While it’s widely known that alcohol isn’t healthy, many people are initially unaware of the full extent to which alcohol consumption affects body weight. People often look for explanations for a recent weight change in their diet or eating habits, just to find out the only thing that has really changed is their alcohol consumption. As a physician on the Monument platform, my patients often want to gain a deeper understanding of this connection.
Excessive drinking has consistently been proven to contribute to weight gain.¹ This is often due to changes in calorie intake, metabolism, insulin resistance, and decreased energy related to alcohol consumption. Understanding how these physiological changes work can be an empowering step towards changing your drinking habit and creating a healthier lifestyle. I notice that many of my patients see improved physical fitness within only two to three weeks without alcohol, which can provide extra motivation along the way.
Keep in mind, however, that your progress is defined by much more than weight loss. Everyone’s body is different, and what’s most important is that you feel comfortable in your own skin and empowered to be your most authentic self. Cutting back on alcohol can make a huge difference.
Now, let’s get a better understanding of why weight loss after quitting alcohol occurs.
Alcohol use increases caloric intake
Alcoholic drinks typically contain high amounts of what are called “empty calories.” This means the calories in an alcohol beverage have no nutritional value. It can be very easy to lose sight of calories while drinking. However, consuming high amounts of empty calories, like alcohol calories, can have a significant effect on the body.
When caloric intake exceeds the amount of energy burned, weight gain typically occurs. Most importantly, the lack of appropriate nutrition along with increased alcohol consumption can introduce various negative health conditions. This is one of the reasons people feel stronger and more refreshed once they start to cut back on drinking or reach for alcohol alternatives.
Alcohol’s effect on metabolism
Alcohol is recognized by the body as a carbohydrate due to its significant sugar content. While carbohydrates are a normal food source the body uses for energy, they can become problematic when consumed in excess. The body typically uses insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, to help metabolize, breakdown, and store carbohydrates. When alcohol is consumed in unhealthy amounts, the pancreas often becomes overworked and insulin becomes less effective at breaking down carbohydrates. This process is called insulin resistance.
When carbohydrates aren’t appropriately broken down due to insulin resistance, they eventually become stored as fat. An increase in stored body fat can contribute to weight gain. It can also tax the overall endocrine system, which controls all hormone production.
A compromised endocrine system can lead to the precursors for diabetes. All of these alcohol consumption-related side effects change the body’s overall ability to metabolize effectively and efficiently, which also decreases its ability to burn fat. You may have heard people describe their metabolism as fast or slow, and alcohol ‘slows’ metabolic efficiency.
Changes to metabolism affects our eating habits
The body needs calories from multiple food sources in order to remain balanced and healthy. Consuming alcohol in high amounts, and therefore creating an excess of carbohydrates, can cause the body to feel deprived of other food sources. When the body is feeling this way, it tends to signal the brain to crave these food sources more intensely.
This can lead to making unhealthy food choices and/or overeating. Inversely, the lack of diverse food sources and nutrients can also lead to malnutrition and unhealthy weight loss in some cases of severe alcohol use disorder. Either way, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to unhealthy cycles and eating habits.
Alcohol causes decreased energy
After a day or night of excessive alcohol use, many people experience the symptoms of a “hangover”, and may be confronted with “hangxiety.” Because alcohol is a depressant, people experiencing a hangover often find themselves feeling like they have significantly less energy and motivation to do normal daily functions, including the physical activity that would typically help them burn calories.
The ways in which alcohol affects sleep can exacerbate this lack of energy and activity. The result is fewer calories burned throughout the day and a greater likelihood that those unburned calories will become stored fat, leading to increased weight gain.
Why weight loss is common after quitting alcohol
One of the many benefits of sobriety or significant alcohol moderation is improved physical health. Cutting back on alcohol allows you to decrease your daily calorie intake and regain energy levels. The body also has more efficient metabolism throughout the day, which can lead to weight loss. When people decrease their alcohol consumption, they also often make better food choices, reduce calorie intake, and spread out their meals more evenly throughout the day.
These changes are why many people discover they lose weight within weeks of quitting alcohol. Most importantly, cutting back on alcohol helps people feel good and promotes overall mental and physical wellbeing. As alcohol becomes less important to you, you’re more likely to take time for exercise, explore new activities, and make healthier food choices.
How sobriety or moderation can improve overall health
Changing your relationship with alcohol can provide countless health benefits. Cutting back on alcohol can decrease your risk of developing various negative health effects such as high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, liver disease (like fatty liver and even liver cirrhosis), heart disease, and other medical conditions. With time away from drinking, the body and mind begin to heal from the impact of alcohol and regain their natural balance. For example, the body starts metabolizing calories and fat as it normally would without the slowed effects of alcohol.
Learning more about the alcohol recovery timeline can be helpful in understanding what the healing process looks like, and when to expect changes to occur. It’s inspiring to consistently hear from my patients that they feel like they have more energy, increased productivity, can think more clearly, have improved decision-making, and have an overall better health outlook.
No two people have the same relationship with alcohol, nor the same relationship with their body. The exact correlation between body weight and drinking is unique to each individual. That said, alcohol has certain effects on the body that can be helpful to understand when looking to change your drinking habit and live a healthier lifestyle. You deserve to feel happy and healthy, and changing your relationship with alcohol can make a huge difference. You also don’t have to do it alone. Online alcohol treatment and a supportive community can help you get there.
- Traversy, G., Chaput, J.P. Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update. Current Obesity Reports. 2015: 4(1): 122-130.