How alcohol makes you fat

If you took a look at the title of this article, you may have shrunk it. When it comes to fitness, nutrition, weight loss, and general health, many of us have problem areas. There are some people who have a glass of red wine with dinner every night. Others skip the drink entirely on weekdays, then start returning some on Thursday or Friday night, continuing through Sunday. Others will not drink for two to three weeks and then binge on a weekend with a few dozen drinks (you know who you are!). Finally, while there are dozens of people who don’t drink any alcohol and won’t really find this article personally helpful, I encourage you (if you’re one of those people) to read it anyway and share the information with someone you think might help.

So … how does alcohol make you fat, especially when it’s fat-free? To understand how this process occurs, let’s examine the consumption of a 5-ounce glass of red wine by a fictional character named Vinny.

Vinny has a drink. As alcohol enters the digestion, it breaks down into two compounds: fat and acetate. Fat is taken in through the bloodstream and stored where Vinny tends to deposit fat. Acetate is carried into the bloodstream and used as Vinny’s primary energy fuel.

If you take anything away from this article, please re-read the last sentence. Acetate is used as Vinny’s primary energy fuel. This means that instead of burning carbohydrates, protein, or fat for fuel, Vinny’s body relies on acetate for energy. Stop burning anything else entirely. Suddenly Vinny has an excess of carbohydrates, proteins and fats circulating through the body and has nowhere to go. So where does it all end? You guessed it … it turns to fat and settles on Vinny’s waist.

But that’s not the only effect on Vinny. Alcohol also acts as a powerful snack. Have you heard of an apertif? It’s an alcoholic beverage that you drink before a meal to increase your appetite, and many restaurants find it’s a great way to get you to order more food. There are several studies that show a sharp increase in caloric intake when an alcoholic beverage is consumed before a meal (compared to a glass of water, or even a soda!). So now Vinny wants: A) another glass of wine or B) food (probably something salty or greasy).

Thats not all! Let’s say Vinny succumbs to appetite and finishes the bottle. A single drink of heavy drinking will greatly increase the levels of the hormone cortisol, while significantly decreasing the levels of the hormone testosterone. In addition to your headache, here’s why Vinny should be concerned: Cortisol causes the body to break down muscles and suppresses recovery from exercise, while low testosterone makes the body less likely to develop lean muscle or burn fat for fuel. So Vinny has a big belly and slim arms and legs.

Now let’s consider the actual caloric content of the glass of red wine. Before you begin, keep in mind that at most parties, social gatherings, and restaurants, a typical glass of red wine actually equates to 6 to 8 ounces. But we will be conservative. So Vinny’s glass of wine contains about 110 calories. Contrary to popular belief, there are very few carbohydrates in wine, only about 5 grams. This is because when grapes are turned into wine, most of the sugars in the fruits are turned into alcohol. For comparison, this glass of wine has about the same amount of alcohol and calories as a 12-ounce light beer or an 80-proof shot of liquor (yes, that means one shot of tequila = about a whole glass of wine) . A normal beer, not light, has even more calories, since it contains more than twice the carbohydrates than light beer.

But keep in mind that alcohol itself contains around seven calories per gram, making it almost twice as calorie-laden as carbohydrates or protein, which contain just four calories per gram. However, these calories do not contain beneficial nutrients, vitamins, or minerals. Sure, Vinny benefits from the compounds found in grape skins and juice, but if you drink a large glass of red wine every night with
You eat dinner, eat more than 1,000 extra calories per week, and gain a dozen extra pounds of fat a year.

I haven’t really talked about mixed drinks and I won’t say too much. If you read my article “How Sugar Makes You Fat”, you know about the powerful effect of sugar on fat levels in the body, and if you have read the label lately on any soda or blender, you will know how much sugar it contains. For you! Basically, you can take everything I just illustrated in Vinny’s case and multiply by 4-5. Margaritas, Long Island iced tea, mud slides, and other mixed sweet drinks can damage your diet more than a Big Mac with cheese.

So let’s get practical and assume you’re not going to stop drinking altogether, but do want some advice for your next social event. Here are some ideas:

Dilute the alcohol with diet soda. While there are health concerns with the artificial sweeteners and chemicals in diet sodas, this will lower your overall caloric intake.

Use lots of ice. Makes your drink look bigger without adding any real calories.

If you have to choose between fruit juice and soda in a blender, choose fruit juice.

Avoid salty snacks. They will make you want to drink more.

At the bar, restaurant, or grocery store, try to find a premium product or good wine that you like, then pay those extra bucks and sip it slowly. Savoring a drink will reduce binge drinking.

Drink as much water as possible. Try to have two drinks of water for every drink of alcohol.

Did you enjoy these tips and tricks? You may want to check out my free blog and podcast at, which offers weekly tips on everything from nutrition to fat loss to athletic performance. Mark it now!