When you’re trying to lose weight, the standard advice of “eat fewer calories than you burn” still largely applies, but not all calories are created equal when it comes to the effect on your body. For example, 300 calories of broccoli will have a different effect on your blood sugar and metabolism response than 300 calories of cake.
But what about 300 calories from beer, wine or a cocktail? As it turns out, alcohol also has a specific, unique effect on your body’s systems — and some of those effects may make it harder to lose weight, maintain weight and stay active.
If the rest of your nutrition and exercise is on track and you’re still feeling challenged in your weight-loss journey, it might be time to take a look at what — and how much — you imbibe.
How Alcohol Affects the Body
As delicious as a mojito or craft beer might be — and often welcomed as a stress reliever and social occasion go-to — alcohol doesn’t do your body any favors. Even red wine’s supposed heart-healthy benefits are now being largely debunked.
“Alcohol has multiple deleterious effects on different systems of the body,” says Dr. Joshua Scott, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. In the short run, it can affect muscle performance because alcohol inhibits calcium from being absorbed in muscle cells, he notes, which can lead to cramping.
No matter what type of drink you have, alcohol itself is a vasodilator, which means that it temporarily opens up the blood vessels more — which is why most people tend to feel warmer when they drink. Ironically, Dr. Scott says, your core body temperature lowers, even if you’re feeling toasty. Also, alcohol’s diuretic effects can increase dehydration, a situation that impacts all of your organs and systems, including digestion.
But the effect that’s most related to your weight is alcohol’s effect on your liver’s ability to process sugar, says Dr. Scott, as well as the way it blocks nutrient absorption overall. Even tougher, alcohol can lower your ability to burn calories efficiently, he adds.
“The equation of ‘calories in, calories out’ doesn’t apply with alcohol because it has more calorie density than a lot of other energy sources,” he says. “And the way it blocks calorie burning can also be a concern.”
Potential Ripple Effect
In addition to the specific physical mechanisms caused by alcohol, there can be secondary effects as well. Anyone who’s gone through a fast-food drive-thru after the bar closes knows this already — because drinking lowers your inhibitions, it can change how you normally control your eating, says Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Tennessee.
Alcohol may also change your sleep pattern, particularly the amount of deep, restorative sleep you get. That can be especially pronounced if you have a drink within a few hours of bed, notes Dr. Gillespie.
It’s estimated as many as 20% of Americans have an alcoholic drink to help them fall asleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). But while the booze-and-snooze effect can prompt sleepiness, it tends to sabotage the quality of your overall sleep overall, the organization notes. That’s because it can interrupt your circadian rhythm, block restorative REM sleep and aggravate breathing problems.
When your sleep is cruddy, that may have an effect on your athletic performance — and even whether you work out at all, Dr. Gillespie notes. Those who feel groggy, even if they’re not hungover, may skip exercise in favor of chasing that restorative sleep. But, if the evening brings another drinking round, complete with less-than-great food choices and more poor-quality sleep, you could be caught in a cycle that’s keeping you from hitting the goals you’ve set.
Creating a Balance
Despite the negative effects that drinking can have, neither Dr. Scott nor Dr. Gillespie, along with most health experts, are suggesting you need to go sober to lose weight. Moderation is still key, and that’s defined as one drink per day for women and two for men.
But they suggest if your weight loss is stalled — or you have other health issues that might be related to alcohol consumption, like low energy or poor sleep — it may be worth trying a “dry week” or even a “dry month” to see how not drinking any alcohol might affect you. For some, it could restart weight loss and help set healthier habits around food and exercise.
“You don’t have to cut it out for life if you don’t want to,” Dr. Gillespie says. “But taking a break is often more helpful than simply switching to a low-sugar or low-calorie option, or cutting back. And when you do decide to start back up again, pay attention to how it affects you.”
Look Deeper at Your Habits
One important note is that if you’ve been trying to reduce your alcohol consumption and find it impossible, you may have a deeper issue than weight management. In that case, consider turning to resources that can help you examine your relationship to alcohol.
A good starting point is the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as well as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
Even if you’re confident that alcohol is not a problem, taking time to create more awareness about how much you’re drinking can be helpful for keeping you on a healthy track, and it may aid in your weight loss and maintenance efforts, too.