Booze and weight loss don’t usually mix as seamlessly as vodka and club soda. There are various reasons why drinking too much alcohol can impede weight loss, but there are three key words there: too much alcohol. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy a few drinks while powering towards your health goals, as long as you tap into some useful strategies. Here, experts explain how to lose weight without going cold turkey.
Hold up. Why exactly does drinking alcohol make it harder to lose weight in the first place?
As wonderful as it can be, alcohol is calorically dense. Although alcohol has seven calories per gram, which is less than fat’s nine, carbohydrates and protein only have four calories per gram each, Ashvini Mashru, R.D., L.D.N., author of Small Steps to Slim, tells SELF. That’s part of why a few seemingly simple drinks can rack up hundreds of calories. When you add mixers on top of that, a cocktail’s calorie count skyrockets.
You may have heard that alcohol messes with your metabolism. While that’s true, it’s nothing to freak out about. “Because your body cannot store alcohol, it becomes a priority in the metabolic process,” Christopher D. Still, D.O., director of the Geisinger Obesity Institute, tells SELF. In turn, that slows your body’s lipolysis, or breakdown of fats, and your body’s digestion of other nutrients like carbs and protein. But putting those processes on the back burner doesn’t automatically translate into weight gain. There are multiple biochemical pathways for metabolism, so your body can still handle things like fat and carbs even when it’s working on alcohol. It just won’t do it as efficiently. “Alcohol slows down the rate [at which you digest nutrients], but it doesn’t stop it, and those nutrients will still get processed in the same way,” says Still. While that’s something of a relief, alcohol’s calorie count—especially when combined with mixers—can still make it harder to reach weight-loss goals.
OK, then how is it possible to drink and still lose weight?
The beauty of long-lasting weight loss is that it’s rooted in moderation. “Most people can lose weight and still have a drink or two here or there,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Nutrition Starring You, tells SELF. The first step is evaluating how much you already imbibe, then determining if simply decreasing it a bit might do the trick. “If you’re drinking two glasses of wine each night, cutting it down to one can help you see some results,” says Harris-Pincus.
Along with reducing your intake, making informed choices about what you drink can help. “Decadent drinks can contain over 500 calories, more than the amount a slice of chocolate cake,” says Mashru.
Here’s a quick calorie guide for popular booze, courtesy of SELF’s Nutrition Data.
A 5-ounce glass of champagne: 90 calories
A 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor: 97 calories
A 5-ounce glass of white wine: 100-121 calories
A 12-ounce bottle of light beer: 103 calories
A 5-ounce glass of red wine: 105-125 calories
A 1.5-ounce shot of 90-proof liquor: 110 calories
A 1.5-ounce shot of 100-proof liquor: 124 calories
A 12-ounce bottle of regular beer: 153 calories
These figures can change depending on various factors. In general, the less sweet your drink, the better it is in terms of weight loss. “Sweet dessert wines have more than double the calories per ounce,” says Harris-Pincus. That applies to mixed drinks, too. “They often have syrups, juices, and multiple sweet liqueurs,” says Harris-Pincus. Those additions can tack on hundreds of calories, especially since mixed drinks tend to pack multiple serving sizes into one glass.
When you do want to go for a cocktail, keep it simple with zero- or low-calorie mixers like club soda or seltzer, then add some mint, a squeeze of lime, or just one splash of juice. Also, keep in mind that tonic actually isn’t calorie-free—a 12-ounce bottle of the stuff has 124 calories and 32 grams of sugar.
And no matter what you order, Mashru and Harris-Pincus both recommend having a full glass of water in between drinks.
Definitely don’t skip meals to “save those calories” for drinking.
It usually backfires. “Most cocktails are loaded with simple carbohydrates, so during a night of drinking, you end up with soaring blood sugar followed by a ‘crash’ that leaves you ravenous,” says Mashru. “Before you go out, have dinner or a snack with protein, fiber, and healthy fat.”
Both Mashru and Harris-Pincus mention the dreaded drunchies, or that feeling that your stomach is a bottomless pit when you’re tipsy. When you don’t eat satiating foods before drinking, those drunk cravings can be even more persuasive.
The bottom line: you can drink and lose weight as long as you set realistic expectations.
One of the best ways to balance the two is figuring out the times you’d most miss alcohol, then trying to limit your intake to those occasions. Indulging in alcohol when you’re with friends at a nice restaurant can help you savor the treat more than when you’re mindlessly drinking wine on the couch, says Harris-Pincus. But then, if you find that having a solo glass of wine some nights after work helps you unwind, it can make sense for your weight-loss goals. It’s all about what works for you individually.