The Connection Between Alcohol and Weight Gain, and How to Maintain a Healthy Weight in Sobriety
by John Risby
Published: January 10, 2023 Last updated: November 30, 2023
Alcohol is a common part of many people’s lives, yet it’s not widely understood that it can also have a major impact on weight management. In this article, we’ll explore the science of alcohol and weight gain, discuss strategies for maintaining a healthy weight during and after the transition to sobriety, and offer tips for overcoming common challenges.
The Science of Alcohol and Weight Gain
The way that alcohol affects weight gain is complex, but research has shown that it can have a significant impact on metabolism and hormone levels. When we drink alcohol, our liver burns it as a priority over other fuels like fat.
This means that our body is less able to burn fat for energy when alcohol is present in our system, meaning we put on weight. Alcohol is also high in calories, with 7 calories per gram, compared to just 4 calories per gram of protein or carbohydrates. So, if you’re consuming a lot of alcohol, it can easily contribute to excess calorie intake.
Studies have also shown that different types of alcohol may affect weight differently. For example, one study found that beer was more strongly associated with weight gain than spirits or wine. This may be because beer has a higher calorie content or because it’s often consumed in larger amounts.
Sobriety and Weight Loss
One of the benefits of sobriety is that it can help with weight loss. When you stop drinking, your body is better able to burn fat for energy and your metabolism may improve. Additionally, many people find that they eat less when they’re not drinking, as alcohol can stimulate appetite.
To maintain a healthy weight during and after the transition to sobriety, it’s important to focus on both exercise and nutrition. Regular exercise can help to boost metabolism and burn calories, while a balanced diet can provide the nutrients your body needs to function properly. It’s also important to be mindful of portion sizes and to be aware of the calorie content of foods.
Help, I can’t stop eating sweets!
When people stop drinking, they may find themselves turning to sweets and sugary snacks as a form of comfort. This is because alcohol and sugar both stimulate the release of pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine. When we stop drinking, our brain may crave that same pleasure and reward, leading us to seek it out in other ways, such as through sugary foods.
This can be especially problematic for those who are trying to maintain a healthy weight, as sugar is high in calories and can lead to weight gain if consumed in excess. Furthermore, consuming a diet high in sugar can also increase the risk of health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Additionally, people in recovery often need to deal with emotional and psychological issues that they may have been numbing with alcohol and they may use sweets as a replacement to comfort them. This can lead to an emotional addiction to sugar, where people use sugary foods as a form of self-medication, which can be just as difficult to break as an addiction to alcohol.
So, how can we manage the cravings for sweets and sugary snacks when we stop drinking?
One strategy is to find healthier ways to cope with stress and emotional triggers. Exercise, meditation, and therapy can all help to alleviate stress and provide a sense of emotional well-being.
Another strategy is to focus on building a healthy relationship with food. This means being mindful of what you’re eating, why you’re eating it, and how it makes you feel. Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein can also help to reduce cravings for sugary foods.
It can be helpful to have a plan for when cravings strike, like having healthy snacks readily available or taking a walk outside to clear your mind. Finding a replacement habit or activity can also be effective such as reading, knitting or listening to music when you feel the urge to grab a sweet treat.
It’s also important to remember that recovery is a journey and that it’s okay to slip up occasionally. If you do give in to a craving for sugary foods, try not to beat yourself up about it. Instead, focus on getting back on track and making better choices moving forward
Prioritise Your Aims
Sometimes you need to prioritise your issues and decide which you want to tackle first. For many people eating too many sweets, while not healthy, is better than drinking too much alcohol and decide they’ll tackle the alcohol first, and worry about the sweets later. Only you can decide what your priorities are, or whether you want to tackle both at once (although this is obviously going to be harder to do).
Many people find that their cravings for sugar come to a natural stop. When I stopped drinking in 2004, I ate so much Kendal Mint Cake that I should have contacted the Guinness Book of Records (although the name of the book may have been a trigger).
For those who don’t know what Kendal Mint Cake is, the ingredients are simple – sugar, glucose syrup, water and peppermint oil. It’s basically a bar of sugar.
It has a long history of being eaten by mountain climbers and was consumed in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay when they become the first climbers confirmed to have climbed Mount Everest.
I didn’t climb Mount Everest, or any mountain at all actually, but I certainly ate enough Kendal Mint Cake. I still fear the increase in sales I caused at the shop I bought it from means they may have ordered so much of it, that there’s a still a Kendal Mint Cake mountain in their stockroom nearly 20 years later!
But – unlike with drink – the day came when I’d had enough, and it was many years, over a decade in fact, before I could even face the thought of it again.
Of course, if you can manage to avoid it, the better solution is not to eat so much sugar in the first place. So while turning to sweets and sugary snacks is a common problem when we stop drinking, by understanding the reasons why it happens, and developing a plan for healthy coping mechanisms and emotional regulation, we can reduce cravings and maintain a healthy weight during our recovery.
The link between alcohol and weight gain is clear, and for those in recovery, maintaining a healthy weight can be an added challenge. However, with a focus on exercise, nutrition, and self-care, it is possible to achieve a healthy weight while remaining sober. Remember that weight loss is not the only benefit of sobriety, but one of many. Try to maintain a holistic approach.
If you’re struggling to maintain a healthy weight during sobriety, don’t hesitate to seek support and advice.
Recovery is a journey and any progress is worth celebrating. And it’s also a personal journey – what works for one person may not work for another. It’s important to consult a healthcare professional before making any major changes to your diet or exercise routine, especially if you have any underlying health conditions.
By understanding the science behind alcohol and weight gain and developing a plan for exercise, nutrition, and self-care, it is possible to achieve and maintain a healthy weight while remaining sober. Remember that weight loss is not the only benefit of sobriety, it’s a step towards a healthier and happier life.
About The Author
Co-Founder of The Alcohol-Free Shop and AlcoholFree.com. John is a recovering alcoholic who stopped drinking in June 2004. Born and raised in Manchester, he now lives in Malaga with his wife and young daughter. He came to terms with being an alcoholic many years ago, but still finds the concept his daughter is Spanish very strange.