I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. It’s a topic that I really wanted to know more about since everyone who knows me knows I like my red wine and I don’t intend to completely stop drinking it—even when I want to lean out and reduce my body fat a bit.
It’s a question I get asked a lot from clients too… can I still drink alcohol and lose weight/body fat?
The bottom line is … no. That answer made me cry a little on the inside. But, there’s a simple truth about alcohol that I need to share with you so you understand why indulging (or over-indulging) in it when you are trying to reduce body fat is not the best option.
Getting Priority Treatment
Your body has a priority system when dealing with fuel sources (protein, carbs, etc.). Alcohol is at the top of that list. It’s priority numero uno. If you have alcohol in your body, it will be burned first*.
(*Technically it gets transformed to acetate and then burned, but to keep things simple, I’ll just call this burning alcohol).
Alcohol gets preferential treatment for two reasons:
- There is nowhere it can be stored in our bodies (unlike carbs and fat)
- Acetate is “toxic” to our bodies, so it has to get rid of it ASAP.
From your lips, alcohol goes into your stomach and some is absorbed there and goes right into your bloodstream (hence that pleasant buzz feeling when it hits your brain). The remaining alcohol goes to your intestines and is absorbed there with the rest of the nutrients you consumed with the alcohol.
Your liver is ground zero for alcohol metabolism. Whatever you drank is detoxified and removed from your blood by a process called oxidation, which prevents it from accumulating and destroying your cells and organs. If your liver is healthy, it should take it about an hour to oxidize .25 to .5 ounces of liquor. Think about that 5 or 6 oz glass of wine… it would take your body about 20 hours to metabolize it. The buzz is gone, but your body is still hard at work to get rid of the alcohol.
But your liver isn’t the only thing that’s affected by alcohol.
While your body is processing that alcohol, it nearly shuts off your fat burning system, and the oxidation of nutrients (like carbs and protein) is turned way way down. That means when you eat and drink alcohol, your body takes the energy from the alcohol (7 calories per gram) to meet its energy needs first, and usually ends up storing most if not all of the energy from the food you ate. That means your meal gets synthesized as fat, while the alcohol gets burned off. Even more importantly, alcohol alters fat storing hormones, lowers your inhibitions and changes your decision-making process, causing you to make poor food choices.
I often tell clients that if they choose to have a drink, to just picture a light switch being turned to the off position—because that’s what you’re doing to your fat burning system.
Messing Up Your Hormones
Alcohol messes with key hormones like growth hormone (GH), testosterone, estrogen and cortisol.
Growth hormone’s main job is to build muscle, stimulate other cell growth and release fat from your body fat stores. The biggest pulse you get of it is at night when you’re sleeping. If you have a big night of drinking and then you go to sleep, your nighttime GH levels will be a lot lower than if you hadn’t had that drink (or two or three). Not only do you interrupt your sleep patterns which causes the drop in GH, but you have also given your body a priority fuel source to burn (the alcohol), so it doesn’t release GH, because it doesn’t need fat to be released (It already has a fuel source). You sober up while you sleep by burning alcohol as a fuel source, instead of fat. This process also tends to wake you up in the middle of the night, interfering with restful sleep which can cause a lot of other issues for you.
Testosterone is an important hormone for muscle growth, and when we drink, a substance is produced in the liver that is toxic to testosterone. So, basically, you’re hindering your ability to build lean muscle—which is the main driver for your metabolic rate. Not good.
Resveratrol (a substance in red wine) is a phytoestrogen, meaning it releases estrogen into your blood stream, turning on fat storing hormones and disrupting the balance of those and fat burning hormones which can completely wipe out the effects of your fat burning hormones.
Alcohol also stimulates the release of cortisol. Too much circulating cortisol can result in packing on pounds around the middle.
One other effect of drinking is that it lowers our inhibitions and stimulates appetite. That means we tend to eat things that are high in sugar and carbs and fat—not to mention calories. Since your body will process the alcohol first, it’s entirely likely all that you ate will just get stored as body fat. (Waaaahhhhh.)
So, What Does This All Mean?
Since alcohol is a priority fuel and it basically turns off your body’s fat burning system and messes with key hormones and your sleep cycle, it’s best to really limit it when you’re trying to lose body fat.
I love drinking wine, but knowing how my body processes it and what happens when I do drink it really makes me consider how often and how much I drink and what I eat when I drink (more protein and veggies, very little carbs and sugar if any).
Just like the Department of Health and Human Services recommends, I limit my alcohol consumption to one drink when I choose to indulge. And I choose alcohol that is lower in calories like hard liquor (whiskey, water and lemon is a favorite) or red or white wine. Red wine tends to have less sugar in it than white wine, so it’s my first choice. Stay away from mixed drinks if at all possible because of the sugar and calorie content.