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One gram of pure alcohol delivers almost twice as many calories as a gram of carbohydrate.iStockphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Is it advisable to completely stop drinking alcohol if I want to lose weight? I've noticed people who do drop weight quickly. Can I lose weight without giving up alcohol?

For many people, going alcohol-free for the month of January is viewed as a way to recover from December's excesses and, in the process, lose a few pounds.

It can also help jump-start other healthy habits, such as eating better and exercising more.

Whether giving up alcohol for 31 days, though, will speed up weight loss depends on how much you already imbibe. Abstaining may help you reach your weight goal faster, or it might not make a difference at all.

Calories in cocktails

Alcohol adds calories to your diet – calories that many people don't think about as part of their daily intake and don't compensate for by eating less food.

One gram of pure alcohol – there are 14 to 15 of them in five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of 4-per-cent beer and 1.5 ounces of 40-per-cent spirits – delivers seven calories, almost twice as much as a gram of carbohydrate and close to the nine found in a single gram of fat.

Five ounces of wine (red or white) delivers 122 calories, 12 ounces of regular beer has 110 to 200 (the higher the alcohol content, the higher the calories) and 1.5 ounces of 40-per-cent spirits supply 100.

If your go-to cocktails are made with sugary mixes such as syrup, liqueur, fruit juice, pop or Red Bull, the calories can really pile up.

Consider these numbers: gin and tonic (8 ounces), 170 calories; Cosmopolitan (3.5 ounces), 210 calories, margarita (3.5 ounces), 255 calories; Caesar (12 ounces), 260 calories.

Most people don't equate drinking two cocktails to eating a McDonald's double cheeseburger (420 calories) or a Big Mac (520 calories).

Drives appetite, food intake

Dropping alcohol may do more than save calories from booze. It may also prevent you from overeating.

That's because alcohol can stimulate appetite, almost immediately after consumption.

Controlled studies in the lab have consistently found that participants who drink an alcoholic beverage 30 minutes prior to lunch consume more calories at the meal. Research has also revealed that they eat more quickly, take longer to feel satiated, continue to eat after feeling satisfied and report feeling hungrier for the rest of the day.

Findings from a 2013 study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concur with those from lab experiments, at least for men.

According to data collected from three U.S. national health and nutrition surveys, men who drank moderately (three to 14 drinks a week) consumed an extra 433 calories on drinking days, with food calories accounting for 39 per cent of the excess.

Women who drank moderately (three to seven drinks a week) consumed an additional 300 calories on the days they drank, most of them coming from alcoholic beverages.

The fact that women did not consume significantly more food calories on drinking days may be because they drank less alcohol when imbibing (i.e., not enough to stimulate appetite) and/or that they were more vigilant about their diet.

Alcohol may increase appetite and food intake by heightening attention to the aroma and visual appeal of food, enhancing the brain's reward pathway associated with eating, increasing fatigue from disrupted sleep and lowering the restraint to eat sensibly.

Reduced fat-burning, but…

Since your body can't store alcohol, your liver's priority is to get rid of it right away. To do so, the body slows down its metabolism, or breakdown, of fat and carbohydrate stores used to supply energy.

Even so, halting this metabolic process does not inevitably translate into weight gain.

The fact that you've noticed people lose weight by adhering to a "dry" January has to do with the calories saved by not otherwise drinking.

And in many cases, weight loss is the result of cutting alcohol and, at the same time, improving diet and exercise habits. (A new year's resolve to abstain from alcohol can lead people to take care of themselves in other ways, too.)

January and beyond

If you're in the habit of drinking two glasses of wine each night, cutting them out can help your weight-loss efforts. You'll save 7,000 calories for the month, and more if your usual pour is larger than five ounces.

Assuming that you're following a calorie-reduced diet, eliminating a moderate three to seven drinks a week won't make a noticeable difference to your rate of weight loss.

Still, whether you enjoy one drink a day – or more – abstaining in January can be beneficial for some people, beyond its calorie savings.

It breaks a habitual pattern and offers an opportunity to consider if your usual alcohol intake (before Jan. 1) is right for you. And after a month of sleeping better, feeling more alert and being more productive, you might decide to pull back on even moderate drinking habits.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.


How much is too much?

Canada's Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines advise no more than 10 drinks a week for women, with no more than two drinks on most days. For men, no more than 15 drinks a week, with no more than three drinks on most days.

As my weight-loss clients know, I am a little stricter, but not a lot.

One drink is defined as five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or cider or 1.5 ounces of distilled alcohol (40 per cent alcohol content).

– Leslie Beck

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