By Tom Venuto
Well, here’s the real story of why some people don’t get fat when they drink:
A lot of the confusion is because epidemiological research cannot show cause and effect relationships and mistakes are easily made in drawing associations based on limited data.
With the nature of these longitudinal studies, you have to look at the lifestyle and nature of drinkers in general (or in this study, hard liquor drinkers). Also, the Swedish study focused on older men, so age may have been a factor. You may be more likely to deposit alcohol right on your belly as you get older.
When you hear that alcohol increases belly fat, you also have to look at what else is going on in the life of the drinker, particularly what the rest of a person’s diet looks like, and how alcohol intake affects appetite and eating habits.
Research says that alcohol can mess up your body’s perception of hunger, satiety and fullness. If drinking stimulates additional eating, or adds additional calories that aren’t compensated for and which lead to positive energy balance, then you get fat. You may also get fat in the belly, no thanks to what booze does to hormones.
Another thing that confounds the reports on whether alcohol contributes to weight gain is the fact that the game changes in heavy drinkers. We know that alcohol contains 7.1 calories per gram and these calories always count as part of the energy balance equation… or do they? With chronic excessive alcohol consumption, it’s possible that not all of these calories are available for energy. Due to changes in liver function and something called the microsomal ethanol oxidizing system (MEOS), alcoholism may be a real case of where some calories don’t count. Many alcoholics also skip meals and eat less with increasing alcohol consumption.
Alcohol metabolizing pathways notwithstanding, even if binge drinkers, daily drinkers or heavy drinkers consume most of their calories from alcohol, if they eat very little, and remain in a calorie deficit, they will not get fat. Compound this with the hormonal effects and you witness the skinny, but under-nourished, unhealthy and atrophied alcoholic (even though the heavy drinkers are the ones you’d think most likely to have a beer belly).
It’s the calories that count
The bottom line is, the idea that alcohol just automatically turns into fat or gives you a beer belly is mistaken. It’s true that alcohol suppresses fat oxidation, but mainly, alcohol adds calories into your diet, messes with your hormones and can stimulate appetite, leading to even more calories consumed. That’s where the fat gain comes from.
If you drink in moderation, if you’re aware of the calories in the alcohol and the calories from additional food intake consumed during or after drinking, and if you compensate accordingly, you won’t get fat.
If a light bulb just went off in your head and you’re saying to yourself, “You mean I can drink and still lose fat? I just need to keep in a calorie deficit?”
Yes, that’s what I mean, but just hold that thought for a minute while you consider that the empty alcohol calories displace the nutrient dense calories:
When you’re on a fat loss program you have a fairly small “calorie budget”, so you need to give some careful thought to how those calories should be “spent.” For example, if a female is on a 1500 calorie per day diet, does she really want to “spend” 500 of those calories – one third of her intake – for a few alcoholic drinks, and leave only 1000 for health-promoting food, fiber and lean muscle building protein?
I realize some people may answer “yes” to that question, but then again, if some people spent their money as frivolously as they spent their calories, they would be in deep trouble!
To summarize this into some practical, take-home advice, here are 7 of my personal tips for alcohol consumption in the fitness lifestyle:
(1) Don’t drink on a fat loss program. Although you could certainly drink and “get away with it” if you diligently maintained your calorie deficit as noted above, it certainly does not help your fat loss cause or your nutritional status.
(2) Drink in moderation during maintenance. For lifelong weight maintenance and a healthy lifestyle, if you drink, do so in moderation and only occasionally, such as on weekends or when you go out to dine in restaurants. Binge drinking and getting drunk has no place in a fitness lifestyle (not to mention hangovers aren’t very conducive to good workouts).
(3) Don’t drink daily. Moderate drinking, including daily drinking, has been associated with cardiovascular health benefits. However, I don’t recommend daily drinking because behaviors repeated daily become habits. Behaviors repeated multiple times daily become strong habits. Habitual drinking may lead to heavier drinking or full-blown addictions and can be hard to stop if you ever need to cut back.
(4) Count the calories. If you decide to have a bottle of beer or a glass of wine or two (or whatever moderation is for you), be sure to account for the alcohol in your daily calorie budget.
(5) Watch your appetite. Don’t let the “munchies” get control of you during or after you drink (Note to chicken wing and nacho-eating men: The correlation to alcohol and body fat is higher in men in almost all the studies. One possible explanation is that men tend to drink and eat, while women may tend to drink instead of eating).
(6) Watch the fatty foods. When drinking, watch the fatty foods in particular. A study by Angelo Tremblay back in 1995 suggested that alcohol and a high fat diet are a combination that favors overfeeding.
(7) Enjoy without guilt. If you choose to drink (moderately and sensibly), then don’t feel guilty about it or beat yourself up afterwards, just enjoy the damn stuff, will you!
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