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How alcohol affects weight gain and inflammation

While winding down with an alcoholic beverage can be enjoyable, drinking too much alcohol can be damaging to your health. An occasional drink may not be cause for concern, but excessive drinking can lead to a myriad of health issues. Learn more about how alcohol affects weight gain and inflammation.

Sarah Achleithner, health and wellness writer
5 mins
Have you ever poured yourself a glass of wine to unwind after a long day of work, catch up with a friend, or celebrate a special occasion? You’re not alone! Drinking alcohol is a favorite pastime shared by many, and since it’s such a common occurrence, you may not have thought twice about how this behavior can affect your health. 
While the occasional drink isn’t a cause for concern, the cumulative effects of drinking alcohol can take a toll on your health over time. From cancer to diabetes and heart disease, there are many negative side effects that come from drinking too much alcohol. But how much is too much, and how can you cut back to enhance your health?
Before diving into the correlation between alcohol, weight gain, and inflammation, let’s first discuss what defines excessive alcohol consumption, and what impact it has on the body.
According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking in moderation is defined as no more than 2 drinks/day for men or 1 drink/day for women [9]. 
The following constitutes one serving of alcohol:
  • 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer
  • 8 ounces of 7% ABV malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of 12% ABV wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 40% ABV (80 proof) distilled spirits, such as gin, rum, vodka, or whiskey.
Those who are pregnant or may become pregnant; are under the legal drinking age; have certain medical conditions, or are recovering from an alcohol use disorder should avoid alcohol completely [9]. 
man grabbing beer bottle out of refrigerator

How many drinks are considered binge drinking?

The occasional alcoholic beverage has shown to have positive health benefits (such as decreased blood pressure and reduced stress levels), yet you can have too much of a good thing. Heavy drinking and binge drinking can negatively affect your body, but how do you know how much is too much? 
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines binge drinking as four or more drinks for women or five or more drinks for men on the same occasion [11]. Heavy drinking (aka heavy alcohol use) is also defined as binge drinking on five or more days of the past month [11].
Another factor to consider is that alcohol’s health effects can vary from person to person due to the amount and type of alcohol consumed. Since everyone metabolizes alcohol differently, some people may be at greater risk for alcohol problems, whereas others are somewhat protected from alcohol’s harmful effects [1, 2]. What may be “too much” for one person may not be the same for you, but regardless of this, it’s still recommended to stick to the guidelines to reduce the risk of some serious health issues, including weight gain, cancer, cirrhosis, brain damage, heart failure, and more. 
Stepping on a scale

Alcohol and weight gain

If you’re looking to drop some extra pounds, you may want to consider skipping that glass of wine. 
At 7 calories per gram, alcohol has significant calories while providing very little nutritional value — which is why it’s often referred to as “empty” calories. The average alcoholic beverage clocks in at around 150 calories, but some can pack substantially more depending on the ingredients and added sugar. Mudslide or margarita, anyone?
The extra calories from alcohol can quickly lead to weight gain if multiple drinks are consumed in one sitting. They are generally less satiating than food which means you may be able to put back several high-calorie drinks without even feeling full. This can lead to a higher energy intake than if you had eaten a meal of the same caloric value [6,7]. 
Studies have also shown that alcohol can lead to overeating by inhibiting hormones linked to hunger and satiety (such as leptin), as well as influencing pathways in the brain that stimulate appetite [6]. Additionally, research suggests that alcohol inhibits fat oxidation, thus prompting the body to store more fat [6]. 
While it’s possible to consume alcohol in moderation and maintain a healthy weight, even a couple of cocktails a day can lead to weight gain. If you want to lose weight, limiting or cutting out alcohol entirely may make it easier to reach your goals, as it will reduce your overall calorie intake and can prevent or reduce overeating [8].

Alcohol and inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s natural response to signals of injury or infection and occurs when a physical factor triggers an immune reaction. 
There are two types of inflammation — acute and chronic. Acute inflammation happens when you cut your knee, twist your ankle, or catch a cold. Typically the body recovers and the inflammation goes away. Chronic inflammation occurs when the response lingers and leaves your body in a constant state of stress. Common causes of chronic inflammation are smoking, high sugar diets, and —you guessed it— excess alcohol consumption. Studies have shown that chronic inflammation has detrimental effects throughout the entire body, and negatively affects your organs, tissues, and gut/brain health [4,5]. 
While moderate alcohol consumption (no more than 2 drinks/day for men or 1 drink/day for women) may reduce inflammation, frequent, heavy alcohol use increases inflammation and puts excess strain on the liver. Since alcohol changes the chemicals that are used to break down and remove scar tissue, it can lead to increased cancer risk, inflammatory bowel disease, immunity issues, and bloating [3].
You can measure inflammation through inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), which is made in the liver. As inflammation increases, so does the production of CRP, which means the more you drink, the higher your levels will be [10]. A simple blood test can determine if you have elevated CRP levels; anything higher than 1.0 mg/L usually suggests there is inflammation, but a reading greater than 3 mg/L means there is a higher risk for cardiovascular disease or cancer [10]. These elevated inflammatory markers can lead to an extended state of oxidation that can damage both healthy and injured tissue [4].
water glasses filled with grapefruit slices and rosemary

Tips for enjoying alcohol in moderation

If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption and improve your health, you’re not alone. Here are some tips for enjoying alcohol in moderation: 
  • Set a drinking limit. Put a cap on the number of drinks you have, since planning ahead can help you stick to your goals. 
  • Try tasty alternatives. Low sugar, non-alcoholic beverages (such as seltzers, flavored water, kombucha, and iced tea) can be a great replacement for your habitual glass of wine.
  • Follow the “every other” rule. It takes the body approximately an hour to process one alcoholic beverage, so for each one you drink, alternate with a glass of water.

Summary

Though alcohol can often be enjoyed in moderate amounts, excessive drinking can have serious health consequences, including weight gain and chronic inflammation, which can increase your risk for inflammatory bowel disease, immunity issues, microbiome imbalances, cancer, brain damage, and more. If you are trying to limit your alcohol intake, try setting a drinking limit, swapping in non-alcoholic beverages, and alternating drinks to help reach your goals. 
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose, or replace personalized medical care.

Key Takeaways

  • According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking in moderation is defined as no more than 2 drinks/day for men or 1 drink/day for women [9].
  • The breakdown of alcohol in the GI tract can lead to chronic inflammation in the intestines, which has severe consequences for health including increased cancer risk, inflammatory bowel disease, immunity issues, bloating, and weight gain [3]. 
  • Studies have shown that alcohol can lead to overeating by inhibiting hormones linked to hunger and fullness (such as leptin), as well as influencing pathways in the brain that stimulate appetite [6]. 
  • If you want to lose weight, limiting or cutting out alcohol entirely may make it easier to reach your goals, as it will reduce your overall calorie intake and prevent overeating [8].

References

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2007). Alcohol metabolism: An update. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa72/aa72.htm
  2. Cederbaum A. I. (2012). Alcohol metabolism. Clinics in liver disease16(4), 667–685. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cld.2012.08.002
  3. Bishehsari, F., Magno, E., Swanson, G., Desai, V., Voigt, R. M., Forsyth, C. B., & Keshavarzian, A. (2017). Alcohol and Gut-Derived Inflammation. Alcohol research : current reviews38(2), 163–171.
  4. Wang, H. J., Zakhari, S., & Jung, M. K. (2010). Alcohol, inflammation, and gut-liver-brain interactions in tissue damage and disease development. World journal of gastroenterology16(11), 1304–1313. https://doi.org/10.3748/wjg.v16.i11.1304 
  5. Qamar, N., Castano, D., Patt, C., Chu, T., Cottrell, J., & Chang, S. L. (2019). Meta-analysis of alcohol induced gut dysbiosis and the resulting behavioral impact. Behavioural brain research376, 112196. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2019.112196 
  6. Traversy, G., & Chaput, J. P. (2015). Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update. Current obesity reports4(1), 122–130. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-014-0129-4 
  7. Wiessing, K. R., Xin, L., Budgett, S. C., & Poppitt, S. D. (2015). No evidence of enhanced satiety following whey protein- or sucrose-enriched water beverages: a dose response trial in overweight women. European journal of clinical nutrition69(11), 1238–1243. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2015.107 
  8. Fong, M., Scott, S., Albani, V., Adamson, A., & Kaner, E. (2021). 'Joining the Dots': Individual, Sociocultural and Environmental Links between Alcohol Consumption, Dietary Intake and Body Weight-A Narrative Review. Nutrients13(9), 2927. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13092927 
  9. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020) Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. DietaryGuidelines.gov.
  10. Oliveira, A., Rodríguez-Artalejo, F., & Lopes, C. (2010). Alcohol intake and systemic markers of inflammation--shape of the association according to sex and body mass index. Alcohol and alcoholism (Oxford, Oxfordshire), 45(2), 119–125. https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/agp092 
  11. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Drinking levels defined. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking

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