When it comes to weight loss, alcohol is a controversial subject—and a confusing one. Do you listen to the studies that claim that a glass of red wine is good for your heart? Or the ones that say that alcohol just packs on empty calories. And what about the dangers of drinking too much?
It’s a fact that alcohol does real, lasting harm to many people: both to those who drink too much and to the people in their lives. And alcohol fulfills no nutritional need. Any health benefits you can get from alcohol, such as antioxidants from wine, you can get just as easily from other sources, such as grapes and blueberries, that have virtually no harmful side effects.
On the other hand, alcohol also holds a rich place in many cultures. It can be a beautiful grace note at the dinner table or in a conversation. It also plays a role in stress relief for many people.
Stress is a major factor in accelerating the aging process and contributing to weight gain.
However, alcohol is a relaxant, and red wine is particularly rich in anti-aging compounds. These compounds are often credited for the “French Paradox” of a diet high in saturated fat in a culture known for low rates of diet-related chronic disease. This means alcohol, particularly wine, may help counteract the aging effects of stress, and can in practical terms, be considered an anti-aging food.
Many people can enjoy alcohol without derailing weight loss or health goals, if consumed in moderation. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), defines this as 1 drink a day for women, 2 for men. A standard drink is:
- 12 ounces of beer at 5% alcohol by volume (ABV)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor at 7% ABV
- 5 ounces of wine at 12% ABV
- 1.5 ounces of 80 proof (40% ABV) spirits
Just How Many Calories am I Drinking, Anyway?
- On average, wine (red or white) has about 25 calories an ounce or 30 ml, so a 5-ounce or 150 ml glass is 125 calories.
- Sweet wines, especially dessert wines such as port, and champagnes, have more residual sugar and some have added sugar. For example, port is about 133 calories—per 3-ounce or 90 ml serving.
- The caloric range of beer is huge, reflecting an equally huge range of brewing techniques, residual carbohydrates, and alcohol content. One type of beer (2.5% ABV) has 55 calories, while another (18% ABV) has 450 calories. Know the alcohol content of your beer!
- The most common spirits, such as 80-proof vodka (regardless of the brand), rum, tequila, Irish whiskey, Scotch whiskey, and gin, have about 100 calories per 1.5 ounce or 45 ml shot. However, when you’re dealing with sweet spirits like liqueurs (translation: lots of extra sugar), calories run from about 130 to 170 per shot. (This doesn’t include the mixers. We’ll get to them later.) And Everclear, which is 95% ABV, is a whopping 230 calories a shot.
Alcohol Calories are Different
All calories are not created equal. Your body can handle some calories (like the slow-digesting carbohydrates in fruit) much better than others (the fast-digesting carbohydrates in soda or candy, for example). Or the calories in alcohol. That’s because your body doesn’t just not need alcohol, it’s largely a poison. So your body places a priority on metabolizing it and clearing it from your system. Everything else, including maintaining normal blood sugar levels, takes a back seat to alcohol clearance, which means the food in your digestive system gets stored as fat. However, that food also protects your liver from the full impact of the alcohol. Which is why…
It’s Not the Beer, It’s the Cheeseburgers (and the Mixers)
Alcohol is a depressant: it lowers inhibitions…including our fragile controls against overeating. Alcohol also depresses your liver’s ability to produce glucose, which is your body’s preferred energy source, and that’s how it can make you easily eat up half an extra-large, extra-cheese pizza without even realizing it.
How to Drink Without Gaining Weight
- Savor your drink. Seriously. Alcohol is mostly empty calories. If you’re going to indulge, refuse to feel guilty. Excess guilt opens the gate to spiraling self-sabotage. Just enjoy.
- Stick to your eating plan and don’t sacrifice good calories for alcohol calories. Instead, make room for alcohol by doing exercise that you enjoy.
- Keep it clean: if you’re drinking spirits, cut them with ice, soda, tonic or water. Cut gin with lime juice and tonic water, or make your own Bloody Mary with tomato juice, some horseradish, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco or spicy seasonings, and then add celery or olives as a garnish.
- If you really want a high-calorie mixed drink, understand that you’re consuming a lot of empty, high-sugar, calories. Pina Colada, for example? That can top out above 500 calories for a single serving. Be honest with yourself about the consequences.
- If you’re drinking wine, you may want to cut it with still water, club soda, or ice, especially if it’s a white or a rosé.
- Don’t drink alcohol to quench your thirst. Drink a non-alcoholic drink, such as water or club soda, first. If you’re going to be drinking more than one alcoholic drink, alternate non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks. And alcohol is dehydrating—which is the opposite of what you’re going for here.
- Don’t mix an alcohol, like rum, with diet drinks, like cola. You will actually get drunk faster.
- Never mix energy drinks, like Red Bull or Venom, with alcohol. The predictable consequences are:
- A nasty hangover. Energy drinks contain large amounts of caffeine, which like alcohol is a diuretic. Dehydration is one of the main causes of a hangover.
- Extreme intoxication. The stimulants in energy drinks do not help your liver clear alcohol from your blood, but they reduce or eliminate the drowsiness that alcohol produces. (That drowsiness is your body’s way of saying, Thanks, that was lovely, but I’ve had enough now.)
- Cardiac problems. Energy drinks contain stimulants, like caffeine, ginseng, sugar and taurine, while alcohol is a depressant. This combination confuses your nervous system.
Bottom line: while alcohol is not a natural friend of weight loss, moderation is the key.
After all, if alcohol helps you relax, the benefits of stress relief may be worth the indulgence, especially if it’s red wine—because stress isn’t good for weight loss either!