Alcohol & Weight Loss: Can the Two Coexist?
“Will I have to give up my wine?” I get this question a lot. Some of the patients I work with have a desire to partake in the consumption of one or more types of alcohol–and inevitably, this becomes the topic of conversation once we begin a clinically-assisted weight loss program. For some, it’s wine. For some, it is mixed cocktails. For many others, it doesn’t really matter, they just need to know what “the limits” are.
And while this is a perfectly natural–and rather simple– question to ask, it is a complicated question to answer. There isn’t a definitive answer; however, if we take the time to understand how alcohol is processed in the liver and how its metabolites affect fat burning, we can strategically determine a game plan, and still imbibe now and then, without sabotaging our health and fitness efforts.
HOW ALCOHOL IS METABOLIZED:
ETHANOL——(alcohol dehydrogenase)—–>ACETALDEHYDE——(aldehyde dehydrogenase)—->ACETATE—-> CO2 + H20
The above chain of events outlines alcohol metabolism. Alcohol is converted to acetalaldehyde in the liver by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. Acetaldehyde is carcinogenic and extremely toxic therefore the body must quickly break it down and remove it from the body. It does this by converting it to acetate via the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase. Acetate is then further broken down to carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O). Remember the word “acetate” as this is necessary for understanding how fat burning is affected when you consume alcohol.
HOW LONG DOES METABOLISM OF ALCOHOL TAKE?
Because the biproduct, acetaldehyde is so toxic to the body, your liver will preferentially metabolize alcohol over fat, carbs and protein, every time. This means that the breakdown of your food (and fat burning) will be put on hold as long as alcohol is being metabolized within your body. Depending on the amount that you consumed, this could take up to 24 to 48 hours. For example, a blood alcohol content of 0.08 will take about 5.3 hours to be eliminated in many individuals; but, this will vary greatly upon weight, age, rate of consumption, drink strength and tolerance level.
HOW ALCOHOL AFFECTS FAT BURNING:
Acetate, the product of ethanol metabolisms, can, however, be utilized and broken down in a similar fashion as fatty acids. Acetate from alcohol is the same product of oxidation of fatty acids and glycolysis but yet it doesn’t require the same metabolic work as fatty acid breakdown. Therefore the liver will push fat oxidation (or fat burning) out of the picture until the acetate from alcohol has been used up. In other words, if blood levels of acetate from alcohol are elevated, due to alcohol consumption, the liver has no need for fatty acid metabolism (i.e. fat burning).
In addition to the impedance on fat burning, alcohol has 7 calories per gram. It is higher in calories per gram than carbohydrates (at 4 calories per gram) and yet it cannot be utilized for fuel in the body. This becomes increasingly more interesting because alcohol becomes worse for fat burning than taking in carbohydrates. The reason is that glucose has to be metabolized with a myriad of steps but alcohol metabolism only takes a few steps. The easier path (and the path that avoids toxicity) will be taken every time.
To add fuel to the non-fat burning fire, alcohol consumption decreases testosterone levels, which in effect, slows down fat burning and muscle building.
SO CAN YOU HAVE ALCOHOL WITHOUT WRECKING YOUR DIET?
So, getting back to the question, can you drink alcohol and still lose weight? Yes, but only if you pay attention to timing, the type of alcohol and the amount of alcohol that you drink.
Timing is imperative. Given that alcohol can mess up fat burning for many hours afterward, drinking every day may theoretically halt fat burning for most hours of the day. Therefore, I recommend you pick one, maybe two days of the week (preferably back to back) that you partake. This way, you can utilize 5-6 days of the week for fat burning and still enjoy a drink occasionally.
The type of alcohol is important. Stay away from sugary and flowery mixed drinks. Drinks higher in carbohydrate content can be detrimental as well. It is best to have dry white or red wine and straight liquors. The best choices for white wines are bubbly wines (keep in mind the carbonation creates a mechanism for faster metabolism so you will “feel it” faster), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and a dry Riesling. When choosing a red wine, stick to imports as most countries outside of the United States tend to avoid adding sugar (and unnecessary additives) to the wine after fermentation. A Pinot noir, Bordeaux, or Beaujolais are good choices. Note that the lower the alcohol by volume (ABV), the fewer the calories. The key is to get the driest wine with the lowest ABV, if you can. European wines tend to be lower in alcohol percentage so choose European, first, if possible. For your liquor choices, straight gin, vodka, whiskey or scotch are decent bets for lower carbohydrate content. Keep in mind that the alcohol level is higher so moderation is important, here.
The amount you drink is crucial. My rule of thumb is to have no more than one or two servings (two glasses of wine or two shots of liquor) in an evening. Consider having a reasonable limit for yourself and it of course, choose to imbibe on nights that you are not driving anywhere. It isn’t worth the risk.
So, in conclusion, alcohol is really not the best diet tool if you still need to lose weight. If you can, avoid it all together so that you can maximize your fat loss. However, if you really want to partake on occasion or if you are trying to maintain your weight loss, then choosing two consecutive nights during the week and limiting your intake to one or two servings, is a “safe” way to socialize without feeling deprived.
To maximize these one or two days, keep your fat intake very low. This will help you to process the alcohol more efficiently and get back to fat burning more quickly. Increase your protein intake these days to help counterbalance the lack of fat, to prevent binging on junk foods and to help you to maintain muscle mass.
Also, if you can, have your drink(s) away from food. This is counter intuitive because most folks drink with food and want to slow the metabolism of alcohol down. However, the faster it is metabolized, the faster you can get back to fat burning. Just keep in mind that you will “feel it” quicker so be smart and stick to moderate levels and drink water before and after a serving. And please, don’t plan on driving anywhere. Even one drink can be enough to get you into trouble.
I hope that helps guide you in deciding if and how you can partake and still stay on track with your diet plans.
For more information on wines that I recommend for dieters, how to incorporate wine in your weight loss plan and recipes that include no-sugar-added mixed drinks, feel free to check out my book: The Forever Fat Burner.