Alcohol, Calories and Weight: Surprising Facts Unknown to Most M.D.s

The subject of alcohol, calories and weight is an ironic one. Alcohol contains calories, but drinking alcohol in moderation doesn’t lead to weight gain. And some studies report a small weight loss for women who drink.1


I.   Calories, Carbs & Fat.

II.  Research Summaries.

III. Summary

IV.  Resources

The medical evidence of this is based on a large number of studies of thousands of people around the world. Many of these studies are very large.

It’s not clear why drinking alcohol in moderation doesn’t increase weight. Some research suggests that alcohol energy is not efficiently used.2 Alcohol also appears to increase metabolic rate significantly. This causes more calories to be burned rather than stored in the body as fat.3 Other research has found that the consumption of sugar decreases as the consumption of alcohol increases.4

I. Calories, Carbs & Fat

The following list presents the calories, carbs and fat found in standard servings of both alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages.

Calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein found in standard servings of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages:
Source: U.S. Dept Ag (USDA). Food Composition Databases.
Beverage Calories Carbs (grams) Fat (grams)
Beer (regular) 153 13 .00
Beer (lite) 103 6 .00
All Distilled Spirits (rum, vodka, whiskey, gin, tequila,
bourbon, etc.)
97 .00 .00
Wine (red) 125 3.5 .00
Wine (white) 120 3.5 .00
Apple juice (unsweetened) 114 28 .32
Apricot juice 141 36 .23
Carbonated cola 137 35 .07
Grape juice (unsweetened) 152 37 .33
Grapefruit juice (unsweetened) 96 23 .25
Lemonade 99 26 .10
Milk (2% fat) 122 12 4.83
Orange juice (unsweetened) 112 26 .5
Prune juice 182 45 .08
Tangerine juice (unsweetened) 125 30 .50
Tomato juice 41 10 .12

The moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better health and longer life. Thats compared with either abstaining from alcohol or abusing it. On the other hand, heavy drinking is associated with cirrhosis of the liver, breast cancer, and other health problems. The key is moderation.

II. Research Summaries for Alcohol, Calories and Weight

Drinking Alcohol and Risk of Obesity

People who consume one or two drinks of alcohol regularly are less likely to be obese than either people who don’t drink or people who drink heavily.

The study of 8,236 non-smokers found that current drinkers had a 27% lower chance of being obese than abstainers. On the other hand, heavy drinkers (those who consumed four of more drinks per day) were 46% more likely to obese than non-drinkers.5

Drinking Alcohol Reduces Weight Gain

Women who daily consumed one to two drinks of alcoholic beverage were at least 30% less likely to gain weight than non-drinkers. This was the finding of a study of over 19,000 women for a period of nearly 13 years.6

Drinking Alcohol and Weight, Obesity and BMI

alcohol, calories and weightResearch involving over 37,000 non-smokers found that men and women who consumed one alcoholic drink per day, and with the greatest frequency (three to seven days per week), had the lowest body mass index (BMI). That is, they were the most lean.7

BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to adult men and women. It is the most widely used diagnostic tool to identify weight problems within a population.

Alcohol, Diabetes, Obesity and Heart Disease in Women

Researchers have found that consuming alcohol after a meal increased the number of calories burned after both high and low carbohydrate meals. This may help explain the finding of these researchers and many others that moderate drinkers have less body fat than abstainers.8

Drinkers Less Likely to Gain Weight than Abstainers

Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined the relation between alcohol intake and body weight in 7,230 U.S. adults 25–74 years of age who were weighed and then reweighed ten years later.

Analyses were adjusted for age, race, height, education, health status, smoking status, diet status, physical activity, and total nonalcoholic caloric intake.

Both men and women who drank alcohol were significantly less likely to gain weight than were nondrinkers.9

Drinkers Have More Weight Loss

A study followed 79,236 healthy adults in the U.S. for for ten years. Over that time, women’s  body mass index declined significantly with drinking alcohol regularly. Among men, the weight reduction was less pronounced.10

Drinkers Less Likely to Gain Weight

Researchers made a study of 19,220 women in the U.S. aged 38.9 years or older who were free of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. They also had a baseline BMI in the normal range. The researchers found that “Compared with nondrinkers, initially normal-weight women who consumed a light to moderate amount of alcohol gained less weight and had a lower risk of becoming overweight and/or obese during 12.9 years of follow-up.” The same was found among subgroups of age, smoking status, physical activity and baseline BMI.11

Frequent Drinkers Less Likely to Gain Waist Circumference

A study of 43,543 men and women for an average period of five years examined alcohol consumption and changes in weight circumference. Researchers found that drinking frequency was inversely associated with major waist gain. That is, the more frequently they drank alcohol, the less likely they were to gain circumference in their waists.12

Alcohol Quantity and Frequency had Opposite Effects

alcohol, calories and weightResearchers at the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) analyzed data from 45,896 adult never smokers who were current alcohol drinkers.

They found that alcohol quantity and frequency had opposite associations with body mass index (BMI). As quantity increased from one drink per drinking day to four or more drinks per drinking day BMI increased. However, as the frequency of drinking alcohol increased (as the number of days per year that drinking alcohol occurred), BMI significantly decreased.

In analyses of frequency trends within quantity categories, BMI declines were more pronounced in women than in men, but all were significant. This is consistent with other research demonstrating the importance of drinking frequently to obtain the greatest health benefits from alcohol.13

Moderate Alcohol Consumption Best for Having Normal Weight

A total of 24,604 randomly selected men and women in Finland (age 25–64) participated in four cross-sectional surveys conducted at five-year intervals. The researchers concluded that “A physically active lifestyle with abstention from smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, and consumption of healthy foods maximizes the chances of having a normal weight.”14

Two Drinks with Dinner = No Weight Gain

Fourteen males (mean age = 32.1 years) participated in a 12-week, study in which they either drank red wine (270 ml; 13% v/v ethanol) daily for six weeks and then abstained for the next six weeks or vice-versa.

The researchers found that whether wine was consumed or not, there was no significant difference in body weight, body fat percentage, skinfold thickness, resting metabolic rate, or caloric intake.

They concluded that “In free-living subjects over a 6-week period, the addition of two glasses of red wine to the evening meal does not appear to influence any measured variable which may adversely affect body weight or promote the development of obesity during this time period.”15

Drinkers not Heavier than Abstainers

Researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (HANES I). They found that “Among drinkers, the intakes of nonalcoholic calories decreased as alcohol intakes increased, and it was estimated that between 15% and 41% of the alcoholic calories replaced nonalcoholic calories.

Despite their higher caloric intakes, drinkers were not more obese than nondrinkers. This suggests that alcoholic calories may be less efficiently utilized than nonalcoholic calories. Or they may interfere with utilization of nonalcoholic calories. The most salient difference in nutrient intake between drinkers and nondrinkers was the substantially lower carbohydrate intake of drinkers.” 16

Same Body Weight of Drinkers and Abstainers

Researchers assessed the cigarette smoking habits, alcohol consumption and body weight of 5,757 male and female smokers age 35-60 in Finland. They found that “There were no significant differences in BMI between alcohol drinkers and abstainers in either men or women.”17

Alcohol Drinkers Leaner than Abstainers

Researchers analyzed the dietary subsample of the 1992 Finmonica risk factor survey in Finland. They studied data from 1,848 men and women age 25-64. The study found that caloric intake from drinking alcohol largely substituted that from other foods. Importantly, “Alcohol consumers were leaner than abstainers.” 18

III. Summary: Alcohol, Calories and Weight

Many people are interested in the subject of alcohol, calories and weight. Therefore, researchers widely study it. They use different methods, populations and alcoholic beverages. Yet they find the same results. Drinking alcohol in moderation does not cause weight gain. Quite to the contrary.

In addition, drinking in moderation is linked to better health than either abstaining or abusing alcohol. And this applies to drinking beer, wine or distilled spirits.

IV. Resources for Alcohol, Calories and Weight

Bodzak, C. Eat with Intention. NY: Race Point, 2016.

Cheskin, L., et al. Nutrition and Weight Control. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Med., 2011.

Jessen, C. Supersize vs Superskinny. Take Control of Your Weight. London: Channel 4, 2008.

Katzen, M. and Willett, W. Eat, Drink & Weigh Less. N.Y: Hyperion, 2006.

1. For example, Kahn, H. S., et al. Stable behaviors associated with adults’ 10-year change in body mass index. Am J Pub Health, 1997, 87(5), 747-754.

3. Klesges, R., et al. Effects of alcohol intake on resting energy expenditure. Am J Clin Nut, 1994, 59, 805-809.

4. Colditz, G., et al. Alcohol intake in relation to diet and obesity. Am J Clin Nut, 1991, 54, 49-55.

5. Arif, A., and Rohrer, J. Patterns of alcohol drinking and its association with obesity. BMC Pub Health, 2005, 5, 126.

6. Wang, L, et al. Alcohol consumption, weight gain, and risk of becoming overweight. Arch Intern Med, 2010, 170(5), 453-461.

7. Breslow, R., and Smothers, B. Drinking pattern and body mass index. Am J Epid, 2005, 161(4), 368-376.

8. Greenfield, J., et al. Beneficial effect of a small amount of alcohol on diabetes and cardiovascular risk factors. J Clin Endo Metab, 2005, 90, 661-672.

9. Liu, S., et al. Alcohol Intake and Change in Body Weight. Am J Epid, 1994, 140(10), 912-920.

10. Kahn, H., et al. Stable behaviors associated with adults’ 10-year change in body mass index. J Pub Health, 1997, 87(5), 747-754.

11. Wang, L., et al., Ibid.

12. Tolstrup, J., et al. Alcohol drinking frequency in relation to subsequent changes in waist circumference. Am J Clin Nut, 2008, 87(4), 957-963.

13. Breslow, R., and Smothers, B., Ibid.

14. Lahti-Koski, M., et al. Associations of body mass index and obesity with physical activity, food choices, alcohol intake, and smoking. Am J Clin Nut, 2002, 75(5), 809-817.

15. Cordain, L., et al. Influence of moderate daily wine consumption on body weight. J Am Coll Nurs, 1997, 16(2), 134-139.

16. Gruchow, H.W., et al. Alcohol consumption, nutrient intake and relative body weight. Am J Clin Nut, 1985, 42, 289-295.

17  Istvan, J., et al. Patterns of Alcohol Consumption and Body Weight. Int J Epid, 1995, 24(3), 543-546.

18  Mannisto, S., et al. Alcohol beverage drinking, diet and body mass index. Euro J Clin Nut, 1997, 51(5), 326-332.