How Alcohol Can Cause Weight Gain

Serenity Vista Alcohol & Drug Rehab - How Alcohol Can Cause Weight Gain

One of the first signs of an alcohol problem can be a few extra pounds around the waist, affectionately known as a “beer belly”. People often decide to stop drinking because of weight gain. But why does drinking alcohol result in weight gain in most people, in the first place?

In this article, we’ll discuss 7 reasons that alcohol can make people gain weight.

1.  Alcohol is an Appetite Stimulant

In France, it is customary to have a glass of wine before your meal as an appetite stimulant. An “aperitif” may sound posh, but reframed, it’s simply moldy grapes that will add a lot of extra weight to your life.

The BBC reported that:

“Alcohol switches the brain into starvation mode, increasing hunger and appetite.”

The study was produced by Francis Crick Institute and University College London and showed that Agouti-related peptide cells (AGRP cells) were activated when alcohol is consumed. AGRP cells regulate appetite. Therefore consuming alcohol stimulates the reward centers in the brain and makes people eat more when drinking alcohol.

2.  Alcohol is a High-Calorie Beverage

Alcohol contains around 7 calories per gram which is twice the number of calories in carbohydrates. Alcohol contains a lot of energy, and as such, the body will give alcohol priority over food. This means that the food that you eat when consuming alcohol might not be properly digested.

The body turns alcohol into acetate (a type of vinegar). The body adores acetate as a fuel source and as such will burn it before anything else in your body. To put it in context, the cells of the body create acetate as a byproduct. So it is essential for the body to prioritize the removal of acetate from the body prior to digesting new food. This means that you won’t burn the calories of the food that you’ve eaten until your body digests the acetate.

Alcohol also stops the body from digesting fat, making it hard for your body to break down existing fat. Alcohol is second only to fat in its calorie density. From a nutritional standpoint, alcohol is referred to as ‘naked calories’. This means that it is loaded with caloric content, without any nutritional value whatsoever.

Related: High-Functioning Alcoholism and the Dangers of Denial

3.  Fizzy Alcohol Mixers Produce Ghrelin

If you’re using soda to mix your drinks, then you could be gaining a lot of extra calories. Fizzy juice filled with sugar is often the mixer of choice for spirits, like vodka or rum. Surprisingly it’s not just the sugar that will cause you to gain weight.

Researchers from  Birzeit University in the Palestinian West Bank have found that it’s the “fizz” that produces ghrelin (the hunger hormone). Ghrelin is a hormone that is produced and released mainly by the stomach. It is termed the ‘hunger hormone’ because it stimulates appetite, increases food intake and promotes fat storage. They found that ghrelin is 50% higher when we consume fizzy drinks. On average people eat an additional 120 – 260 calories when they consume fizzy drinks. This will be the same for other fizzy alcoholic beverages or mixers like tonic water, Prosecco or Champagne.

“Drinking carbonated drinks increased food consumption by 20 percent, compared to drinking flat beverages”

4.  Alcohol Suppresses the Central Nervous System (CNS)

We all know how having a  few drinks feels like it loosens us up and we lose our inhibitions. One inhibition that is dropped is the ability to properly regulate the amount of food that you eat. Judgment is lost, and any concept of eating healthy is out of the window when alcohol is involved. But why does this happen?

When drinking alcohol the neurotransmitter GABA is increased in the brain. It’s GABA that is responsible for lowering the inhibitions alongside a general lowering of activity in the prefrontal cortex. This altered brain chemistry is what makes people lose their inhibitions when they drink.

We’ve all known someone who does stupid things when they’re drunk. That’s because their inhibitions have been lowered. Alcohol also increases the amount of dopamine in the brain (the feel-good hormone). When people drink heavily they cannot as easily tell the difference between a good decision and a bad decision. Hence they’ll most likely opt for feel-good fatty or sugary foods that will add to the burden of the alcohol.

Serenity Vista - 7 Reasons Alcohol Can Cause Weight Gain graphic

5.  Alcohol Metabolizes in a ‘Zero-Order’ Fashion

Alcohol follows the rule of ‘zero-order kinetics‘. Unlike almost all other drugs or medications, with alcohol, no matter how much you drink, your metabolism won’t speed up to break it down and eliminate it faster. Other substances follow ‘first-order kinetics’ which means that the more you consume, the more you’ll metabolize or ‘burn off’ in direct proportion.

Thus, only a specific and constant amount of alcohol can be eliminated per hour. Therefore, no matter how much alcohol you consume, the amount eliminated remains the same. This means that with multiple drinks, the body can get increasingly saturated in alcohol and intoxicated. This excess alcohol then builds up in the body and gets converted to fat. 

Related: Do I Have To Be An Alcoholic To Go To Rehab?

6.  Alcohol Gets Converted to Fat

The body cannot store alcohol. Therefore, if a lot of alcohol is consumed and not burnt up, then it will turn to fat and be stored in adipose tissue. Additionally, when a person consumes too much alcohol they can get an alcoholic fatty liver, which can impair the body’s ability to convert and store carbohydrates and fats.

The fact that alcohol gets converted to fat is contested by many, mainly due to younger drinkers not storing fat in the same way as older adults would. As a population, alcoholics often lead sedentary lifestyles, which in turn adds to the build-up of fat.

Related: The Myth of Willpower in Alcoholism

7.  Alcohol Slows Metabolism

Metabolism is normally kept in a gentle state of balance. This balance can be thrown off course with eating disorders. Sadly some people have a dual diagnosis of an eating disorder and anorexia, where they store their calories for a binge drinking session. This trend is known as “Drunkorexia“.

Excessive alcohol consumption can also cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This can be due to a poor diet or simply the fact that alcohol can interfere with the process of digestion, food storage, utilization and how the body excretes nutrients.

The Bottom Line

Alcohol impacts nutritional status in many ways, adds a lot of calories, while slowing metabolism and suppressing the CNS. Additionally, alcohol stimulates appetite, increases the calorie content of the body, is converted to fat, and leads to considerable weight gain. Cutting back or abstaining from alcohol is great for overall health, especially weight loss.

Weight gain can be an early indicaton that alcohol consumption may be causing negative health consequences worthy of considering treatment.

Serenity Vista Alcoholism & Other Addiction Treatment Since 2012


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