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Alcohol & Weight Loss

by Shalini Singh

With regard to your question, consider the following. One of the most common questions I encounter when assisting students and trainers with issues of optimal fitness is “can I drink alcohol and reach (or maintain) my desired weight?” As football season begins, many of us will be debating over the added calories in a tall cool one. Whether you drink is up to you and your doctor, but here are some points on alcohol consumption as it relates to weight management. Alcohol is not void of calories. Not only does alcohol contain 7 calories per gram (a close second to the caloric impact of fat), most drinks also have a fair amount of sugar. The sugar may be natural, such as in wine, or may be part of a mixer, like that used in margaritas and daiquiris. It is quite obvious that regular, excess consumption of alcoholic drinks can lead to weight gain.

Due to the many examples of excess, alcohol is frequently associated with the “beer belly.” However, scientific evidence suggests that responsible, regular, moderate drinking may actually improve weight control and may assist with weight loss. (Moderate drinking is defined as 2 drinks per day for males under 65 and 1 drink per day for females and for males over 65–one drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.) Though the evidence is conflicting, it appears that fermented beverages,1 such as wine and beer, have been shown to improve the body’s ability to regulate weight through a variety of mechanisms including: improved hormonal status (DHEA), improved insulin sensitivity, increased energy expenditure, antiangiogenic effects, and PPAR-receptor activation.

Moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to increase DHEA (sulfate) 16.5%, which may account for some of its weight management effects. Among other roles, DHEA directly affects body functions related to weight gain. When DHEA levels drop, bodyweight and body fat increase.

Moderate alcohol consumption may also influence insulin sensitivity. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, which drives sugar into the cells. Insulin also inhibits fat breakdown and promotes the storage of fat. As people age or suffer from obesity, they become less sensitive to the effects of insulin, requiring greater levels of the hormone to be released. High insulin levels, caused by reduced insulin sensitivity, lead to progressive fat accumulation. By improving the body’s ability to respond to insulin, moderate drinking appears to reduce the risk of excess fat gain and possibly promote fat loss.

A third benefit of moderate consumption involves caloric intake vs. energy expenditure. Calories are burned by three main avenues: basal metabolic rate, thermogenesis, and physical activity. Alcohol may increase thermogenesis in moderate drinkers. Regular drinkers may also see a reduction in the available calories from alcohol consumption, as they up-regulate the microsomal ethanol-oxidizing system, a set of enzymes that dispose of alcohol without using it for energy.

Certain alcohols also possess weight management benefits specific to their composition. Red wine, for example, possesses components that have been shown in alternate uses to limit an increase in fat. “Angiogenesis” is a term that describes the growth of new blood vessels, necessary for growing or active tissue. Antiangiogenic compounds have been used as an adjunct treatment for cancer patients, and it has been observed that while blocking new blood vessel growth affects tumor size, it also prevents fat deposits from growing. As a result of this finding, antiangiogenics are being developed by pharmaceutical companies to combat obesity. Several antiangiogenic factors are present in red wine, including resveratrol, which may also explain some of the heart disease protection and lower cancer rates present in wine consumers. However, the antiangiogenic effect of wine is likely to be a less significant contributor to noted weight management effects.

An interesting final benefit of moderate drinking is linked to the hops in beer. The extract of hops, an ingredient used in the brewing of beer, has demonstrated weight loss effects in rats. Isohumulones are present in hop extract and have many properties that may lead to fat loss. By blocking the effect of digestive enzymes, hop extract appears to inhibit the digestion of dietary fat, resulting in decreased fat calorie absorption. Isohumulones have been shown to reduce fat cell size in rats, improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood fats (triglycerides). In addition, isohumulones also increase lipid oxidation (fat-calorie burning), decrease fat storage and have an antiangiogenic effect. Further, isohumulones also appear to activate PPAR receptors. Active PPAR receptors reduce blood fats (triglycerides), improve insulin sensitivity, and reduce appetite. It remains to be seen if similar effects are noted in humans, but the initial data shows promise.

Though the individual effects of increased DHEA, improved insulin sensitivity, increased caloric expenditure, antiangiogenic effects, and PPAR-receptor activation are likely of minimal potency, the combination may produce weight management benefits over the course of many years. Remember though: the amount is key. One to two drinks, depending on gender and age. More than that, and your body will have no choice but to store the calories as fat–not to mention battle all the other negative physiological effects of excess alcohol. So cheers!–to alcohol in moderation.

We hope this helps as well.

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Shalini has diversified her study and researches food, bioengineering of foods using technology to generate nutrient dense foods, human anatomy at a cellular level, and the real impact of exercise on muscular ageing.


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