The Most Fattening Hour of the Day

The right spirit can help your diet survive happy hour

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

'Tis the season for holiday happy hours and cocktail parties. But will you still be happy when you step on the scale the next morning? After all, alcoholic drinks can tote up 100 to 300 calories apiece.

To navigate past all that free-flowing alcohol with your diet intact, "you've got to go in with a game plan," says Althea Zanecosky, MS, RD, LDN, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Before heading out to happy hour, decide what and how much you'll drink, and come armed with strategies to keep yourself from giving in to temptation.

"'I don't drink' is becoming more socially acceptable," Zanecosky says. "And at most places, people serve sparkling water and other types of nonalcoholic drinks. You can also drink something that looks like alcohol," maybe sparkling water or diet soda with a twist of lemon.

But what if it just doesn't feel like the holidays to you without a special drink? Plan to go ahead and treat yourself, but in moderation, says Zanecosky.

"Champagne is my love, but I can sip on one glass all night, really!" she tells WebMD. "My husband loves eggnog, which is full of calories. But am I going to tell him not to have eggnog? Of course not! Why would you not enjoy eggnog when you only get it once a year? Just make it your dessert, not your drink, that's what I tell him."

Zanecosky offers several other tips for healthier tippling:

  • Limit yourself to one drink per day, or per happy hour.
  • Eat before happy hour, since alcohol can stimulate appetite and impair your judgment. When your defenses are down, you're more likely to gravitate toward the appetizers.
  • If you're hosting the holiday party, look for lower-calorie eggnog recipes using lowfat milk. Or check your dairy case for lower-fat versions of eggnog.
  • Wine spritzers (wine plus soda water or seltzer) and champagne are the lowest in calories. Hard liquor has more calories. Cream-based drinks and frozen drinks generally have the most.

In fact, there's one type of beverage for which the "just one" rule won't do you much good: the super-sized specialty drink.

"Frozen drinks like margaritas, daiquiris, and coladas are usually gigantic," Zanecosky says. "They come in very big glasses, plus they have all kinds of alcohol and sugar."

If you're craving something fruity and festive, maybe a colorful juice or nectar, mixed with sparking water and decorated with a fruit kabob, would do the trick. Most bartenders will be happy to oblige.

For other common drink choices, here are the hard numbers:

  • A small glass of wine is about 75 calories.
  • A small flute of bubbly adds up to less than 100 calories.
  • A can or bottle of light beer is about 100 calories; regular beer is 150 calories.
  • A typical martini has about 200 calories.
  • Coffee with liqueur and cream has about 145 calories.
  • A glass of eggnog ranges from 350 to 500 calories.
  • Margaritas and other frozen drinks can add 300 calories or more.

Lower-Calorie Cheer

But what about drinks that have been formulated to be less fattening? Breweries working to squeeze more carbs and calories out of their formulas have introduced ultra-light and low-carb as well as light beers. Michelob Ultra and Rolling Rock Green Light, for example, boast 3 grams of carbs and 100 calories or fewer.

At Houlihan's in midtown Atlanta, bartender Mark Plant says he has poured a good bit of Michelob Ultra.

In his opinion, Ultra is "a little watery, but not bad," says Plant, himself a Budweiser man. "There are people still on board with Atkins. They know what they want; they ask for it."

Gerard Harris of Queens, N.Y, is a light beer drinker: "Light beer is like spinach; the taste isn't good, but you gotta do it," he says. But on this day, he has treated himself to a Bass Ale instead of his usual Amstel Light. He plans to make up for the calorie difference later.

"I'm going to run it off tomorrow at the gym," he tells WebMD. "That's the secret: drink it in the afternoon, work it off in the morning."

And speaking of working it off, if you really want to lose weight, become a bartender, suggests Plant. "Forget low-carb beer. Doing this, you'll work it off, believe me." (If you're not quite ready to make such a career change, try moving around more and sitting less during your workday).

Focus on Talking, Not Drinking

Even more important than choosing the right beverage is keeping in mind that the "happy" in "happy hour" shouldn't come just from alcohol.

Focusing on what's meaningful -- spending time with friends, co-workers, family -- can keep you from overindulging, says John Eliot, PhD, a professor of psychology and business at Rice University in Houston. He is author of the book, Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance.

Successful people focus on their attitudes, he tells WebMD. Say a happy hour with your boss and officemates looms at the end of the workday. You feel that your presence is required, like it or not.

"In that frame of mind, you end up standing around, feeling uncomfortable, feeling a little stiffer than usual ... so you eat and drink more," Eliot tells WebMD.

However, "if you focus on enjoying the people -- your co-workers -- and talking to them, then you'll be more comfortable, you'll have more fun. And you won't be tempted to eat and drink so much," he says.

Originally published Dec. 3, 2004
Medically updated December 2006.


SOURCES: American Dietetic Association. Anheuser-Busch, Inc. Mark Plant, bartender, Houlihan's, Atlanta. Gerard Harris, Queens, N.Y. Althea Zanecosky, MS, RD, LDN, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. John Eliot, PhD, professor of psychology and business, Rice University, Houston; author, Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance.>

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


Last Editorial Review: 12/18/2006




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