Does Alcohol Make You Fat?
The gym I go to sends regular emails with suggestions and interesting facts. The email I received today sparked my curiosity, because it asked a provocative question: Does alcohol make you fat? The question linked to a blog article provided the answer.
You all know me by now… 😉
Few things can pass without a good criticism on my part, unless it is written with all angles considered and discussed. This article came so short in this requirement that I posted a response under comments–it is in moderation queue as I write this. Below is a copy-paste (with edits… forever typos… lol) of what I wrote in my comment.
Lovely article but the most important thing is not mentioned. Alcohol, which provides 7 Calories per gram (as opposed to sugar, which provides 4 Calories per gram, and fat, which provides 9 Calories per gram), alcohol has a couple of nasty characteristics:
- Alcohol is toxic in the blood so it must be burned up as fuel first.
- Alcohol is stored in the body as fat, specifically as triglycerides.
- Something that is stored as fat necessarily makes one fatter–though may not increase weight, since fat weighs less than muscle
So let’s address the two points from above.
1) Alcohol converts to formaldehyde in the body (yes, the stuff you my have seen dead animal bodies preserved in biology classes) and ethanol (the stuff we put into our cars as fuel additive). In fact, the 7 Calories we get from alcohol is from ethanol. Ethanol is explosive–as we all know–and so great care must be taken by the body to reduce that explosive nature. In the process lots of oxidation happens. Oxidation in the body causes the equivalent of “rust”, which we all understand as oxidation of iron. This oxidation in our body creates reactive oxygen species (ROS) or super oxides. Regardless what you call it, it requires a huge amount of antioxidants on the part of the body to put out this “fire” and eating blueberries for its antioxidants will not be helpful here.
2) Because alcohol is so toxic, it prevents the burning of any other fuel (glucose and fat are our other fuels) while we still have alcohol in our blood to burn. This causes a few problems. One of them is that we end up with hypoglycemia because glucose cannot be burned while we are burning alcohol, and another is that we only burn extra fuel when we are doing something extra work. If we simply sit and drink, we are barely using energy above our basal metabolic rate, so it will take a very long time to get rid of the alcohol in our blood. Alcohol is not something we can urinate out–only about 2% is wasted as sweat or in the urine; alcohol must all be burned as fuel.
Physiology of Fuel Burning
If you understand human physiology and how fuel burns in our body, then you know that the mitochondria burn all the fuel, generating ATP, which then gives us energy. However, while we humans may eat more than what we need, the mitochondria can only turn the fuel it gets into ATP with a certain speed. If more fuel heads to the mitochondria, it will be channeled to the liver for storage either as glycogen or fat. What this means is that depending upon how much alcohol you drink, or how fast you are drinking it, and what you are doing while drinking alcohol can make a difference. You may be drinking too fast for the mitochondria to use it all up and then some of the alcohol may have to be stored–meaning drinking up a glass in one gulp may provide an overload, whereas drinking the same amount over 30 minutes may just be fine. Drinking a glass of alcohol while running a marathon will give different outcome from drinking the same while sitting in a bar.
Furthermore, while the alcohol is burning, no other fuel can be burning. So while the recommendation from the nutritionist cited in the original article is to eat food with your alcoholic beverage, the food you eat actually cannot be used as fuel while there is alcohol in your blood. As a result, any carbs you eat will be stored as glycogen or fat (triglycerides) and will be pulled from glycogen or fat storage once the alcohol is gone.
And lastly, to be able to burn the stored fat requires excellent metabolic health. Burning fat is the hardest thing to do for most people–hence most people are overweight and fat. The best way to burn fat is to be in ketosis, in which case all organs that can burn fat or ketones will burn fat or ketones and only those organs that must burn glucose will burn glucose.
Once the whole picture is presented about drinking alcohol, the facts place alcohol into the “very seldom” category.
Image Credit: An intoxicated man drinking beer; advertising Blauwe Week against alcohol. Lithograph (?), 1936, after A. van Dobbenburgh, 1935. Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Comments are welcome, as always, and are moderated for appropriateness.