Low-Calorie Cocktails

5 ways to keep from overloading on calories when you have an alcoholic drink.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Thank goodness it's Friday! It's been a long week, and you're looking forward to happy hour. But a night on the town can do serious damage to your diet, especially if you order cocktails made with high-calorie mixers. Still, happy hour doesn't have to be a diet downer. With a little planning, you can avoid diet disaster, and there are some alcoholic drinks that are relatively low in calories.

It's all too easy to overdo it with alcohol calories. We all know desserts are fattening. But when it comes to alcoholic drinks, sometimes the calories don't register, even though a single chocolate martini has more calories than a McDonald's grilled chicken sandwich. In fact, 1 gram of alcohol has 7 calories, compared with only 4 calories for a gram of carbohydrates or protein.

And calories add up even more quickly for mixed drinks than for beer and wine. The standard 1.5 ounce serving of 80-proof alcohol has 96 calories even before you add any mixers. A 6-ounce serving of orange juice has 84 calories, but add a shot of alcohol to make it a screwdriver, and the calories more than double.

Calories aren't the only reason to take it easy on alcohol. Not only do cocktails boost calories, they also have a powerful impact on your inhibitions.

"Your resolve can be really strong when you are sober, but after a few drinks, you may find yourself mindlessly overeating the nuts, another slice of pizza, or whatever food is within striking distance," says Christine Gerbstadt, RD. Drinking alcohol can also make you feel hungrier because alcohol can lower blood sugar.

What Makes Calories in Alcoholic Drinks Add Up?

The number of calories in mixed drinks depends on several things, including the amount and proof of the alcohol; the mixers; and the size of the drink.

"It's the mixers, syrups, and sodas that really get people into calorie trouble, because most drinks start with 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits that only have around 96 calories, but mixologists can easily turn that into a drink with hundreds of calories," says Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD, co-author of The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous.

Whether you're drinking a beer or a cosmo, the higher the alcohol content, the higher the calories, says O'Neil. For example:

  • 80-proof vodka (40% alcohol; the most common type) has 64 calories per 1oz
  • 86-proof vodka (43% alcohol) has 70 calories/1 oz
  • 90-proof vodka (45% alcohol) has 73 calories/1 oz
  • 100-proof vodka (50% alcohol) has 82 calories/1 oz

When it comes to portion size, the average serving size of wine and alcoholic beverages is probably smaller than you think. Beer, on the other hand, is more standardized in bottles and beer glasses, except if you are in a European beer garden.

Most glasses of wine contain 125-150 calories, but that can double depending on the size of the glass size and how full it is. At cocktail or dinner parties, glasses are often refilled before empty, making it especially hard for dieters to track their alcohol and calorie consumption.

Beer can range from 64-198 calories per 10 ounces. Light beers are a better choice because "they contain the same amount of alcohol as regular beers but fewer carbohydrates," says Gerbstadt. And, she adds, "low-carb beer is just another term for light beer."

Another diet destroyer is the rising popularity of super-caloric cocktails.

Some are desserts in disguise, from chocolate martinis to hot buttered rum. Creative cocktails are all the rage, and bartenders are tempting patrons with mega-calorie cocktails like the Key lime pie martini. It's creamy, delicious -- and loaded with calories, from the cream to the graham-cracker crust rim.

"The trend in cocktails is to sugar the rim, add chocolate syrup or any number of creative sweet touches that boost calories, and turn the cocktail into a dessert," says O'Neil.

If you must have one of these, she advises, trim your dinner calories and enjoy your cocktail afterward as a dessert. Better yet, order a small after-dinner liqueur, like Amaretto, over ice and sip it slowly.

And then there are the super-sized drinks. Some chain restaurants serve jumbo drinks, like margaritas with double shots and extra mixers, that could add up to 1,000 calories or more in one mug, Gerbstadt says. A single giant glass of TGI Friday's frozen mudslide, for example, contains 1,100 calories.

5 Tips to Curb Alcohol Calories

So how do you keep those calories in alcoholic drinks from adding up so quickly? Here are five tips from the experts.

1. Alternate alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks to save calories. The savvy dieter finishes one cocktail, glass of wine or beer, then has a "mocktail" -- a nonalcoholic, preferably zero-calorie beverage (like sparkling water with a lime) that looks like the real thing. This strategy not only reduces the risk of over-consuming calories and alcohol, but it also helps you stay hydrated so your head will thank you in the morning!


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