Why managing weight gets complicated when alcohol is around
Alcohol can have a significant impact on weight gain and obesity due to its effect on the brain, empty calorie content, inhibition of fat burning, and disruption of sleep and hormone levels.
Alcohol affects the same opioid receptors in the brain that are stimulated by eating rich, sweet, and fatty foods. People who are more prone to alcoholism due to genetic variations in the genes that code for opioid receptors are also more likely to binge on sweet and fatty foods. This can lead to addiction not only to alcohol but also to other substances like opiate drugs, cocaine, and nicotine.
One of the main reasons why alcohol can contribute to obesity is its empty calorie content. Alcoholic drinks are high in calories but low in nutritional value. For example, a bottle of beer can contain anywhere from 55 to well over 300 calories, while a glass of wine is around 125 calories. These calories come from alcohol itself, as well as from sugars and starches, and do not provide the body with the necessary protein or fat for satiety.
In fact, alcohol can actually increase hunger, similar to the effect of sugar, and people do not compensate for the calories from alcohol by reducing their food intake.
Furthermore, alcohol is high in calories compared to other macronutrients. With 7 calories per gram, alcohol contains almost twice as many calories as sugar, starch, or protein, and almost as many as fat, which has 9 calories per gram.
The body cannot store alcohol like it can store glucose or fat, so it has to burn the alcohol immediately to eliminate it. Any other calories consumed while alcohol is present in the system are quickly stored as fat, leading to weight gain, especially in the abdominal area.
Alcohol also inhibits fat burning in the body. The liver prioritizes burning alcohol over other energy sources, and when alcohol intake is excessive, the liver's capacity to burn it becomes overwhelmed. As a result, the body converts the alcohol into acetate, a fatty acid, which is then stored as fat.
Chronic alcohol consumption can trigger a separate pathway in the liver for detoxification, where the alcohol is directly oxidized, producing only heat. However, by this point, most of the incoming alcohol has already displaced food calories, leading to fat storage instead of burning.
In addition to its impact on calorie intake and fat burning, alcohol can disrupt sleep and hormone levels, which can further contribute to obesity. Disturbed sleep causes stress, which can lead to increased calorie intake and weight gain. Human growth hormone (HGH), which plays a crucial role in building muscle mass and decreasing fat mass, is also affected by alcohol. When HGH levels are low, fat mass tends to increase at the expense of muscle mass, leading to a higher risk of obesity.
Furthermore, alcohol can negatively affect physical activity levels. Heavy drinking can make it difficult to engage in regular exercise, as it impairs coordination, balance, and muscle function. This can further contribute to weight gain and obesity, as decreased physical activity leads to reduced calorie expenditure.
So we can see that alcohol consumption can contribute to weight gain in several ways. From its effect on the brain to its empty calorie content, inhibition of fat burning, disruption of sleep and hormone levels, and impact on physical activity, alcohol can, and does, significantly contribute to weight gain and obesity.