Substance Use

Alcohol and Weight: Can Alcohol Cause Weight Gain?

woman on scale with bottles of alcohol

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Drinking alcohol is a common practice in many parts of the world, and it can positively and negatively impact our health. But when alcohol consumption becomes excessive or uncontrolled, it can lead to addiction and serious health problems, such as weight gain. This comprehensive overview will discuss how alcohol affects body weight, what signs of addiction to look for, and more. 

If you’re worried about your drinking habits or those of friends or family members, keep reading to learn all the essential information you need to know about alcohol use and its effects on body weight.

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The Relationship Between Alcohol and Body Weight

Alcohol use can cause both weight gain and weight loss.

1. Weight Gain

Alcohol abuse, weight gain, and obesity are linked in many ways. (1)  Even if within the recommended moderate drinking guidelines, drinking can increase caloric intake and decrease energy expenditure, as alcohol is high in calories with no nutritional value.

Also, people who drink heavily often eat more than they usually would due to the stimulant effects of alcohol, which can temporarily mask feelings of hunger and fullness. (2)

Drinking heavily can affect the body’s hormone levels, causing an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone) and a decrease in leptin (the fullness hormone). This change in hormones can cause cravings for unhealthy foods, leading to weight gain. (3)

Over time, heavy alcohol use can lead to liver damage, which can cause problems with digestion and metabolism that may contribute to weight gain. (4)

2. Weight Loss

Chronic alcohol use can also cause people to be underweight. This is because alcohol affects the body’s ability to absorb and process nutrients, which can lead to inadequate intake of essential vitamins and minerals.

In addition, heavy drinkers often forget to eat or don’t have enough money for food due to their spending on alcohol. (5)

The Indirect Effects of Alcohol on Weight

Alcohol’s influence on weight extends beyond just caloric intake. The following points offer more information into the broader lifestyle and psychological effects of alcohol that contribute to changes in weight.

It Stimulates Your Appetite

Some amounts of alcohol have been shown to increase appetite, leading individuals to consume more food than they would when sober. This heightened appetite, combined with impaired judgment, may result in poor food choices and overeating. (6)

It Can Impair Your Judgment and Food Choices

Under the influence of alcohol, individuals may make less health-conscious food choices. Impaired judgment can lead to indulgence in high-calorie, unhealthy snacks and meals that contribute to weight gain over time.

It’s High in Empty Calories

Alcoholic beverages themselves are often high in calories. While some drinks contain sugars and mixers that contribute empty calories, even pure alcohol itself provides a significant calorie load without offering nutritional value. (7)

It Can Affect Your Metabolic Processes

Alcohol can disrupt metabolic processes, impacting the body’s ability to efficiently burn calories. This can contribute to weight gain, especially when alcohol is consumed regularly and in excess.

It Can Impact the Quality of Your Sleep

Quality sleep is crucial for weight management. Alcohol can interfere with sleep patterns, leading to insufficient rest. Poor sleep is associated with weight gain, as it disrupts hormonal balance and increases cravings for high-calorie and high-carbohydrate foods.

It Can Cause Liver Disease

Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to liver diseases, such as fatty liver disease and cirrhosis. Liver dysfunction affects metabolic processes and contributes to weight-related issues. (8)

Will Quitting Alcohol Get Rid of Belly Fat?

Many wonder if saying goodbye to alcohol will get rid of belly fat or the common beer belly. Alcohol, particularly in excess, contributes to the accumulation of belly fat. (9) This is because the liver prioritizes processing alcohol over burning fat, leading to the storage of excess calories as fat, often around the abdominal area.

When you decide to quit alcohol, your body undergoes positive changes. First, your liver can focus on metabolizing fats without the interference of alcohol. This shift can contribute to a reduction in overall body fat, including that around the belly.

Quitting alcohol often means cutting down on extra calories from alcoholic drinks, which are notorious for their high-calorie content. By eliminating these empty calories, you reduce your overall calorie intake, aiding in weight loss and, specifically, reducing abdominal fat.

It’s important to note that while quitting alcohol is a positive step for weight management, adopting a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and regular exercise further enhances the effectiveness of shedding belly fat. Speaking with a dietitian can be helpful to lower your body mass index and drop weight.

How to Balance Alcohol Consumption and Weight Loss

Balancing alcohol consumption with weight loss goals involves adopting mindful strategies. Here are detailed lifestyle and diet tips for those who choose to drink moderately while aiming for weight loss.

Eat Before You Drink

Having a nutritious meal before drinking not only helps slow down alcohol absorption but also prevents overindulgence. Opt for balanced meals rich in proteins and fibers to enhance satiety and curb excessive drinking.

Set Limits

Establishing clear limits on alcohol intake is essential for successful weight management. Familiarize yourself with standard drink sizes and set a maximum number for a given occasion. This proactive approach aids in controlling calorie intake and minimizes the risk of overconsumption.

Go Low-Cal

When selecting alcoholic beverages, prioritize options with lower calorie content. Opt for light beers, wine spritzers, or spirits with low-calorie mixers. This way, you can enjoy a drink while minimizing its impact on your overall calorie count.

Pace Yourself

Sipping your drink slowly allows your body sufficient time to metabolize the alcohol. Pacing yourself is crucial; consider alternating between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, such as water or sparkling water. This strategic approach contributes to better alcohol metabolism.

Limit Mixers and Cocktails

Many cocktails come with sugary mixers that contribute unnecessary calories. Choose cocktails with simple, less sugary mixers like soda water or fresh citrus juices. For an even healthier choice, enjoy your spirits neat or on the rocks, eliminating additional calories from mixers.

Is Weight Gain a Sign of Alcohol Addiction?

Experiencing unexplained weight gain can serve as a potential indicator of alcohol addiction. This shift in body weight is often attributed to several factors associated with excessive alcohol consumption.

Here are some key considerations regarding weight gain as a potential risk factor for alcohol addiction:

Caloric Impact: Alcoholic beverages can be high in calories, and regular consumption can lead to a surplus in daily caloric intake. Excessive alcohol consumption, combined with poor dietary choices often associated with addiction, can contribute to weight gain.

Disruption of Metabolic Processes: Alcohol can disrupt normal metabolic processes, affecting how the body stores and utilizes energy. This disruption may lead to changes in fat metabolism, contributing to increased fat storage and, consequently, weight gain.

Liver Function: The liver plays a crucial role in metabolizing both alcohol and fats. Prolonged and heavy alcohol use can strain the liver, leading to conditions like alcoholic fatty liver disease. This condition can contribute to weight gain due to the accumulation of fat in the liver.

Alcohol-Related Hormonal Changes: Alcohol consumption can influence hormonal balances, impacting appetite and food choices. It may lead to increased cravings for unhealthy, calorie-dense foods, further contributing to weight gain.

Sedentary Lifestyle: Individuals struggling with alcohol addiction may experience a decline in physical activity levels, adopting a more sedentary lifestyle. This lack of exercise, coupled with the impact of alcohol on energy levels, can contribute to weight gain.

Fluid Retention: Alcohol can contribute to fluid retention and bloating, resulting in temporary weight gain. This may not be actual fat gain but can still contribute to changes in the number on the scale. (10)

Recognizing and Addressing Alcohol Use Disorder

Three warning signs that someone has an alcohol abuse problem are:

  1. They drink more and more frequently, sometimes even drinking alone.
  2. They often experience blackouts or memory loss after drinking.
  3. They are unable to limit their intake of alcohol and experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and tremors when they try to cut back or quit drinking altogether. (11)

If you have an alcohol abuse problem, you may experience some of the following signs and symptoms and have a higher risk of these side effects:

  • Binge drinking
  • Feelings of guilt or shame after drinking
  • Loss of control over how much and when you drink
  • Problems at work, school, or home due to drinking
  • Lower energy intake
  • Struggles with relationships and friendships due to alcohol use
  • Financial problems caused by excessive spending on alcohol
  • Angry outbursts or feelings of anxiety, restlessness, or irritability when not drinking
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, tremors, sweating, and nausea when cutting back or quitting drinking. (12)
  • Continuing to drink despite knowing it is causing physical or mental health problems
  • Behavioral changes

Treatment and Recovery Options

Each individual’s path to sobriety is unique, and finding the right approach is key to achieving lasting recovery. 

Here is a detailed overview of treatment and recovery options, including their effectiveness and practical advice for those seeking help.

  1. Medical Detoxification: For individuals with severe alcohol dependence, medical detoxification is often the first step at a public health facility. This supervised process involves safely managing withdrawal symptoms under medical supervision. Medications may be administered to ease withdrawal discomfort and reduce the risk of complications.
  2. Inpatient Rehabilitation: Inpatient or residential rehabilitation provides a structured and immersive environment for individuals seeking comprehensive treatment. Patients reside in a facility and participate in therapy, counseling, and support groups. The 24/7 care and focus on recovery contribute to a more intensive and effective treatment experience.
  3. Outpatient Programs: Outpatient programs offer flexibility for those who want to continue their daily responsibilities while receiving treatment. Individuals attend scheduled therapy sessions, counseling, and support groups while maintaining their usual routines.
  4. Counseling and Therapy: Individual and group counseling plays a pivotal role in addressing the psychological aspects of alcohol addiction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational enhancement therapy (MET), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are among the evidence-based therapeutic approaches utilized.
  5. 12-Step Programs: Participation in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provides a supportive community of individuals sharing similar experiences. The 12-step framework involves acknowledging powerlessness over alcohol and working through a series of steps toward recovery.
  6. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): Certain medications, such as disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate, may be prescribed to help individuals manage cravings, reduce relapse risk, and support long-term recovery. (13)
  7. Holistic Approaches: Complementary therapies, including yoga, meditation, and art therapy, can enhance the overall well-being of individuals in recovery. These holistic approaches address physical, mental, and emotional aspects of healing.
  8. Aftercare and Support Groups: Continued support is vital after a formal treatment plan. Aftercare plans, including ongoing therapy and participation in support groups, help individuals maintain sobriety and navigate challenges in the post-rehabilitation phase.

Why You Might Gain Weight After Quitting

It’s important to remember that weight gain is a common side effect of treatment for an alcohol use disorder, but there are steps you can take to manage it. Eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, drinking a smaller amount of alcohol, and talking to a healthcare professional are all effective strategies for managing weight gain during treatment. (14)

The most important thing is to focus on your recovery from alcohol use disorder and not be discouraged by any possible weight gain. With time and effort, you can make progress not only in your recovery but also in reaching a healthy weight.

Rethink Drinking Alcohol: Steps Towards a Healthier Lifestyle

If you know someone struggling with alcohol addiction, there are a few ways to help.

  1. Provide emotional support and be an understanding listener. It can also be helpful to create a safe environment for the person to talk about their addiction without judgment or criticism.
  2. Provide resources such as information about treatment programs to show that help is available. You can also accompany the person to appointments or meetings with American healthcare professionals to provide emotional support and encouragement.
  3. Encourage healthy habits, such as exercise, eating nutritious meals, and getting enough sleep to lose weight and decrease the BMI.

If you or someone close to you is struggling with alcohol addiction and heavy drinking, Zinnia Health can provide much-needed relief. We offer inpatient and outpatient facilities and group counseling sessions, which can provide the necessary support for long-term recovery. To learn more about our treatment options, please call our 24/7 helpline at (855) 430-9439.


Call us
Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us