Alcohol, metabolism, and effects on weight loss
Alcohol is a sneaky little devil. Humans love it, we consume it often, we consume it in relatively large quantities, some people abuse it, and sometimes we have it when we shouldn’t. When it comes to alcohol and how our bodies process it, many people who are trying to lose weight, think of alcohol from a “calories consumed” perspective. I usually don’t do this. Alcohol creates a very specific, very different situation in the human body from normal nutritional digestion. I will, in this blog, attempt to go over the basics of alcohol metabolism and give people a clearer idea of why you should be very careful when consuming alcohol when trying to lose weight.
The first thing we need to know is the basics of alcohol as a nutritional product. Alcohol doesn’t contain any micronutrients at all, that means no vitamins, no minerals, no means of helping the body maintain the tens of thousands of chemical reactions it needs to function correctly. Essentially alcohol does three things, it “messes” with the brain, it forces the liver to change the way it handles energy, and it provides calories, 7 calories per gram in fact, that’s more energy than both carbohydrates or protein, and just slightly less than fat. Alcohol, similar to some simple carbohydrates, begins digestion the moment it enters your body, and is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream for transport to the brain and liver. On it’s way into the blood stream alcohol enflames both the stomach lining and the intestines causing reduced nutrient absorption. Consistent, regular use of alcohol can also lead to all kinds of long term problems, one of the biggest being alcoholism, and the other being liver diseases; but lets leave these issues aside for this discussion and just look at how alcohol affects you right now.
The body requires fuel, because the body sees ethyl alcohol as a poison, it tells the liver, “HEY, if you see any alcohol, drop what you’re doing and oxidize it, because that stuff is dangerous!” And so no matter what your liver was doing when you take a drink, it’s priority changes, and that food that you were digesting and using quite happily until you drank, now becomes extra, and generally will be stored as fat. Why? Because what your body was going to use as energy is now not needed (the alcohol provided the energy instead). Even a moderate amount of alcohol can retard weight loss for days after consumption. It takes a few days for your body to repair the damage to the stomach and intestinal lining after a moderate session of drinking, during which, you will absorb less nutrients, meaning even if you eat perfectly, you won’t be receiving the required nutrients. Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning that it forces the body to excrete more water than normal. Even mild dehydration can really throw your metabolism out of whack, it takes 24 to 48 hours for the adult body to fully recover hydration and electrolyte levels after a moderate to heavy day of drinking. In more severe instances, blood vessels in the brain become dilated and the accompanying lack of glucose causes that ever popular “hangover headache” that many people receive after a night of heavy drinking.
And of course we should never leave out the psychological and physical aspects of drinking. Drinking lowers inhibitions, which means the foods you would normally avoid when trying to lose weight, are not as “taboo” as they once were, along with that, portion sizes are judged differently, and those who count calories lose track. Add to this how one feels the day after drinking. Many people who would have normally exercised the day after drinking, will no longer do so, claiming strong feelings of exhaustion or nausea as the reason. This, of course, only heightens the effect alcohol plays on the body. Add to this the dehydration and loss of electrolytes from drinking, and even those who do exercise are at higher risk for exhaustion related situations, and will almost always perform at a lower level of effectiveness, claiming “sluggishness” or fatigue as the main reason, dehydration and lack of proper electrolyte balance can cause this.
In summary, alcohol does some bad things to us from a weight loss perspective. It usurps energy usage from normal nutrients causing increase fat production and storage, it causes us to lose perspective of our food intake, it reduces our desire and ability to exercise, and it reduces our body’s ability to extract nutrients from the food we eat. While I won’t sit here and say “you should never drink again!” I will say that limiting one’s alcohol consumption during an attempt at weight loss is probably a pretty good idea. Trying for 1 to 4 drinks (depending on your size, sex, and age) once every two to three weeks is probably fine, but just be aware, alcohol in any amount will slow fat loss progress, possibly setting you back days or even weeks in some cases. Be aware of it, and keep the alcohol in check, especially if you’re attempting to lose body fat.