The Truth About Alcohol (+ 5 Tips for Smarter Holiday Sips)

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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The Truth About Alcohol (+ 5 Tips for Smarter Holiday Sips)

Mixing, mingling and making merry this holiday wouldn’t be the same without alcohol. But for those of us with an agenda to neutralize weight gain, adding alcohol to the equation makes this a tough one to balance. Here’s why:

ALCOHOL IS THE SECOND MOST POTENT SOURCE OF CALORIES

Partying with alcohol is fun because we like feeling intoxicated, but this intoxication comes with a caloric price tag. One gram of alcohol is 7 calories, which is more than one gram of carbohydrate (4 calories) and protein (4 calories) but less than one gram of fat (9 calories).

WE DON’T BURN EXTRA CALORIES TO METABOLIZE ALCOHOL 

Not like we do from digesting carbs, fat and protein. This phenomenon, called the “thermic effect of food”, refers to the energy we use to digest food into small, absorbable components. Because alcohol is so easy to absorb, it enters our bloodstream without burning any extra calories.

YOUR LIVER DOES THE DIRTY WORK

Because alcohol is seen as a toxin, the liver prioritizes metabolizing alcohol first (get in line, fat…it’s not your turn!) which means you won’t be burning calories from other sources while that happens. The liver is only able to clear alcohol at a rate of around one ounce liquor per hour, which is why consuming more than this will leave you feeling tipsy.

ALCOHOL MAKES YOUR BLOOD SUGAR DROP, MAKING YOU WANT TO REACH FOR THE CARBS 

The liver helps keep our blood sugar steady, but a liver busy at work metabolizing alcohol can’t do this effectively, causing your blood sugar to drop and stay low until the alcohol is metabolized. This explains why you crave carbs and wake up the next day with a headache.

ALCOHOL CALORIES THAT AREN’T BURNED WILL BE STORED AS FAT

This is true for all extra calories eaten no matter the source, but what makes alcohol calories worse is that they are stored in your liver first. It takes time for the liver to ship out the alcohol-induced fat for proper storage in your fat cells. If the liver doesn’t do this fast enough (or if you drink too much, too often) the fat stays stuck in your liver and around your abdomen giving you what we refer to jovially as a “beer belly.”

This of course doesn’t mean you need to completely dodge all social sips this season. Here are some tips to help prevent you from gaining too much of your holiday cheer:

1. POUR YOURSELF HALF AS MUCH

This will help you limit yourself to one or two drinks per party.

2. AVOID HIGHER CALORIE MIXED DRINKS

Forgo eggnog, margaritas, mudslides and other sugary mixed drinks — or have one and consider it dessert.

3. ALTERNATE BETWEEN HAVING ALCOHOL AND WATER

You’ll stay well hydrated.

4. SIP SLOWLY

Take the time to enjoy your alcoholic beverage.

5. KEEP YOUR ALCOHOL BUDGET AT OR BELOW 200 CALORIES

Pick these lower calorie alcohol alternatives:

  • Red or white wine: 5 ounces | Calories; 125, Carbohydrate: 4g
  • Light beer: 12 ounces | Calories: 100; Carbohydrate: 5g
  • Champagne: 5 ounces | Calories: 100; Carbohydrate: 1g
  • Vodka, whiskey, rum or gin: 1.5 ounces | Calories: 96; Carbohydrate: 0g

How do you keep tabs on your alcohol intake during the holidays?

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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48 responses to “The Truth About Alcohol (+ 5 Tips for Smarter Holiday Sips)”

  1. Avatar no says:

    Part of this article is incorrect. Alcohol has a significant thermic effect. It’s 7.1 calories per gram before factoring in TEF, but 5.7 calories per gram after.

    • Avatar TR0berts says:

      Darn. You beat me to it. Still more than carbs or protein, but – as usual for the blogs that end up @ MFP – inaccurate.

    • Avatar no2 says:

      It’s also extremely hard for alcohol to be converted to fat. What ends up happening is that metabolizing the alcohol takes priority and as a result dietary fat ingested is more likely shuttled to fat cells.

      • Avatar Colin P. Müller says:

        Correct. This is why I advise my clients to keep dietary fat super-low when drinking. Lean protein and complex carbs are king in this situation.

    • Avatar ZarethKnyght says:

      Doesn’t it also depend on the type of alcohol being consumed? From what I understand, beer has more calories than hard liquor.

      • Avatar Commenter says:

        the alcohol in your drink has the same number of calories per unit of standard concentration. but beer is only about 5% alcohol and wine 12%, so the rest of the drink can have more calories in it

    • Avatar natasha says:

      V. Incorrect. Vodka and gin are way better than rum and whisky too. ( somewhere around the 60cal mark)

  2. Avatar ME-B says:

    After drinking for far too long in my life, I quit in June of this year. I have never felt better!

    • Avatar BrianZ says:

      How did you do it? i cant even being to quit every time i do i end up drinnking more. Now i have about 2 glasses of wine a night.

      • Avatar ME-B says:

        I just decided that enough was enough. I don’t even miss my Pinot Grigio, either. I think you just have to be ready. Good luck.

        • Avatar ET says:

          I was a flat- out alcoholic. I found a fitness tracker and honest entries into the food logs were a valuable addition to my recovery toolbox. Add a supportive running team and it becomes a fitness challenge like no other. Good luck.

    • Avatar Sam Sanders says:

      The easiest way is to have scheduled days off. If you are healthy there is no need to just drop it forever. That word “never” plays tricks with our mind and will put anyone in a wrong attitude about it. The truth is, while it depends on a person – alcohol just like coffee is addicting, and your body gets used to it. Two glasses every night will not be enough at some point. I bet at some point a few glasses a week WAS enough, right? So think about it, instead of sliding towards more and more it is better try to pull yourself up to less and less, and then stop at some reasonable amount. Start with social events – those are of sure, as you don’t to be a party-pooper and look like you came from 12 step meeting. How often do you go out with a good company where drink will work as an enjoyment and a “social glue”? Add couple days a week, let say Tuesday and Thursday, so your body can rest. And when weekend comes – Saturday or Sunday, whenever it is better for you or whenever you go out. Here you have three days to enjoy your wine, you can buy a better bottle while spending the same $$ a month, and not feeling like you are “dry” forever. Sounds like a good plan?

    • Avatar Black Star Ranch says:

      Same here. After 35+ years of drinking HEAVILY, I quit the booze, the “smoke”, and all the rest of the abused substances. I used MFP to track my food intake and lost 65 pounds. Add some God and at the age of 65 I feel like ten million dollars. I am FREE!

    • Avatar DitchDiveDiva says:

      Congrats!

  3. Avatar Wrd says:

    In our social group, we drink wine before, during and after dinner. After starting with MFP I cut out the before dinner and do not drink wine until I have had some food. Not drinking on an empty stomach has really cut down how much I drink at a time. 1 glass of wine is now enough. I also cut out drinking wine when eating at home.

  4. Avatar Fit and trim says:

    I quit as well last Easter after 40 years of imbibing. Lost 45 pounds and have never felt better. Drinking for me spun off to many bad eating habits as this article describes,

  5. Avatar Meghan says:

    vodka, club soda, and a lime! or mint leaves. Easy on the calories and breath 🙂

  6. Avatar Jennifer Ciemiewicz Mancuso says:

    I used to have a beer or two most nights, sometimes more. Since I have started tracking my calories I do not drink at all during the week and sometimes not even on the weekend. Mainly I look at it like I am putting in the time to work out and eat right and is having a couple of beers really worth undoing all that? Most times the answer is a solid NO!

  7. Avatar Pat says:

    I enjoyed the article & appreciate the detailed information. I will take a different look/app;roach with my beverages now. Thx again!

  8. Avatar Veronica S says:

    Trinh- can we get the count on Tequila? I’ve read that Tequila speeds the heart rate as opposed to slowing it down… Do you know anything about it? I love a nice Patron with lime on a night where I need to limit it to one or two, but let me know if I’m doing wrong, please!

    • Avatar Skinny Dave says:

      That is a perfect weight watchers margarita. Patron on the rocks, squeeze of lime. Half rim of salt to top it off. Low cal. 😉

  9. Avatar Sokie88 says:

    Most Dr.’s recommend 1 drink a day for women and 2 a day for men. Is drinking your weekly intake in 1 or 2 days like saving for the weekend festivities, worse for health?

  10. Avatar Gareth says:

    Your opening sentence is a dangerous one for those of us who cannot control our drinking, those of us whose only answer is complete abstinence. Your opening sentence is one that can add to a feeling of alienation from ‘making merry’. I find Christmas to be a very difficult time to maintain this sobriety whilst the pressure to ‘make merry’ is ramped up.

  11. Avatar Hunglystudly says:

    I noticed the best way to drink booze when on a diet is to mix with cocaine it helps way more with appetite and you can drink way more with out getting drunk happy holidays!

  12. Avatar Huh? says:

    Who measures a liquid in ounces? We have millilitres for that! :-S

    Why force your readers to convert from the 1920’s to the current century?

    • Avatar Ben Davolls says:

      Ze Americans! I think a single shot is 1oz (but don’t take my word on it)

    • Avatar John in Brisbane says:

      True, but 30 (ish) grams is pretty accepted now as a standard amount of liquor. That’s a shot in Australia. I think the amount of pure booze is 10ml. I prefer 50ml shots but 30ml is what is served here. 30 ml is nice and close to 28.4.

    • Avatar KC says:

      In North America – including Canada, where I am from, we refer to a shot as 1 oz regardless of the unit system. (In canada we use metric but a person would never refer to a shot or quantity of liquor in metric). 1oz, a pint, 2 oz etc. is the standard.

    • Avatar Matt Massie says:

      For every day usage (soft drinks, juice, etc.) I use metric, but for liquor the standard serving sizes are based on imperial measurements. Why on earth would beer come in 341mL bottles? Because it’s 12oz. Why make a 1.14L bottle of rum? Because it’s 40oz. It’s just convention, it’s easier than redefining the whole system. When I pour a shot I look for the 1oz mark, not the 29.6mL mark.

    • Avatar Commenter says:

      just about everyone in the United States does use ounces

  13. Avatar John in Brisbane says:

    Some great numbers there. The problem is that many of us engage in “binge drinking” on a semi-regular basis. It’s pretty rare for me these days but a few drinks after work or at a party and it’s a binge. I don’t drink every day, just once in a while. I’d be keen to see articles on how to best deal with this. I’m a full sized male so for me 10 plus standard drinks at an event isn’t actually that rare. I’m probably barely tipsy. I shudder to think how much I’ve drunk on occasion. There is some handy information here but I’d like to see more real-world information as well. Particularly for the younger among us 🙂

  14. Avatar Emma says:

    Vodka, soda, lime. Still alcohol but at least you’re not wasting the calories on sugar

  15. Avatar scottymac says:

    I wish everyone would serve water at their meals, so that guests could alternate with alcohol.

  16. Avatar ferret37 says:

    I thank God that I made a conscious decision (after being Mickey-finned at the age of 19) NEVER to smoke and NEVER to drink alcohol. At a party I get huge amusement by the junketings of the less than sober. It keeps me laughing all night! I am 77 now and tomorrow will walk with my old friend of schooldays (like-minded), for the best part of ten miles across the beautiful English Cotswolds. I do have to be careful with pastry. Too much of that makes my tummy creak a bit, but otherwise I enjoy eating and have regular outings with a lady friend. Life is GOOD!

  17. Avatar CJ says:

    Your opening statements in this article warning of the negative health impacts of drinking alcohol are so very helpful to me. I am not an alcoholic but have a knowledge and fear of the very real possibility of one becoming addicted if alcohol consumption is not kept in check or eliminated. The negative effects on our bodies is yet another reminder to me to consider why I ever feel obliged to drink alcohol at all. If a person is not yet struggling with alcoholism, then they perhaps should ask themselves why they need a drink with alcohol in it in the first place. If it is simply because “everyone else is” or “it tastes good,” then perhaps it’s time to make non-alcohol yummy drinks instead and become a leader by example rather than a follower as many of us have been in this area. After listing numerous downfalls of alcohol in your article other than addiction and the destruction of lives, I feel your five Tips should be changed to six, with the first one being, “Don’t Drink.”

  18. Avatar BigV says:

    Alcohol is just an adult sippy cup. . .wah i need my baby bottle. . .its all a conspiracy. . .28 yr old, done drinking. . over it. . .don’t need to make ceo’s of booze companies rich. . . “You don’t need that” is the new mantra of my life. Alcohol= “you don’t need that”. . .

  19. Alcohol is ‘treated as a toxin’?? It *IS* a toxin! A deadly poison humans survive drinking only owing to slow ingestion of a heavily diluted dose!

  20. Avatar mrku says:

    author makes it sound like a fatty liver from alcohol is the same as a beer belly. not the same thing

  21. Avatar fm2176 says:

    I’m no nutrition expert–my formal knowledge is limited to an Army Weight Control Program nutrition class and an undergraduate class in the subject. Even so, I can vouch for the fact that diet and exercise, even with heavy drinking, can lead to weight loss and maintenance.

    I’m a Soldier in his late thirties who made the decision to drop weight and get into better shape a few months back. In January, after recovering from a hernia repair, I weighed 221. In May I weighed 210 and barely made tape. In September I started tracking calories via MFP, switched from beer to bourbon and Coke Zero, and increased cardio. Since then, I’ve dropped from 205 to 183.

    Ideally, we’d all refrain from alcohol, but those of us who “self-medicate” or just plain have a problem should realize that if we drink we need to make other lifestyle choices that mitigate the effects from drinking. Physical activity and a healthy diet work. If I’m still around in thirty years I’ll be proof of sorts. 🙂

  22. Avatar Dade Dyana says:

    Hi Trinh – Alcohol is definitely part of many families’ holiday celebrations and it is important to address it. Ideally, nobody would be drinking because of the effects it has on our bodies, but I truly believe – everything in moderation. Isn’t that the theme of this article?

  23. Avatar Minimouse says:

    I am alcohol free at the moment, I do it for a month twice a year. For me a great help is bottled fizzy water to which I add various flavourings, squash, ginger, mint or a slice of lime depending on my mood.As I’m working to shift a few pounds, while I’ll have some alcohol over Christmas, the sparkling water will still be a regular feature.

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