Will a Drink Each Day Keep the Pounds Away?

Compelling research indicates that teatotallers weigh more....

Posted May 01, 2018

Alcohol intake used to be on the list of reasons explaining why the prevalence of obesity is increasing in the country. The syrupy drink with the umbrella on top, the drink containing heavy cream mixed into the sugared chocolate liqueur, or the weekend six pack of beer were pointed out as obvious sources of excessive calorie intake. Dieters were told not to overlook the calories in wine (two 5 ounce glasses contain approximately 240 calories), and stick to tonic water rather than a gin and tonic for the second drink during the wedding reception.  All good advice, but it seems some of it may no longer be accurate.  Might alcohol intake be permissible on a diet? And even more provocative: Might drinking somehow prevent weight gain?

 There are countless studies looking at whether alcohol consumption causes obesity, and the results are about as mixed as a cocktail. An excellent review by Traversy and Chaput indicates little evidence that frequent light-to-moderate alcohol intake is associated with obesity. A review by Suter confirms this as well.

Moreover, light-to moderate drinking may actually be associated with a smaller chance of becoming overweight or obese, when compared to no drinking. Compelling evidence for this comes from a study that followed 19,220 US women for almost 13 years. The women, aged 39 years+ at the start of the study, were healthy and of normal weight. Their average alcohol intake at baseline ranged from, ‘Never Drink’ to ‘Drink more than 6 alcoholic beverages a week.'  What they drank was also recorded, and the alcohol content calculated in grams.  Four ounces of red or white wine has 10.8 g of alcohol, 1.5 oz. of liquor, i.e.  gin or vodka, contains 15.1 grams of alcohol, and 12 ounces of beer, 13.2 g.

Only 3% of the women drank as much as 2-3 drinks a day. In other words, this was not a ‘heavy drinking’ population. When the women’s weights were reported at the end of the study, the group with the smallest number of overweight or obese individuals was the one made up of individuals who consumed light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol.

These results, and those from other similar studies, make a compelling argument for allowing light-to-moderate alcohol intake on a weight maintenance regimen, and little reason to deny dieters 4 to 5 ounces of wine or liquor, once or perhaps twice, weekly.  Heavy drinkers do not get a pass on this however, because many other studies have shown that they are at significant risk of becoming obese. Several studies such as the one that recorded the energy (calorie) intake from alcohol among men whose drinking ranged from none-to-heavy found that those in the group with the highest calorie intake from alcohol had a 70% greater risk of becoming obese compared to those who drank little or nothing.

As they say, ‘There is no free lunch!’ or in this case, ‘No free drink.’ Alcohol consumption still has its nutritional perils. Having a drink prior to a meal may loosen control over subsequent food choice, so that foods normally avoided because of their high calorie content will be eaten. Drinking during a cocktail reception is just as hazardous.  Nuts, barbecued chicken wings, and high fat dips may be consumed at a bar or reception without really being perceived as being calories ingested by the wine, beer, or hard liquor drinker. Moreover, alcohol has calories; 7 calories per gram. Fat as a comparison contains 9 calories per gram. Alcohol is metabolized differently than food, which some say may account for some of its calories being wasted, rather than used or stored as energy. However, alcohol can be converted to fatty acids and eventually stored as fat.  

Weight losers/Maintainers may decrease their food intake to compensate for alcohol calories. Like sugar, alcohol has no nutritional value other than calories, so eating less may mean not obtaining the nutrients the body demands to remain healthy. A container of fat free yogurt at 100 calories containing essential calcium, vitamin D, and protein may be excluded in order to save calories for a glass of wine or can of beer. Indeed, an extreme example of not eating in order to drink, sometimes excessively, has been given a name; drunkorexia. It has been written about in the media as a worrisome practice on college campuses, but is probably not restricted to that age group. Predominantly women who engage in heavy drinking jettison eating, in favor of alcohol consumption. Their dieting mantra might be, ’Many drinks a day will keep the pounds away…if you don’t eat.’

To summarize, alcohol is not one of the four basic food groups, and its consumption in place of foods from these food groups that must be eaten to sustain heath is nutritional idiocy. On the other hand, research has shown that small amounts of alcohol can be consumed for its positive impact on mood, without risking weight gain or indeed weight loss. The key is moderation and wise food intake along with that drink.


Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update. Traversy G and Chaput J-P, Curr Obes Rep. 2015; 4(1): 122. 

Is Alcohol Consumption a Risk Factor for Weight Gain and Obesity? Suter P, Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci 2005;42:197

Alcohol Consumption, Weight Gain, and Risk of Becoming Overweight in Middle-Aged and Older Women. Wang L, Lee I-Min, Manson J, Arch Intern Med. 2010  8; 170(5): 453.

Association Between Alcohol Calorie Intake & Overweight and Obesity in English Adults. Shelton, N, Knott C Am J Public Health 2014; 104:629