Alcohol and weight loss don’t really mix well.
“When you consume alcohol, you practically shut down your body’s ability to burn fat”, says Marc Perry, founder and CEO of BuiltLean and top personal trainer in New York City. “At best, drinking alcohol will slow your progress, more likely, it may add more belly fat to your frame and negatively affect your sleep patterns.”
Yet, even despite all of these negative effects, Dr. Caroline Cederquist, a weight loss expert, creator of bistroMD and author of The MD Factor Diet, is confident that it can fit into a healthy diet, even if it’s your goal to burn fat and lose weight.
“Alcohol is really an extra in our diet,” she explained. “It’s not the essential proteins you need, or even, we’re finding that there are very important fats that you actually need. Alcohol is something that, once you’ve theoretically met all of your nutritional needs for the day, if there are some extra calories left over and you’ve been active then you can enjoy some alcohol.”
Thinking of it as an “extra” is important, Cederquist says, otherwise, if it becomes a typical part of your daily routine —to an excessive extent— you run the risk of developing a fairly heavy alcohol intake without even really realizing it.
For women, moderate intake is five drinks per week and for men it’s ten. That’s five, five-ounce glasses of wine, five beers or five 1.5-ounce mixed drinks.
“Many of my patients will really feel that they’re drinking moderately because they drink a lot less than their friends,” Cederquist explained. “But they have two glasses every single night. They think that’s moderate, but [for women] it’s three times what’s moderate. Five versus 14—three times moderate is actually heavy.”
According to Cederquist, this is the number one mistake people make when it comes to alcohol consumption, especially in terms of fitting it into a healthy, balanced diet.
“It’s an overestimation of what’s considered moderate,” she said.
So, if you really enjoy that nightly glass of wine with dinner or cracking open a beer to relax with after work, how can you make sure it won’t hinder your weight loss goals or cause you to gain weight?
Cederquist says it’s about more than just calories.
“If you’re thinking, ‘Well I want to lose fat,’ keep in mind, I’ve had patients over the years who will restrict total caloric intake and they’ll eat 1,000 calories or 1,200 calories, including the alcohol—which you can imagine they’re eating very little food—but they’re saving 200 or 300 calories for alcohol, but they usually don’t lose weight,” she explained.
She says this is because the body is busy processing the alcohol as a toxin before it can actually start to do the work that’s required to mobilize fat from storage.
So most importantly, regularly maintaining a well-balanced, nutritious diet is the cornerstone of fitting alcohol in your diet in a healthy way.
After that, Cederquist's most important piece of advice is to first learn your habits and then enjoy yourself, in moderation of course.
“It really comes down to knowing ourselves,” she explained. “When I talk with my patients, like I remember one meeting just two weeks ago, I met this woman who said, ‘Every single week I make a promise to myself that I am not going to have any alcohol and then I break it every single week.’ But that leaves us feeling incapable and like we can’t keep a promise to ourselves—all the guilt, you know, it’s a loaded thing.”
Cederquist explained that for this particular patient, having one glass of wine almost always lead to having a second, which is fine, she just needed to recognize this habit and work with it.
“A lot of people are like that, one glass of wine is always two glasses of wine,” she said “So if we look at trying to stay moderate, the moderate intake of the five or less per week for women, say just for being healthy, if your one glass always is two, then decide that two days a week, or three at the most, is when you’re going to have wine.”
And if you’re wondering what types of drinks are considered "healthier" options, Cederquist said your best bet is to go with something pure, like a glass of wine or a bottle of beer versus a complex mixed drink, and to go with something you actually enjoy.
“I have patients who say, well I read that vodka doesn’t do X, Y or Z compared to wine so I have vodka,” she explained. “But they hate vodka. Then it’s like, why are you even having it? That’s silly.”
Instead, she said, since alcohol is more of a treat, make sure you’re going to enjoy your drink.
“Pick what you like,” Cederquist said. “And in terms of ‘healthier’ drinks, people can make a mixed drink where they’re throwing in whatever, kale or something, but that’s not going to make it healthy, nor is it going to make it taste good.”
Her only caveat; watch out for mixed drinks that are high in sugar.
“If you’re going to have a mixed drink and it’s very, very sweet, then realize a lot more calories are going to be hidden in it,” Cederquist said. "Many people will get the double whammy of that affecting blood sugar, and then also interacting with the effect of the alcohol so that they’ll get a spike in sugar and a drop later. That might make them hungrier, weak and shaky, disrupt sleep, all of that.”