When it comes to dieting, alcohol is a controversial subject. Is it okay to indulge every now and then? Or is alcohol truthfully as bad as they say? Many diets will eliminate all alcohol right off the bat. But, what is the reason behind this rule, and is there a way to incorporate alcohol into your diet in a healthy way
How Many Calories in Alcohol?
Your dietary calories are composed of three main macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbs. However, there is one other macronutrient that also plays a role - alcohol.
Alcohol is not typically included in traditional macro counting because it is not an essential nutrient. But just like the other macros, alcohol is a source of calories in the diet. In fact, alcohol is almost as high calorie as fat.
Protein and carbs both account for four calories per gram, and fat accounts for nine calories per gram. This means that fat is two times as calorie dense as protein and carbs. Alcohol falls somewhere in between these two densities — at around seven calories per gram. Understanding this is crucial to understanding how alcohol works for or against your weight loss goals.
|Energy Value of Macronutrients|
|1g carbohydrate||4 calories|
|1g of protein||4 calories|
|1g of fat||9 calories|
|1g of alcohol||7 calories|
Does Alcohol Make You Gain Weight?
Alcohol may contribute to weight gain a few different ways:
- Alcohol is a source of empty calories in the diet. Meaning it adds to your daily calorie intake but doesn't provide any real nutrition. Some argue that small amounts of alcohol can have health benefits, like heart health, but the research does not show that alcohol benefits weight loss or fat loss in particular (1,2).
- Alcohol disrupts your metabolism. Alcohol is a toxin, and when you consume it, your body prioritizes digesting and removing it from your system before anything else, including metabolizing the food you eat (3). On average one drink will “pause” your metabolism for an hour. And after quite a few drinks, you are going to start slowing your progress by disrupting your ability to burn fat efficiently in a calorie deficit and potentially increase fat storage.
- Alcohol messes with your appetite. Drinking in excess can cause your blood sugar to drop, which may make you feel hungry or crave unhealthy food, even if you’ve eaten plenty of calories for the day (4,5). Plus, drinking lowers your inhibitions which can make you care less about what you eat or how much.
Many diets will have users completely stay away from alcohol because of the additional calories. However, some users find that an all or nothing approach can be difficult to follow and unsustainable in the long run. After all, learning how to balance the occasional indulgence with a healthy diet, is what moderation means. So if you are going to drink while dieting, drink smart and drink in moderation.
Best Alcoholic Drinks for Weight Loss
Calories from alcoholic beverages can add up quickly and offset your progress, so opting for the lowest calorie options is critical. Avoid drinks made with mixers high in added sugar, like soda, juice, and coconut cream, and limit liquors. Beers can also be high in calories, especially wheat beers, stouts, and IPAs.
If you are looking to include some alcohol in your weight loss meal plan, here are a few examples of some of the better drink choices to consider.
Low Carb Alcohol
The best low carb alcohol includes:
- Clear Liquor: vodka, gin, rum, tequila
- Scotch and bourbon
- Light beers
- Champagne and some wine
Low-Calorie Alcoholic Drink Recipes
Looking for cocktails that cut calories and add a little bit of nutrition? Check out our favorite RD-inspired cocktail recipes
Calories Per Drink: 145
- 1.5 oz tequila
- Juice of 1 lime - about 3 Tbsp
- Juice of 1/2 an orange - about 1.5 Tbsp
- 1 Tsp light agave nectar
- Tajín seasoning, or Kosher salt
- Lime wedge, to rim the glass & garnish
Rim glass with lime wedge and dip in Tajín or salt. Mix remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Pour and serve!
Strawberry Pina Colada
Calories Per Drink: 148
- 3/4 Cup of Frozen Strawberries
- 3/4 Cup of Unsweetened Coconut Milk
- 1.5 oz of Coconut Rum or Spiced Rum
- Ice to Thicken
In a blender, mix all of the ingredients on high. Serve in a glass and enjoy!
Low Sodium Bloody Mary
Calories Per Drink: 160
- 1 Cup of Low Sodium Vegetable Juice
- 1/2 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
- 1/2 Tbsp Hot Sauce
- 1.5 oz of Vodka or Tequila
- Pinch of Salt & Pepper
Mix and serve with fresh vegetables as a garnish!
Kombucha Moscow Mule
Calories Per Drink: 127
- 1 Cup of Ginger Kombucha
- 1/4 Tsp of Ground Ginger
- 1 Tbsp Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
- 1.5 oz Vodka or Gin
Mix and serve with fresh mint, lemons, or limes!
Since most of these beverages are intended to be made at home, we also wanted to include some healthier beverages you can order at a bar. Here are some great options:
- Gin & Soda Water with Lemon/ Lime (100 calories)
- Old Fashioned (150 calories)
- Extra Dry Brut Champagne (65 calories)
- Red Wine (120 calories)
- Light Beer (95 calories)
Drinking and Weight Loss
It is extremely important that if you are going to drink while on a diet, not over to do it. While one of the “good” choices in drinks may not derail your progress entirely, the difficult part for most people is limiting your intake to 1-2 drinks. Alcohol can be a slippery slope. Because alcohol impairs your judgment, it may be challenging to only have one or two drinks. Often, poor food choices also follow drinking which could be detrimental to your calorie control. To help make sure that you do not go overboard while drinking, here are some tips.
1) Have A Plan
Most people get really off track when drinking on a diet when they do not have a proper plan in place. If you know you are going to be attending a happy hour with your friends or celebrating something special, plan your day accordingly. Beer, wine, and darker alcohols can be higher in carbohydrates, so if you plan to have two glasses of wine, track that into your daily macronutrients. However, it is important not to completely substitute out your carbs for alcohol. Meaning, don’t go overboard and think you shouldn't eat carbs for the day so that you can have your fair share of drinks. When you are dieting, you are at a deficit, so your body is relying just a bit more on every nutrient coming from your food. And don't forget to add it to your total calorie intake to make sure you hot your daily calorie goal.
2) Opt for Healthy Snacks
If you tend to snack after having a few drinks, it will be in your best interest to plan accordingly. If you know you will be craving food, make sure that you have healthy snack options at home that will allow you to feel satisfied without ruining your diet. It may also incentivize you to avoid the appetizers at happy hour and to get home at a reasonable hour.
Try to stick with foods higher in protein or carbs as they will be easier to digest. If you like something sweet: have greek yogurt with berries in your fridge waiting for you. If you like something salty and savory: have some grass-fed beef jerky waiting at home for you.
3) Get Right Back To It
Most importantly, when your diet is slightly shifted due to alcohol, get right back to your plan the next day. Overall, one day off will not hurt your diet, but you will not want to make a habit of it. Like I said before, moderation is the key to making alcohol work in your diet. Try to limit alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per week while dieting. Calories do add up in a big way from alcohol so you wouldn’t want to be putting in all of the hard work six days a week only to completely offset that work by the 7th day.
The Big Picture
When it comes to your diet, you should always be thinking about the bigger picture. Your goal on this diet is to lose weight, so if alcohol compromises your end goal, take that into consideration before indulging in a few too many drinks.
All in all, a little bit of alcohol will not throw your entire plan off course. Exercising moderation, having a plan to get right back on track afterward, and accounting for these additional calories in your daily calorie/ macronutrient goal, will ensure that you incorporate any alcoholic beverages in your diet in a healthy way.
For an easy way to track your macros and see how alcohol can affect your goals, check out the Trifecta app and see how many calories your favorite drinks have:
Drenowatz, Clemens & Hill, James & Peters, John & Soriano-Maldonado, Alberto & N. Blair, Steven. (2016). The association of change in physical activity and body weight in the regulation of total energy expenditure. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 71. 10.1038/ejcn.2016.228.
Traversy G, Chaput J-P. Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update. Current Obesity Reports. 2015;4(1):122-130. doi:10.1007/s13679-014-0129-4.