The Connection Between Alcohol and Weight Gain

Medically Reviewed By Jared Meacham, Ph.D., RD, PMP, CSCS

A high alcohol intake may cause weight gain by increasing your calorie intake and appetite. However, more research is needed to fully understand the link between alcohol and weight gain. Alcohol can affect many areas of your health, such as digestion and your ability to think clearly. As a result, alcohol may lead to a higher risk of gaining weight.

Also, alcoholic drinks sometimes contain a large number of calories by volume, so they may contribute to excess calorie intake.

Read on to learn more about the relationship between alcohol and weight gain.

How much alcohol causes weight gain? 

Someone holds an orange cocktail in both hands.
Boris Jovanovic/Stocksy United

Alcohol is considered a source of “empty calories.” Unlike foods that contain essential nutrients, alcohol adds calories to your diet without providing nutritional benefits. 

If these added calories mean you take in more energy than your body uses, alcohol may contribute to weight gain.

Still, the amount, frequency, and type of alcohol you consume, as well as other factors, may all determine whether you gain weight. Also, more research is needed to understand exactly how much alcohol can affect weight.

For example, light or moderate drinking may not necessarily lead to weight gain, according to a 2015 research review Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source . Instead, the authors concluded that drinking alcohol may be a risk factor for obesity in some people but that other factors may also affect the risk.

What is light, moderate, and heavy drinking?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source defines light, moderate, and heavy drinking as follows:

  • Light drinking: You have at least 12 alcoholic drinks in a year but consume 3 or fewer drinks per week on average in a year.
  • Moderate drinking: For females, moderate drinking means having 3 to 7 drinks per week on average in a year. For males, it means consuming 3 to 14 drinks per week.
  • Heavy drinking: For females, heavy drinking means having more than 7 drinks per week on average in a year. For males, heavy drinking is having more than 14 drinks per week.

In addition, the CDC has a definition for a “heavy drinking day” (also known as episodic heavy drinking). For females, this involves having 4 or more alcoholic drinks in a single day in the past year. For males, it means having 5 or more alcoholic drinks in a single day in the past year.

How alcohol links to weight gain

Alcohol may contribute to weight gain in the following ways.

Increased hunger and food cravings

According to two studies published in 2021, a high intake of alcohol may increase food cravings.

This may happen because drinking alcohol can increase the amount you salivate in response to food cues, and that response may increase your appetite and food intake.

However, more research is necessary to confirm these findings.

Impaired decision making

Drinking alcohol can affect Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source your decision making skills and decrease inhibition. As a result, you may make less healthy food choices while drinking, which may contribute to weight gain.

In a 2021 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , researchers investigated the link between alcohol use and nutrition in eight Latin American countries. They reported that people who drank alcohol were more likely to consume foods and drinks such as:

  • red and highly processed meats
  • sugar-sweetened beverages
  • foods high in saturated fat and trans fat
  • high sodium foods

Inadequate intake of micronutrients

The same 2021 study reported that people who drank alcohol didn’t consume enough micronutrients.

Not eating enough of certain micronutrients may slow your metabolism Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source (the process by which your body burns food for energy). A slow metabolism may contribute to weight gain.

Increased calorie intake

Many alcoholic drinks, such as wine, beer, and liquor, are made by fermenting natural starches and sugars. As a result, they may be particularly high in calories.

Also, many people add soda, flavorings, and other products to their drinks. Some of these ingredients can be high in added sugars and calories, so they could contribute to a calorie excess.

Calories in alcoholic drinks

The exact number of calories can vary widely by drink and serving size.

On average, alcoholic drinks may have the following numbers of calories per typical serving:

Alcoholic drinkServing size in fluid ouncesAverage calories
regular beer12153
light beer12103
80-proof gin, rum, whiskey, tequila, and vodka1.597
red wine5125
white wine5121
sweet wine3.5165
Champagne484
margarita4168
cosmopolitan 2.75146
whiskey sour3.5160

However, added calories aren’t the only aspect of alcoholic drinks that can affect your health. For example, liquors may be lower in calories than some beers but have a higher concentration of alcohol.

Read more about what alcohol can do to your body.

Limiting alcohol 

If you feel the need to do so, the following tips may help you limit your alcohol intake:

  • Set a limit on how much you’re going to drink before starting.
  • Budget a fixed amount of money to spend on alcohol.
  • Let your family, friends, or other people you spend time with know that you’re cutting down.
  • Cut back a little each day.
  • Ask for smaller servings of alcohol, such as a small glass of wine instead of a large one.
  • Swap highly concentrated drinks for lower-strength options.

Talk with a doctor if you’re finding it hard to limit your alcohol intake or if you have questions. They can work with you to come up with a tailored treatment plan.

The United States General Services Administration also offers a list of resources for alcohol use disorders.

Learn more about alcohol use disorder, including its treatments.

Summary 

More research is needed to fully understand how much alcohol may affect weight and why it may do this.

However, heavy drinking may increase your risk of weight gain and other health effects.

Talk with a doctor if you have any questions about alcohol, weight, or limiting your alcohol intake.

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Medical Reviewer: Jared Meacham, Ph.D., RD, PMP, CSCS
Last Review Date: 2024 Jun 5
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