Walking The Alcohol Minefield

How to enjoy a drink without declaring war on your diet

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

If women say, "This dessert is going straight to my hips," men should say, "This beer is going straight to my belly."

That's because it's difficult for your body to use alcohol calories for energy. Which means -- watch out! -- those calories usually get turned into fat. A gram of alcohol is worth 7 calories, compared with a gram of protein or carbohydrate, worth 4 calories each.

So what's a beer-drinking or wine-sipping weight-conscious person to do? How can you walk through the alcohol minefield without blowing up your healthful intentions?

  • Consider alcohol beverages weekly -- and moderate -- "treats" instead of a daily ritual.
  • Eat before imbibing. You'll be less likely to over-consume and as the meal's protein and carbs are used as energy the negative metabolic effects of the empty alcohol calories are moderated.
  • Make better beverage choices. Choose certain beers, wines, and other drinks, and you can minimize the carb and alcohol calories coming from your cocktail.

100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

Take your pick: want fewer calories or fewer carbohydrate grams? Non-alcoholic beers have fewer calories than light beers but "light" beers have fewer carb grams and "low-carb beers" fewer still (averaging 95 calories and 2.6 grams of carbohydrates). Choose either kind of brew and you're ahead of regular beer drinkers, who imbibe 140 calories and 13 grams of carbohydrates with every bottle or can. Check out the carb and calorie stats below.

Non-Alcoholic Beers

There are two domestic and two import non-alcoholic beers available. My husband says the imports seem to have more flavor, but the domestic beers are good, too.

Beer (12 oz) Calories Carbohydrate (g)
O'Doul's 79 13.3
Sharps >58 12.1
Clausthaler non-alcoholic 89 18.8
St. Pauli N.A. n/a n/a

Light Beers

American beer makers seem to be into the "light" beer act these days. Which one tastes best? My guess is if you like Coors you'll probably like Coors Light, and if you're a Bud imbiber, you'll probably like Bud Light best. Check out the difference in calories and carbs below.

Beer (12 oz) Calories Carbohydrate (g)
Coors Light 102 5
Miller Lite 96 3.2
MGD Miller Genuine Draft Light n/a n/a
Bud Light n/a n/a

Wine contributes few carbs but around 160 calories per cup, with only sweet dessert wines tipping the scales in both calories and carbs. One way to make your one delicious cup of wine last longer is to make a spritzer by blending wine with an equal amount of seltzer, club soda, or diet 7 UP. Purists, of course, can simply sip theirs as is, or enjoy it with a meal.

Wine (1-cup) Calories Carbohydrate (g)
Dry White Wine 158 1.5
Medium White Wine 160 1.9
Red Wine 170 4
Sweet Dessert Wine 362 28

Hard & Fancy Drinks

The sky is the limit here. From a tomato juice-based Bloody Mary's reasonable 115 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrates, to a daiquiri with 224 calories and a bit more carbohydrates. Liqueurs can be even more potent. Amaretto, for example, has 106 calories and more than 13 grams of carbohydrates in one-eighth cup. Enjoy your liqueur longer by adding it to something low in calories, like coffee. Making a White Russian? Use low-fat (1%) milk and you'll save 50 calories and 6 grams of fat per cup.

Alcoholic Beverage Calories Carbohydrate (g)
Gin/rum/vodka/whiskey (1/8 cup) 65 0
Amaretto Liqueur (1/8 cup) 106 13.3
Coffee & Cream Liqueur 99 6.3
Bloody Mary (5 ounces) 115 5
Daiquiri (4 ounces) 224 8.2
Martini (2.5 ounces) 156 0.2
Screwdriver (7 ounces) 175 18.3

What About the Health Benefits?

The research on alcohol and wine offers drinkers a mixed bag of health benefits. People who limit alcohol have a lower risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and bone loss, (women also having a lower risk of breast cancer). But moderate drinking helps lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

So, while alcohol, particularly red wine, has been shown to have some protective effects for some cancers and heart disease, these studies were applied to moderate amounts of alcohol. And many health benefits are nullified once obesity enters the picture.

Following are some of the pros and cons to alcohol and health:

Alcohol's Health Pros

  • Resveratrol

    A natural chemical found in red wine, cancer researchers have identified resveratrol as one of the more promising anti-cancer food chemicals. Because its highest concentrations are in grapes and grape products, eating grapes (especially red or purple), or drinking 100% grape juice is a great way to boost your resveratrol. Nuts, red wine, and raisins also contain the chemical.

    Resveratrol seems to work in three ways: by blocking the action of cancer-causing agents, inhibiting the development and growth of tumors, and causing precancerous cells to revert to normal cells.

    Recent animal studies suggest that resveratrol, red wine, or even dealcoholized red wine improve the function of the cells that line the heart, and heart-disease risk is reduced.

  • Flavonoids

    Flavonoids -- found in berries, purple grapes, red wine, and green tea -- are strong antioxidants with assorted proposed heart-protective effects. Studies have shown that eating flavonoid-rich food often is associated with reduced risk of heart disease.

  • Alkylamines

    Test tube studies revealed that alkylamines give a boost to some of the most important immune cells that fight germs and possibly cancer. Alkylamines, mainly found in tea, are also found in smaller amounts in mushrooms, apples, and wine.

Alcohol's Health Cons

  • Resveratrol

    A recent test tube study suggested that resveratrol may block the arterial benefits of estrogen in postmenopausal women. More research is needed before anything definitive can be said.

  • Empty Calories

    Alcoholic beverages provide mostly empty calories and, if the calories are in excess to your body's energy needs, can encourage excess body fat and obesity.

  • Excessive alcohol can increase your risk of cancer

Limiting the amount you drink to less than one serving a day for women (a drink is a can of beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of hard liquor) can help reduce your breast and colon cancer risks and possibly other cancers as well. Eating your daily-recommended intake of folate seems to be vital for women at higher risk of developing breast cancer due to imbibing in alcohol -- even one drink a day.

Originally published June 6, 2003.
Medically updated Oct. 15, 2004


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