People who are aiming to lose weight or prevent weight gain are always concerned about the food and drinks they consume. One thing these people commonly consider is alcohol consumption. It is a common notion that alcohol leads to weight gain; such is the conception of the “beer belly.” However, that does not mean a drink or two every now and then would be so bad. For those who are particularly fond of whiskey, they might want to learn about how the drink affects their fat composition.
Whiskey may not necessarily make you fat, but it makes it easier to get fat. In moderation, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages should be fine. However, there are different ways alcohol can promote weight gain. For one, alcohol is incredibly dense with calories; Heavy drinking could potentially contribute to a significant number of calories that one consumes. Alcohol can also help promote weight gain as it is an appetite stimulant and can lead people to eat more. Lastly, alcohol is a highly preferred energy source which means the body will process alcohol for energy before anything else, thus interrupting fat burning.
Whiskey - also known as whisky - is a type of distilled alcoholic drink made from grains. Different types of whiskeys exist around the world and the different types can be attributed to the different grain substrates. For example, some whiskeys such as Tennessee and Canadian whiskeys are made from corn. On the other hand, scotch whisky is typically made from malted barley.
Another characteristic trait of a whiskey is that it is aged in wooden barrels or casks. The production process of whiskey begins similarly to many other alcoholic beverages where a raw substrate is fermented using microorganisms such as yeasts (e.g., Saccharomyces cerevisiae). In the case of whiskey, the product of fermentation is then distilled to increase the alcohol content. Fermentation would yield about 5-10% alcohol while distillation can significantly increase that to 40-50% or even higher.
Once the whiskey is distilled and the desired alcohol content is achieved, the whiskey is then transferred to wooden barrels to age. Some distilleries also char the insides of the wooden barrels, claiming that charring the wood helps release additional flavors to the end product.
The characteristics listed above separate whiskeys from other distilled spirits. For example, cognacs are distilled from fermented grape juice. While vodka can be made from grains as well, vodka can also be made from everything else such as fruits and vegetables. However, vodka is not traditionally aged in barrels like whiskeys are.
Taken altogether, the different factors involved in whiskey production can all impact the resulting flavor of the whiskey. The flavors can depend on the grains used, how the grains were processed, what wood is used to make the barrels, if the barrels are charred or not, how long the whiskey is allowed to age, and so on.
Alcohol and Calories
To understand if whether drinking whiskey can make someone fat, it is important to first discuss the relationship between alcohol and calories.
Firstly, calories are the unit measurement of energy obtained from food. The energy people acquire from their diets is the same energy that the body uses for maintenance and growth. Thus, calories are necessary to remain alive. It is said that calories are utilized in three primary ways: basal metabolism, physical activity, and thermogenesis.
Basal metabolism accounts for most of the calories people consume. About 70% of the calories people consume are dedicated to maintains proper bodily functions and growth. About 20% of the calories people consume go towards physical activity and strenuous exercise, and about 10% of the calories are used up to digest and process the food people eat.
The issue with calories and weight gain or fat gain is the number of calories people are eating. If people are consuming the same number of calories as they are using up, then theoretically their weight should not change. However, if they do not consume the same number of calories as their bodies are using up, then they could be experiencing either a caloric surplus or a caloric deficit.
When a person is consuming more calories than they are using up, they are in a caloric surplus. Since the body is receiving more energy than it needs, then the tendency is that the body will gain weight. The opposite is true for a caloric deficit or when a person consumes fewer calories than they are using up. People in a caloric deficit would tend to lose weight.
With this understanding, it is then important to look at how many calories there are in alcohol. Whiskey is typically 40-50% alcohol with some brands having more. Looking at alcohol, a single gram (or milliliter) of alcohol contains seven calories. In contrast, a single gram of chicken has two calories. Even with a whiskey with 50% alcohol, a single milliliter of that whiskey still has more calories than a single gram of chicken. In this regard alone, whiskey and other alcohol-rich beverages are in fact dense with calories.
Thus, whiskey may not necessarily cause people to gain weight and increase fat mass, but it can be a good driver towards that eventuality. However, this can easily be avoided by drinking in moderation and being mindful of the calories.
Alcohol and Hunger
Although alcohol is calorie-dense, it interestingly increases a person’s appetite. This is a reason why alcohol intake is commonly associated with overeating. The association of increased appetites and alcohol is intriguing because calorie-dense food usually suppress brain appetite signals.
The association between alcohol and hunger is also the reason behind aperitifs, or alcoholic beverages served before a meal. Aperitifs aim to stimulate the appetite before a meal to improve the meal experience.
While it was always deemed to be a natural occurrence that people tended to eat more after drinking alcohol, a group of researchers from the Francis Crick Institute in London published their findings that confirm the phenomenon. Using mice that were given doses of alcohol for three days, the researchers found that the mice that had alcohol had increased activity in Agrp neurons – cells that are typically activated by starvation or intense hunger.
Aside from the significantly increased Agrp neuron activity, the researchers also found that mice had much higher food intake on the days when they were also given alcohol.
Aside from whiskey itself being high in calories, the fact that it can also lead people to eat more can also compound its effect on weight gain.
Alcohol and Metabolism
Metabolism is the body’s way of converting materials and energy into other forms that run and build up the body. Typically, the body consumes large quantities of three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. While all of them are used for specific purposes, the body highly prefers using carbohydrates as a source of energy. When all three are present, the body would prefer to use carbohydrates first because it is fast-acting and highly accessible.
This is why many diets suggest cutting back on carbohydrates. When the body has less access to carbohydrates, it can then begin to be accustomed to burning fat for energy.
Among the three macronutrients, carbohydrates are the body’s favorite. However, alcohol is a different story.
In the presence of alcohol and carbohydrates, the body would utilize alcohol for energy first. This is because alcohol is packed with more energy per mass than carbohydrates are. Secondly, the body needs to process alcohol right away as it's perceived as toxic. Thus, the body would prefer to process alcohol for energy right away as a means to protect itself.
The preference of the body for alcohol in metabolism is another factor to consider when people are thinking about alcohol and weight gain. When the body prefers alcohol or carbohydrates for energy, it is not conducive to fat metabolism. In fact, having alcohol in the system puts fat metabolism further back in line, thus interrupting fat burning.