Calorie-conscious people might wonder if they can enjoy an alcoholic beverage or if imbibing will wreck their healthy patterns of eating. Yes, alcoholic beverages are a source of empty calories, but when it comes to incorporating alcohol into your diet, experts stress moderation.
“When we get too restrictive with our diet, it just increases the chances of us eventually bingeing or throwing in the towel,” Abbey Sharp, a dietitian and founder of Abbey’s Kitchen, tells TODAY.com. “Alcohol — the same as any kind of ‘fun’ food in our diet that maybe is not contributing to nutrition or satiety — may be a contributing factor to emotional satisfaction in life, enjoyment and pleasure.”
But not all cocktails are created equal when it comes to calories. For those who are worried about excess calories, the experts say it’s best to stick with certain drinks.
Lowest calorie alcohol
Most alcohol, whether it’s vodka, red wine, hard seltzers or cider, have about the same caloric load, about 100 calories per serving. Serving size vary among alcohol type. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drink servings are:
- 12 oz. of regular or light beer
- 5 oz. of wine
- 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits
It’s often mixers, such as simple syrup, coconut crème, juice or margarita mixes, that make a drink higher in calories. Some cocktails can have as many as 400 calories in them, Sharp says.
“It’s not the alcohol itself, but often it’s the things we add (that increase the calories),” Sharp says. “Alcoholic drinks should still feel like a bit of a novelty that they were added to the diet because it is enjoyable, pleasurable and fun.”
People might rationalize that a martini, which has fewer mixers, is lower in calories. But each serving of alcohol in a cocktail adds calories to it.
“If you’re going to make something like a Long Island iced tea, you’ve got four different alcohols. Each one of those would provide at least 100 calories,” Leslie Bonci, dietician and owner of Active Eating Advice, tells TODAY.com “Now you could have 400 calories. That is one of the issues when we’re mixing something like a liqueur with another alcohol, each one of those is a source of calories.”
Prosecco, champagne, sparkling wine
A glass of prosecco — or any sparkling wine — has about 100 calories in it. This is a great option for people because it is normally a smaller pour. Sparking wines come in flutes compared to larger wine glasses. And the fizz hels people feel satisfied while imbibing.
“We feel a little fuller when we drink something like that because of the bubbles,” Bonci says. “It’s pretty. It’s fun. It feels festive.”
The calories only come from the alcohol — unless someone adds a juice to it for a mimosa or bellini. Sharp recommends people try adding kombucha or a shrub, a vinegar-based flavoring, instead of juice or pre-made mixer. This will keep the cocktails low in calories.
“Kombucha shots are a really great way to get that sweetness and acidity with very few calories,” Sharp says. “(Shrubs) do have that acidity, that natural sweetness.”
Light beer also has about 100 calories in a serving, which is 12 oz., Bonci says. There’s another benefit of a light beer, too.
“Light beers actually have a lower alcohol content than regular beers,” she says.
While choosing a light beer can be a smart choice for sticking with fewer calories, people often run into trouble because they over-indulge.
“It’s 100 calories per serving,” Bonci says. “(People say) ‘Oh and I had five of those.’ Well, now it’s not low calorie.”
Like light beers, hard seltzers have 100 calories per 12 oz. serving.
“Hard seltzers are lower in alcohol, like around 5%,” Sharp says. “Generally speaking, the lower the alcohol percentage, the fewer calories. Alcohol has seven calories per gram.”
What’s more, most seltzers do not have sugar in them, which is perfect for people who need to be mindful of their sugar intake.
“They’re usually sweetened by some other kind of non-calorie sweetener,” Sharp says.
Many people know and love Aperol spritzes, which Bonci says is a great option for a low-calorie beverage. Many alcohols can be transformed into a spritz, such as a rose, white wine or a limoncello, for example. These drinks are lower in calories — and lower alcohol — because soda water is added to give it a fizz while using a smaller portion of alcohol.
“Most bartenders tend to make (them) with prosecco and more soda water,” Bonci says. “The soda water isn’t adding any calories. You already got something lower calories in the prosecco and it’s a little splash of Aperol.”
She adds that the “beautiful orange color” makes the drink seem even more appetizing, which can also feel more satisfying to drink.
While a mojito generally has some sugar in it, Sharp recommends that people try it without. The lime and mint provide a boost of flavor without adding calories.
“Again, without that extra sugar you’re going to look at a cocktail that’s 100 calories,” she says. “You’re really just looking at the calories in the liquor itself.”
Bloody Mary’s use a base of vodka and tomato juice, which has about 42 calories in a serving. The other ingredients, such as garlic, celery, horseradish and Worcestershire sauce don’t add to the calories, but boost flavor.
“Tomato juice doesn’t have a big calorie price tag,” Bonci says. “It’s something that feels a little thicker and a little bit more substantial.”
Though Sharp stresses that often a drink’s garnishes packs calories into cocktails.
“It’s the bacon on top of the Bloody Mary or the cherries or the syrupy fruits that might add to it,” she says.
Liquor and seltzer or soda water
Mixing one’s favorite liquor, such as vodka, tequila, gin or bourbon, with soda water or flavored seltzer water plus any herbs or citrus can be a fun way to enjoy a cocktail with fewer calories.
“I really love fresh ginger, which really adds a punch of flavor that really doesn’t add calories,” Sharp says. “Frozen fruit is a great way to pump up the sweetness without adding a lot of sugar or sweeteners.”