Anyone who enjoys an alcoholic drink or two can benefit from lower-calorie, low carb and low sugar drinks, but since men statistically drink more than women and gain fat around their midsections more than their female counterparts, finding healthier alternatives to heavier drinks can be an important step in warding off unwanted weight gain.
When it comes to alcohol, wine has long been hailed as the “healthiest” option. It’s full of antioxidants and has been shown in some studies to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Beer, on the other hand, has garnered the reputation of causing the eponymous “beer belly,” while vodka soda seems to be the only diet-friendly liquor drink in popular opinion. But as it turns out, all alcohol can be “healthy” if you follow some simple guidelines.
Wine over Beer, Beer over Mixed Drinks
While there is no category of alcohol that is famously lower in calories than others or vice versa, in a perfect scenario, if you were to have one drink, a 5-ounce serving of wine is likely to have fewer calories than a 12-ounce serving of beer. That standard serving of beer should technically have fewer calories than a standard mixed drink with 1.5 ounces of liquor.
Of course, this is all relative to what exactly you’re drinking within those categories. A good rule of thumb to go by from Eric Samaniego, a certified personal trainer and manager at the Texas Health CityLine Fitness Center, is “the higher the alcohol content, the higher the caloric content.” Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, versus carbs and sugars which have 4 calories per gram. So drinks with higher alcohol concentrations should also correspond with having more calories, something Wine Folly, a website devoted to wine education, agrees with. But Wine Folly also notes wide variances in calorie counts between specific types of wine, something Samaniego says is common with beer as well.
“Beer is interesting because from light beer all the way to different IPAs, you can get calorie ranges for 12 ounces from 90 calories all the way to close to 300,” he explains. “So it can be quite challenging to drink beer and watch calories.”
The Easiest Choices: Wine or Liquor
If you want a drink that’s got the most bang for the least amount of calories, a serving of wine or a serving of liquor is still a healthier option than beer, but don’t confuse a serving of liquor with a mixed drink — we’ll get to that in a bit.
The standard 5-ounce serving of wine contains roughly 123 calories, while the standing jigger of liquor contains roughly 119 calories (keep in mind the higher the alcohol content, the higher the caloric content). If you’re going to go the liquor route, consider ordering it neat, on the rocks, or with sparkling water or club soda.
It’s also worth noting that liquor and liqueur are not one and the same, with many liqueurs packing more calories than a serving of liquor.
When it Comes to Beer, Opt for Light
“For most people who enjoy the taste of beer, light beer may not be as robust as heavier beers, but quite a few of the light beers are pretty flavorful,” Samaniego adds. “Drinking light beer is going to save a ton on calories.”
Generally speaking, light beer is going to have fewer calories than a traditional lager, ale or IPA, with many light beers hovering around 90 to 100 calories. If you’re curious what the calorie count of your favorite beer is, Beer100 has a pretty comprehensive list available.
If You’re Going to Mix, Know Your Ingredients
We saved mixed drinks for last due to their potential to easily break the caloric bank, so to speak. As we noted earlier, you’re starting with a base of how many calories your liquor of choice is made up of, and everything you add on top of that base is going to add to the calorie count.
“You may look at a margarita and think ‘tequila, okay that’s fine,’ but then you add all the extra sugar and lime juice or a limeade with added sugar; all the stuff you mix drinks with are usually the culprits,” Samaniego explains. “The liquor itself is not all that bad from a calorie standpoint, but it’s the added stuff that makes it worse, nutritionally speaking.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, a serving of rum and coke averages 185 calories, a mojito averages 143 calories, a vodka tonic averages 189 calories, a bloody Mary averages 120 calories and a piña colada averages a whopping 526 calories.
“For mixed drinks, all is not lost: a vodka soda or gin with diet tonic water both contain about 100 calories and have no carbs at all,” says Minh Nghi, D.O., a hospitalist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth. “The direct benefits (and risks) of the alcohol are the same regardless of whether it is in beer, wine or distilled spirits.”
We get it; when you head to happy hour, Googling calorie counts and crunching numbers may make for a very unhappy hour. So keep these concepts in mind:
- Wine, liquor (by itself) and light beer are all light in calories.
- If you can’t do without a mixed drink, consider diet tonic, club soda or sparkling water.
- Juices can be used as light mixers, but keep in mind the sugar content, and make sure there aren’t any added sugars.
While some of those tradeoffs may mean trading fewer calories for less flavor, it’s also important to keep in mind that almost anything can be considered healthy when consumed in moderation; the guidelines above just help you identify the “healthiest” options available. After all, research shows that moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers, according to the Blue Zones® project, which identifies key traits among communities with large populations of centenarians.
“All things that we ingest are going to contribute to our overall well-being; weight management, weight control, everything is going to affect that,” Samaniego adds. “The message of moderation becomes very important because even good food in excess is not good. But if you’re going to drink, think moderation, not only for safety but also for calories.”
No matter which drink you choose, remember that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men — and only by adults of legal drinking age. And no, that doesn’t mean you can save up all your drinks during the week and splurge on the weekend.