Check Your Fluids to Lose Weight

How what you drink can sabotage your diet and cause you to gain weight.

By Laura Fraser
women cheers glasses outdoor eating picture

I travel frequently in Italy, where a glass or two of wine at dinner is a way of life, and most of my friends inSan Francisco and nearby Napa Valley have a similarly European attitude about the pleasures of wine. Given that red wine, like dark chocolate, is good for your heart, its calories hadn’t crossed my mind. People get beer bellies, after all. But Neily set me straight. I had confessed to having 14 servings of wine per week — about half a bottle a day, unless, you know, I have reason to celebrate; life is short. It turns out that the Cooper Clinic’s idea of a serving of wine (6 ounces) is closer to my idea of a taste. By its calculation, I was downing about 21 servings, or almost 3,500 calories of wine a week. That’s a pound of fat! It was the wine that had turned me into a squishy human goatskin bag. (And lest you think you’re off the hook because you don’t drink, Neily warns that a couple of glasses of soda can have a similar impact on your weight.)

The Sobering (but Easy) Plan

After that revelation, I was in an extremely bad mood. "Don’t worry," said Neily, cheerfully. By merely cutting my alcohol consumption in half, I could lose 15 pounds in no time. Measure the olive oil I drizzle on those salads, she said, along with the walnuts I toss onto my oatmeal, and I could speed the process along. Trade skim milk for the 2 percent I drink in my lattes, and so much the better.

Kettles advised me to cut my wine intake to seven 6-ounce glasses a week, with no more than three in one day. Too much alcohol, she pointed out, puts you at a greater risk for breast cancer, a disease that caused the untimely deaths of my Aunt Maxine and Great-Aunt Belle. I had to admit that seven glasses didn’t sound like deprivation; it was reasonable and doable.

Nervous, I asked Kettles what a sensible weight might be for someone who isn’t interested in being a size 6. She suggested I aim for about 155 pounds and 23 percent body fat. My mood lifted a little. Everyone else I’d ever asked — the people at Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers — had told me 135, but 155 was in the realm of reality.

Marius Maianu, the exercise physiologist at the clinic, told me that my workouts — mainly swimming, yoga, and walking — keep me healthy and flexible but aren’t intense enough to help me lose weight. Swimming takes more time to burn calories. As for yoga, my flexibility and balance are terrific, but you have to do something like an hour of triangle poses to work off one little glass of Cabernet, and strength training isn’t part of the package. Maianu suggested I add strength exercises and throw in some aerobics a couple of times a week. Not only would I be on my way to my formerly superior fit self, I’d also be burning wine like jet fuel.

The Energy Bonus

Since coming home, I’ve kept a little diary to track the number of glasses of wine I drink in a week, and I’ve added more aerobic workouts — vigorous hiking up the hills behind my house in San Francisco, pounding to dance music on the elliptical, and raising my heart rate while staring at the hot Brazilian teacher in Spinning class.

After six weeks, my energy is better; if you don’t have two glasses of wine at six p.m., you aren’t tired all evening or grouchy the next morning. I have already lost the eight pounds I’d gained, and I’m almost halfway to my new ideal weight. My tummy-tuck jeans are sagging in the middle. My real goal, though, is to view this midlife assessment as an opportunity to develop healthy new habits for the long run. I plan to have a more complete annual physical and mammogram, plus another tune-up at 50. And from now on, I’m going to weigh myself. At least once a year.

Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2007.

Next: Flatten Your Belly Fast

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