Don’t drink and diet! That’s what New York City weight-loss expert Heather Bauer, RD, counseled women when she first set up shop. “After all, alcohol is a bad diet deal: It’s caloric without providing much nutritional value in return,” explains Bauer, co-author of Bread Is the Devil. But then she realized that “for most of my clients, this recommendation turned out to be a deal breaker. If they had to give up drinking, they just wouldn’t diet. So I had to figure out a way to help them lose weight while continuing to drink.”
For women who’ve come to rely on a glass of wine or a cocktail to take the edge off their day or to help lubricate social gatherings, doing a Carrie Nation number can seem pretty unappealing. And it is possible to watch your weight without making that sacrifice. “Most research says that women who drink the recommended amount—one serving a day—tend not to gain weight over time,” says Kenneth Mukamal, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. In fact, a 2010 study of 19,220 women found that over a 13-year period, women whose drinking was light or moderate (i.e., up to two drinks a day) were 30 percent less likely to become obese than nondrinkers.
Still, alcohol isn’t a get-out-of-dieting-free card. You can have your alcohol and drink it, too—you just have to be smart about it.
Know Thine Enemy
Alcoholic drinks, notes Bauer, are dietitians’ favorite example of empty calories. Pure alcohol, aka ethanol, contains seven calories per gram; by comparison, fat has nine calories per gram, and protein and carbohydrates each have four. That means one standard drink—defined in this story as a five-ounce glass of wine, a 1.5-ounce serving of hard liquor or a 12-ounce bottle of light beer—comes in at roughly 100 calories, “aboutthe same as an eight-ounce soda,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and a coauthor of Why Calories Count. (Regular beer contains about 50 calories more.) And if you add mixers to a cocktail, the alcohol content is the least of your worries. A piña colada, for example, can weigh in with as many as 530 calories—more than either a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese or a Frappuccino from Starbucks.
Alcohol changes more than your daily calorie total. As a dopamine sensitizer, it spurs your brain to release a cascade of feel-good hormones that can put you in a devil-may-care state of mind that’s dangerous when you’re standing next to the dessert cart, notes Lauren Slayton, RD, director of Foodtrainers, a nutrition-counseling service in New York.
But some women who drink do not pack on the pounds, for various possible reasons. Research suggests that light imbibers tend to compensate, perhaps unconsciously, by cutting down on food calories, especially from sweets, says Mukamal. And for some people, ethanol may, in effect, serve up fewer than seven calories per gram. “People metabolize alcohol differently depending on their genes,” explains Mukamal. “Some readily convert alcohol into forms that can be used for energy—this would add calories that could end up being stored as fat—while in others, more alcohol may be removed from the body in ways that don’t provide similar calories.”
All bets are off, however, if you have more than one drink a day. “Heavy alcohol use is associated with weight gain over the long haul,” says Joan Salge Blake, RD, clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. Even worse, there appears to be a tendency for that extra weight to land in your middle. And, in general, the more you drink at one sitting, the bigger your belly gets, Mukamal says. (For tips on lowering your intake, see Drinking in Moderation—Made Easy.)