The science of the beer belly

Is your beer belly really caused by drinking too many pints? And what are the health implications of carrying extra weight around your middle? We separate fact from fiction.

The beer belly is a common sight in the UK, with many men in particular sporting an expanding midriff into middle and old age.

Eating more calories than you burn off will cause you to gain weight, but what role does alcohol play in this, and are only beer drinkers at risk?

We consider the science behind the beer belly and the factors that lead to excess weight around the middle.

What causes a beer belly?

If you are gaining weight, the most likely cause is that you are consuming more calories than you are burning. Too many calories from any source can lead to increased belly fat, not only drinking beer.

However, many people who eat healthily and exercise regularly are still caught out by the calorific impact of heavy drinking sessions.

Many people simply don’t realise how many calories they are consuming through alcoholic drinks.1

How many calories are there in alcohol?

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Because alcohol is made from sugar or starch, it is very high in calories. Each gram of alcohol contains seven calories. That’s almost as many calories as pure fat.

And while seven calories might not sound like much on its own, those numbers really add up.

A pint of 4% lager, for example, tends to contain at least 150 calories. Some ales contain 250 calories or more.

It’s not just beer, either. Many people feel that the term ‘beer belly’ is misleading, because all alcoholic drinks are high in calories.

A large glass of wine contains roughly 180 calories, while even a single gin with a calorie-free mixer contains over 50 calories. If you think about how many drinks you have in a standard session, you can see how quickly the calories add up.2

The calories in alcohol are described as ‘empty calories’ because they offer no nutritional value

Does alcohol make you gain weight?

It is possible to enjoy the occasional drink without gaining weight. However, regularly drinking more than the recommended 14 units a week is one of the most common contributing factors to weight gain in the UK.

This has a lot to do with the ‘empty calories’ in alcohol, but there are a number of other ways that drinking too much can lead to weight gain.

Alcohol makes you hungry

Alcohol can increase your appetite, making you more likely to overeat (perhaps by caving in and picking up a greasy post-pub takeaway).

Hangovers make you hungry

If you drink enough to feel the effects the next day, you might well find yourself hungrier than usual, again making you likely to overeat.3

Drinking stops your body burning fat

We can’t store alcohol in our bodies, so when we drink our system stops processing fat and prioritises breaking down alcohol.2

Alcohol affects your judgement (and willpower)

Drinking alcohol affects the part of your brain that makes decisions. It encourages you to act without thinking rationally and impedes your ability to properly consider the consequences of your actions.

Overeating may not be the most immediately dangerous consequence of alcohol-impaired decision making, but it’s nonetheless a very real contributor to our expanding waistlines.4

Alcohol interrupts your sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is an important factor in maintaining a healthy body – and a healthy weight.

Contrary to popular belief, research suggests that drinking actually disrupts your sleep patterns as well as making you more sleepy during the day.5

(Oh, and feeling tired can make you more hungry and more likely to overeat…)6

Alcohol affects your digestion

Alcohol can upset the balance of your gut microbiome, unsettling your digestive tract.

We don’t yet fully understand the link between obesity and gut bacteria, but it is believed that a happy digestive system is linked to a healthy weight.7

Are men more prone to beer bellies?

Your body stores fat in different ways depending on your age, sex and hormones.

Women generally have more subcutaneous fat which is deposited just beneath the skin in the arms, thighs and buttocks. Men usually have less subcutaneous fat and instead the extra weight is carried in the belly.

As you get older, your calorie needs go down and it gets harder to keep extra weight off. At the same time your hormone levels decline, which can cause this extra body fat to shift to your waist.

So, both men and women can have beer bellies, though men may be more prone to them.

Should I be worried about my beer belly?

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Research suggests that carrying extra weight around your middle presents a greater health risk than just being obese.

If you have a healthy BMI but carry fat around your waist – known as central obesity - you have a greater chance of cardiovascular issues than if you are overweight or obese but have a normal fat distribution. Central obesity is also linked to an overall higher mortality risk.

In fact, adults of a healthy weight who carry weight in their stomach have double the mortality risk compared to overweight or obese people with normal fat distribution.8

The fat around your waist is more dangerous than fat deposited in the legs or buttocks because it is an indicator of having too much fat inside the abdomen, or visceral fat.

This can cause inflammation to the internal organs which would put you at a higher risk of developing a chronic condition.



Am I at risk from visceral fat?

For men, a healthy waist circumference is deemed to be 37 inches (94cm) or under. For women, the measurement is 31.5 inches (80cm) or under.9

The higher your waist measurement, the higher your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and overall mortality. This is particularly true for women with a waist measurement of over 35 inches, and for men with a waist larger than 40 inches.10

For a more precise measurement of your fat distribution, you can calculate your waist-to-hip ratio. To do this, divide the circumference of your waist by the circumference of your hips.

Women with a ratio of over 0.86 and men with a ratio of over 1.0 are considered at increased risk of heart disease and other obesity-related conditions.

Of course, these are general guidelines and risks will be different for each person.

How to lose a beer belly

There is no magic formula for trimming excess fat from your belly. A combination of a good diet and exercise is the only way to lose pounds and maintain a healthy weight long term.

However, drinking less beer is definitely a good place to start. Reducing your alcohol consumption could improve your health in many other ways too.



Eat a healthy, filling meal before you start drinking to help you resist the temptation of a high-calorie snack later in the evening. You could also consider opting for low-calorie beers and alternating between pints and other non-alcoholic drinks.

The good news is that losing even a small amount of body weight can lower your risk of health problems as well as easing existing conditions.

Alternatively, weight loss surgery can be considered in certain circumstances to help lose the pounds and achieve a healthy weight.

If you would like professional advice on how to lose weight through following a better diet, why not try a dietary consultation. We can assess how healthy your diet is and make suggestions for how to improve it.

To find out more call us on 0808 101 0337

or make an online enquiry.

Sources
1https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calories-in-alcohol/
2https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/calories/calories-in-alcohol/
3https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/hangover-cures/
4https://www.alcohol.org/effects/inhibitions/
5https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/101-109.htm
6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3763921/
7https://www.nhs.uk/news/food-and-diet/gut-bacteria-may-be-linked-to-dangerous-body-fat/
8https://www.nhs.uk/news/obesity/normal-bmi-with-a-big-belly-deadlier-than-obesity/
9https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/why-is-my-waist-size-important/
10https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/risk.htm

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