers, it’s worth experimenting with organic wines.
Although this is another controversial topic, we recommend going organic. We personally found that organic wine gave us less noticeable hangovers, and, for Ryan, fewer stomach aches. At the very least, use the Vivino app to double-check the quality and ranking of the bottle.
For beer drinkers, find a clean beer that reacts well with your body. For most, it’s beneficial to avoid beers that are brewed with highly-processed corn syrup. Many people have allergic reactions to beers with this ingredient ranging from subtle to severe.
Rule #5: Quality over quantity
Now that you’re drinking only for special occasions and only clean beverages, you can learn about the company behind your favorite alcohol, their heritage, and how their process produces that amazing flavor.
This knowledge will help you generate more appreciation for the drink, consume it slower, and treat each drinking opportunity like a ritual. We do this with our favorite mezcal, which is distilled locally from wild-harvested agave plants.
Cherishing your alcohol of choice will help you enjoy in moderation while losing or maintaining weight. We also take this quality approach when buying coffee to prepare at home in our French press. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience.
How to do it:
Pick your favorite beverage and learn about its heritage, how it was made, and where. Then, schedule a date night or vacation to visit the brewery, distillery, or vineyard.
Now that you’re focused on quality over quantity, you don’t have to feel guilty about buying that $80 bottle (or more) of 15 years aged scotch.
6. Work out harder
If you consume alcohol and exceed your daily caloric needs, you’ll gain weight. If you drink alcohol and account for it in your daily caloric intake, or better yet, burn more calories during your workout, you won’t.
Since your goal is to drink alcohol and continue to lose or maintain weight, exercise is essential.
As discussed, alcohol is dense in calories and does far more bad than good for weight loss. For example, if you drink 4 drinks once per week, estimates say that you’ll gain 10 pounds of body fat per year.
To counter this weight gain, earn your drink. And again, not to sound like a broken record, but please make sure you are aware of how many calories you are consuming and burning throughout the day.
Plus, working out harder and gaining muscle mass will actually reduce your hangovers. Win-win!
How To Do It:
Work out together at home
Work out on the days that you plan to drink alcohol. Couples that exercise together stay together and are much more likely to show up for their workout consistently. Freeing yourself from the gym drastically increases consistency as well.
For a effective and fun at-home workout, try these partner exercises.
Track your calories
If you don’t understand how your consuming and burning calories daily, you need to take our 30-Day Weight Loss Challenge. We’ll teach you how to track your calories and other critical numbers to achieve sustainable weight loss.
I have more questions. What do I do?
Ask away in the comments below, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible and add your recommendations to this article accordingly. Thanks for reading, and thanks in advance for your comment!
Also, let us know which of the above rules you’ll be implementing because we all know that just reading about something won’t make it stick.
30-Day Weight Loss Challenge
As engineers with ten years of health coaching experience, we needed to create a data-driven way for our clients to sustain weight loss. The number on the scale matters for weight loss, but other numbers are significantly more important.
Too many weight loss challenges involve a long list of what you can, cannot, and need to do every day. We’ve reduced the overwhelm and only require you to track five numbers a day — calories, steps, fiber, sleep, waistline.
In this 30-Day Weight Loss Challenge, you'll track five numbers daily to give you the highest return for sustainable weight loss.
Hey we're Ryan and Alex
The creators of Ryan and Alex Duo Life. We are a husband-wife duo and “lifestyle engineers.”
After eight years working in the corporate world as engineers, we left our high-powered jobs to tackle our true passion — helping couples engineer their best lives.
The synergy of our engineering minds and ten years of health coaching experience produced Ryan and Alex Duo Life. Our mission is to help you transform your bodies, minds, and relationship as a couple.
Join our 120,000 monthly readers