How drinking alcohol affects your body and mind

Man drinking pint of beer. (Getty Images)
Man drinking pint of beer. (Getty Images)

Words by Gavin Newsham.

The Christmas party season is just around the corner and that, for many people, means drinking – a lot.

Yes, it’s that month-long festival of excess where you let your down on one hand and watch your waist size go up on the other. Throw in late nights, bad diet and less exercise and you have the perfect recipe for rapid weight gain.

Recently, the singer Ed Sheeran revealed that during a break from touring last year he hit the bottle hard, drinking up to two bottles of wine a night, and his weight ballooned to 15 and a half stone.

“Not being on tour was the worst thing for my health because I would drink every single day,” he said. “I loved chicken wings, wine, beer, and I never exercised.”

Singer Ed Sheeran, pictured at the 2021 MTV European Music Awards, has spoken about the effect drinking excessively had on his health. (PA)
Singer Ed Sheeran, pictured at the 2021 MTV European Music Awards, has spoken about the effect drinking excessively had on his health. (PA)

Sheeran’s weight gain is a classic example of what happens if you drink too much. Not only does drinking prevent your body from burning fat but one study by the Francis Crick Institute in 2017 revealed that alcohol switches the brain into starvation mode, tricking you into believing that you’re hungry and, as anyone who has dived into cheesy chips or a kebab after closing time will testify, drinking a lot inevitably leads to poor choices when it comes to your diet.

While it may not be a carbohydrate or a protein, alcohol still contains a lot of calories and, to compound matters, these are ‘empty’ calories which are of no nutritional value. The average strong lager, for example, has around 250 calories per pint while a large, 250ml glass of red wine is nearly the same. To put that in perspective, it will take the average adult around 20-30 minutes on a treadmill to burn off those calories.

“Portion control can sometimes be difficult, particularly during the festive season,” says Harley Street nutritionist Lily Soutter. “Most bars and restaurants now only serve wine in large glasses, which means we inevitably drink more. Beware of Christmas cocktails too. They can be extremely high in sugar and can come with as much as 500 calories per drink.”

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Dr Ameet Dhar is a Consultant Hepatologist at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, and The Wellington Hospital Liver Unit. He says that people often forget about the ‘liquid calories’ they consume. “Wine, beer, cider and spirits are made from natural starch and sugar, which are fermented or distilled to produce the alcohol content,” he explains. “It’s this process that makes alcohol highly calorific. In fact, at seven calories per gram, there are almost as many calories in a gram of alcohol as there are in as much fat.”

To his credit, Ed Sheeran soon got a grip on his bad habits and today he’s five stone lighter and boasts a slender 28-inch waist, down from a belt-busting 36-inches. But Sheeran’s admission highlights just what a problem excessive drinking has become in the United Kingdom.

Recent research from the National Health Service has revealed that alcohol-related admissions to hospital in England have risen by 20 per cent in the last decade while the number of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland, according to National Records of Scotland, has risen by 17% in the last year alone. A study published in The Lancet in 2018, meanwhile, revealed that British women were now among the heaviest drinkers in the world.

British females are among some of the heaviest drinkers in the world. (Getty Images)
British females are among some of the heaviest drinkers in the world. (Getty Images)

Weight gain caused by excessive drinking can also lead to a range of other medical problems, from digestive issues to high blood pressure and also increased risk of heart disease. But it can also mask alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) too. Indeed, according to the British Liver Trust, 90% of liver disease in the UK is caused by alcohol.

“ARLD usually develops over many years and there are several stages of severity and a range of associated symptoms, like yellowing of the eyes and skin, vomiting and swelling of the ankles and stomach,” says Dr Dhar. “If we drink excessively this can result in excessive fat building up in the liver, irritation or inflammation within the liver, which over a prolonged time can result in liver scarring or fibrosis, and result in ARLD.”

The good news is that making some easy lifestyle changes can reap huge benefits for body and mind. “We don’t have to go cold turkey,” adds Lily Soutter. “By making a few simple swaps it’s possible to cut back and enjoy a drink or two in moderation.” Alcohol awareness charity Drinkaware, for example, recommends increasing the number of drink-free days you have each week so you don’t drink for the majority of the week.

Not exceeding the recommended limits of 14 units of alcohol per week is also vital for giving your liver a break and keeping the pounds off. “Doing this could make a considerable difference, as the liver can repair itself and regenerate if given the chance,” adds Dr Dhar.


Lily Soutter’s lowdown on low calorie drinks…

  1. Go low on sugar and calories

A single spirit (61kcal) with a low sugar mixer such as soda/sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon or lime. This low calorie and low sugar option. It’s also a great way to slow down consumption as the mixer helps to dilute the alcohol content of the drink.

2. Try non-alcoholic spirits such as Seedlip

This option is quickly becoming popular in bars and hotels for those who want a tasty alcohol-free alternative.

3. Make spritzers

Ask for soda water and add it to your wine to make a spritzer. This will dilute the alcohol content and will help you to consume less.

4. Choose small glasses

The larger the glass the more we tend to pour and drink. In restaurants always ask for a small glass to help with portion control. For example, a small glass of wine (125ml) provides 113kcal, whilst a standard glass (175ml) provides 159kcal and a large glass (250ml) provides 227kcal.

5. Champagne/prosecco in moderation

Often champagne is served in small glasses meaning that per glass they provide 89 kcal. However, due to their small size, it can be easy to consume too much, so aim to drink slowly and mindfully.

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