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.)
Do note that any alcohol can adversely affect some women, such as those with a history of substance abuse. And if you are at risk for breast cancer, consult your doctor about your alcohol intake. Drinking regularly will boost your odds of getting this disease by 10 to 15 percent, and the danger increases the more you imbibe, says Mukamal.
Now that you know the facts, the risks and the math, check out this guide for the thinking (and drinking) woman.
Run the numbers
If you’re on an exchange-based eating plan, the general rule is 2 drinks = 1 carb serving. Loosely translated, this means that if you’re having just a single drink, you can slip under the radar, but if you’re doubling up, plan to cut out some bread or dessert. Also, before you buy, check out the proof or alcohol content listed on the bottle. The higher the number, the more calories the bottle contains.
Put your drinks on a diet
Liquid calories have derailed many dieters. But if you’ve been in a liquor store or gourmet shop lately, you may have noticed that the shelves now offer reduced-calorie versions of vodka, premixed cocktails, mixers and agave nectar and other sweeteners. Or prepare waist-friendlier potions on your own; see 14 Slimmed-Down Sips.
Nix the nightcap
Drinking helps you fall asleep faster, but it disrupts your sleep cycle and promotes sleep apnea—obstructed breathing—especially in the second half of the night, says Steven Y. Park, MD, an otolaryngologist and sleep specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. That sets off a bad cycle: The breathing difficulties cause you to toss and turn, which elevates your stress hormones. These in turn may awaken you and make it hard for you to get back to sleep.
“Research involving adults shows that those who sleep less than eight hours nightly have not only a higher body weight but also higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that increases hunger, and lower levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses hunger in the body, than those who enjoy a longer nightly slumber,” says Blake. In other words, using alcohol as a sleep aid only adds to a weight problem. Solution? Three or four hours before bedtime, stop drinking. “Not only will you lose weight more easily, but you’ll also sleep better and have more energy during the day,” Park explains.
Next: 14 Slimmed-Down Sips
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