The Relationship Between Alcohol and Weight Gain

There are a lot of really good reasons for a person to cut down on or completely eliminate alcohol from their diet and lifestyle. Weight gain, especially now that obesity rates and their related complications are on the rise, is an important factor for consideration. The relationship between alcohol and weight gain is no mystery, but those who drink regularly still often find themselves surprised when they start gaining weight. Why is it surprising? What do we know about the kinds of calories that come from alcohol?

Let's take a look at how the body reacts to alcohol once it is ingested:

Since our bodies don't quite know how to store alcohol, we start to metabolize alcohol immediately. Alcohol metabolization becomes our body's focus and other substances, like sugars and fats, wind up not being metabolized as effectively as they could have been were alcohol not present. This cycle winds up slowing down our metabolism over time.

One of the big things to consider in terms of why alcohol has such an impact on weight gain is calories. The calorie per gram ratio for alcohol is almost the same as pure fat. Let that sink in for a minute. There are plenty of health-conscious people out there who would never consider drinking a fatty cocktail, but our bodies don't really know see a caloric difference between alcohol and fat. The calories in a glass of wine are estimated to be around the same as a slice of cake and the calories in a frozen margarita are estimated to be around the same as a cheeseburger.

I was once talking with a person who couldn't believe that the daily recommended calorie limit is 2,000 - she said there was no way she was getting more than 1,200 calories per day. But when I asked her if she was counting the average of three beers she had per night in that estimate, she admitted that she wasn't. She had to add nearly 500 calories onto her daily estimate when she crunched the numbers that included alcohol. According to this Lifehacker infographic, a person who regularly drinks wine will consume an extra 2,000 calories per month, which is more than half a pound. That could add up to an extra six pounds of weight gain per year if the drinker isn't actively burning those calories.

For those who drink but want to cut down and lose weight simultaneously, it is recommended that they drink a full glass of water before and after a drink and try to limit themselves to no more than one drink at a time. It is also recommended that sugary juices and sodas as mixes be avoided. But for those of you who are sober and just looking for one more reason to validate your choice, here it is: alcohol can easily lead to unintentional weight gain. Few people know just how calorie-dense alcoholic beverages are or think about that knowledge if they do have it while they are drinking. When we're overweight, we put our bodies at risk for myriad conditions and complications, so if sobriety is your choice, congratulations! Staying slim will likely be easier for you without alcohol in the picture.


Elizabeth Seward has written about health and wellness for Discovery Health, National Geographic, How Stuff Works Health, and many other online and print publications. As a former touring rock musician, Elizabeth has firsthand experience with the struggles of substance abuse and the loss of loved ones because of it. She believes in the restorative power of yoga, meditation, talk therapy, and plant-based diets and she is an advocate for progressive drug policy reform.