Can You Have Your Drink and Drink it Too?

Girl drinking wine in room. Is alcohol healthy?

Photo Credit: Kara Kieffer (, featuring the lovely Sarah Daws!

Most diet plans forbid alcohol. Even Paleo discourages it (oops). I am of the opinion, however, that one must live life to the fullest, and adopt a diet protocol which is both enjoyable and sustainable. Is there a way to have your drink and drink it too?


Alcohol and weight are in an #itscomplicated relationship. You may find the following studies surprising. (I surely did.) In fact…it’s a wonder most diet plans don’t encourage alcohol consumption, all things considered.

Alcohol’s Relationship to Weight
Alcohol contains 7.1 calories per gram, placing it near fat’s 9 calories per gram. On the one hand, studies show that drinking alcohol with a meal does not lead to a compensatory decrease in food calories. In other words, if you have a drink with dinner, you probably won’t eat less to compensate. Alcohol also minimizes fat oxidation when consumed.  Such factors would seem to correlate alcohol with weight gain.

But that’s just not the case.

Calories from alcohol do not act like “normal” calories. Studies show that substituting calories from carbohydrates with calories from alcohol typically leads to weight loss, while calories consumed in excess from alcohol don’t necessarily result in weight gain. (So much for the “calorie is just a calorie” theory.) In fact, hospitalized alcoholics gained NO weight when 1800 calories in the form of alcohol was added to their standard diet. A similar metabolic ward study found that substituting 50% of the patients’ daily calories with alcohol yielded weight loss. Furthermore, adding 2,000 calories of chocolate to the patients’ diet steadily increased weight, but adding 2,000 calories of alcohol negligibly affected weight. Such results indicate alcohol may exhibit protective mechanisms against weight gain.

The reasons for alcohol’s paradoxical effects on weight are widely debated. Theories range from alcohol’s thermogenic effect (which is around 20%), an increase in metabolism (alcohol may increase daily energy expenditure by 5% ), enhanced ATP breakdown, a “wasting” of the calories from alcohol, or perhaps a long term reduction in food intake beyond a single meal. Whatever the case, moderate consumption of alcohol seems ultimately protective against obesity, particularly in women.

Melanie Kara Princess

Photo Credit: Kara Kieffer ( Yep, that’s me in my pink kitchen.

Alcohol Metabolism 
Alcohol is burned preferentially in the body over other fuel substrates (fats, carbs, and protein). It does not easily become body fat. No simple or practical pathway exists for alcohol to fatty acid conversion. In the the worst case scenario, around 5% of alcohol could possibly be converted to fat, although such is highly unlikely.

So the alcohol itself does not become “fat”: rather, whatever you eat with your drink is what shows up on the proverbial scale. (Not that we support scales around here!) Weight gain from drinking  stems from sugary, caloric mixers and loss of inhibitions, as all healthy diet pledges go out the window. Hello fast food binge, validated via the excuse of needing something to “soak up the alcohol!” (I shudder thinking about how many times my college friends and I hit up Denny’s for pancakes or Jack In the Box for a large bucket of curly fries circa 3am.)

Self control and moderation is key. Use good judgement. You can absolutely drink moderately and maintain or even lose weight, but maybe not if you scarf down a pizza or burger after imbibing.

Benefits of Moderate Alcohol Consumption in Diet
In fact, there are a myriad of benefits surrounding alcohol consumption. Moderate alcohol consumption is linked to increased lifespan. It improves insulin sensitivity and discourages insulin resistance, particularly in women. It protects the heart from cardiovascular disease and is preventative against metabolic syndrome (again, particularly in women), positively affecting blood lipids, waist circumference, and fasting insulin. It is preventative against rheumatoid arthritis and may be preventative against neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and stroke. Mentally, moderate alcohol consumption boosts positive effects on stress and depression. And my personal favorite: alcohol has been shown to be protective against the common cold.

In Summary
Alcohol does not encourage fat gain, nor inhibit weight loss. Weight gain from drinking likely comes from lost inhibitions spurring unhealthy eating habits (or if the alcohol is mixed with caloric, sugary mixers). Alcohol has been shown to provide many health benefits.

Yes, you can definitely have your drink and drink it too! Unless you binge on sugary, unhealthy foods while drinking. In which case…no, you probably cannot drink without repercussions. It’s all up to you!


16. Mezey E, Faillace LA. Metabolic impairment and recovery time in acute ethanol intoxication. J Nerv MenDis 197l;153:445-52

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