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Fiftysomething Diet: What Alcohol Can You Drink While Dieting?

Moderation is the key, and you'll be surprised to hear which drinks pack many more calories than others

By Maureen Callahan | July 12, 2013
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Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series.

Is it safe to drink while dieting? Conventional wisdom suggests that spirits loosen inhibitions, causing many of us to overeat or make more indulgent food choices than usual. Yet the results of studies are mixed: Some suggest that drinking, or at least heavy drinking, can indeed lead to extra pounds, while others find a more tenuous link between alcohol consumption and weight gain.

(MORE: The Risk of Becoming an 'Almost' Alcoholic)

If you know that drinking tends to lead you to overeat, it might be best to steer clear of alcohol altogether while you're trying to lose weight. But if you can usually drink in moderation without diving into bowls of chips or trays of tapas, the occasional glass of wine or beer shouldn't seriously hinder your efforts. Keeping your moderate social drinking routines might even help you more easily tolerate the more challenging lifestyle changes you're making with your diet.

As for which drinks might do the least — or most — damage while you're counting calories, read on for some surprising answers:
 
Wine: Consistently Low Calorie
Average calories: 25 per ounce; 125 per serving
 
Sipping on a glass of merlot or sauvignon blanc is not going to make or break your diet. Most wines typically range from 25 to 35 calories per ounce. "Dry" wines that have little or no sugar remaining after the fermentation process land on the lower end, while "sweet" varieties like Rieslings, Sauternes, and white zinfandels are on the higher end, for the opposite reason. A typical 5-ounce pour should net you a moderate 125 calories, not much more than one of those 100-calorie snack packs.
 
(MORE: How to Drink More Wine (Smartly and Healthfully))

Bar Tip: Permanently mark a wine glass with a five-ounce pour line so you can consistently hit this moderate, diet-friendly mark.
 
Beer: A Mixed Case
Average calories: 5-28 per ounce; 55-330 per serving
 
From pale ales to stouts, there's no universal formula for brewing beer, and no reliable rule of thumb for judging what will be the best choice for your diet. When it comes to brews, appearances can deceive: Dark, seemingly heavy Guinness Draught actually has fewer calories per 12-ounce bottle (125) than Budweiser (145) or Heineken (150). A bottle of Rolling Rock checks in at just 120 calories, while Sierra Nevada's Big Foot microbrew delivers 330. And a pilsner-style domestic light beer, with as little as 55 calories per bottle, is less of an indulgence than a glass of wine (though connoisseurs may suggest that you're surrendering some taste). Clearly, a conscientious dieter needs some help when choosing a beer. Fortunately, the online resource The Efficient Drinker provides calorie counts, and alcohol by volume measures, for more than 250 labels — and if you're gluten-free, Bon Appetit rates the 10 best choices for you.
 
(MORE: 10 Things to Do With Beer (Besides Drink It))

Bar Tip: Consider up to 160 calories per serving to be a reasonable splurge. That range offers you a variety of choices, from a can of Bud to a bottle of a microbrew like New Belgium Fat Tire (160).
 
Distilled Spirits: The Simpler, the Better
Average calories: 64 per ounce; 97 per 1.5-ounce serving (a jigger)
 
In a straight ounce-to-ounce comparison, liquor has more than twice the calories of wine or beer. But the average serving size for liquors like rum or vodka is a 1.5-ounce jigger, so in the end spirits can be a more moderate choice, diet-wise. There are caloric differences, mostly based on the strength of the alcohol. Generally, the lower the proof, the lower the calories. An ounce of 80-proof distilled spirits carries about 64 calories; a 100-proof option brings 82 calories to the table.

But the main concern with distilled spirits is not the alcohol itself but high-calorie mixers like cola, syrup or sweet-and-sour mix, which can double or even quadruple your calorie count. The rum needed for a typical pina colada recipe, for example, has 97 calories, but when you add cream of coconut and pineapple juice, you've got a 245-calorie drink. For skinnier cocktails, use lighter mixers. Calorie-free club soda is the lightest ingredient, but a splash of lime juice (8 calories per ounce) or a dash of tonic water (10 per ounce) are also wise choices.
 
Bar Tip: Beware of pairing liquor with diet soft drinks. A recent study suggests it might leave you more intoxicated, as subjects drinking alcohol with a diet mixer had breath alcohol concentrations 18 percent higher than those who had drinks with sugar-sweetened mixers.

Liqueurs: Sweet Indulgences
Average calories: 85-115 per ounce; 150-170 per jigger

Liqueurs, or cordials, are distilled spirits mixed with sugary sweeteners and flavorings like herbs, fruits, nuts and flowers. These additives make it probably your least diet-friendly cocktail-hour choice. Calories vary from brand to brand, but you can expect a jigger of coffee liqueur served in coffee or over the rocks to carry about 160 calories. A shot of almond-flavored amaretto is about the same, but when you add a splash or two of sweet-and-sour mix for a classic amaretto sour, the total rises to about 200 calories. In general, schnapps varieties tend to be a little lighter; peppermint schnapps, for example, has 125 calories per jigger.
 
(MORE: Can Bubbly Boost Brain Power?)

Bar Tip: If you enjoy liqueurs, be careful with portions. The sweet taste makes it easy to keep sipping, but the calories half from sugar and half from alcohol — add up quickly.

 
So, What'll You Have?

If you based drink choices on calories alone, you'd opt for a light beer, a scotch on the rocks (100 calories) or a glass of dry wine. But in reality, the relatively small differences in calories between most kinds of alcohol aren't worth agonizing over. The crucial decision when a dieter steps up to the bar or opens the liquor cabinet is to have just one drink, whether it's a single glass of wine, bottle of beer or jigger of liquor.