The skinny on booze

Does drinking alcohol really lead to weight gain?

January is that ill-fated month when many of us decide it’s time to make a change usually one we know will never last. So you ring up a friend and invite them to meet for a drink only to be met with that unfortunate response “I’m on the wagon.”

For many their seat on the wagon is directly related to dieting a time-honoured January tradition. But does forgoing alcohol lead to weight loss? After much time spent researching my less than succinct answer is: well no not really.

The debate over whether booze makes you fat is a hot topic and there is no shortage of people to chime in on the “facts.” But in the end science reigns supreme. There are no substantial studies that show a direct relationship between alcohol and weight gain — in fact three commonly cited studies have shown just the opposite:

• A six-year study of 43500 people by the University of Denmark found that teetotallers and infrequent drinkers ended up with the biggest waistlines while daily drinkers had the smallest.

• An eight-year study of 49300 women by University College Medical School London found that women who drank below 30 grams a day (around two medium glasses of wine) were up to 24 per cent less likely to put on weight than teetotallers.

• A 10-year study of 7230 people by the U.S. National Center for Disease Control found that drinkers gained less weight than non-drinkers. Alcohol intake did not increase the risk of obesity.

And the list goes on. But the interesting thing is that many of these studies were in direct conflict with their original hypothesis. In other words they set out to prove alcohol leads to weight gain and ended up showing opposite results. The big question is why?

Alcohol has lots of calories we know that. A dry white is about 110 calories a full red is up to 195 calories and a sweet wine up to 295 calories. Beer can have the same range from 100 to 300 calories. Ethanol is a big contributor to calorie counts so hard liquor is also high especially when you mix it with cola. So why don’t all these calories add up to weight gain?

The answer is… we’re not really sure. But we do know that alcoholic calories are not absorbed the same way as food calories. Our bodies digest alcohol (ethanol) differently — we send excess ethanol into a complex metabolic process involving our liver. So without getting overly technical we end up peeing out a lot of those excess calories.

There are those who swear that they put on weight when they drink — and I don’t doubt them — but it’s probably not the booze that’s to blame. First off drinking makes you hungry and food choices made by the inebriated usually don’t involve quinoa or broccoli and I don’t remember the last time I hit the gym after a few pints.

So think a little bit about your habits before you lay blame on the drink itself. If you can find a way to squeeze in a few workouts and eat a halfway sensible diet then maybe you can step off that wagon and still enjoy a few January pints.