Almost everyone loves a bit of a drink now and then. But you’ve started a low-carb diet, and you’re wondering – can I still drink and lose weight? Do low-carb diets and alcohol mix? What about the dreaded “beer belly?”
Thankfully, I’m here to answer your questions, and tell you (hopefully) everything you need to know about having a good night out and still being low-carb. But first, a little bit of background about how our bodies react to alcohol (it’s important, trust me).
Alcohol and carbs and fats, oh my!
Contrary to what you may believe, alcohol isn’t inherently carb-loaded (beer, however, is). So drinking pure ethanol isn’t going to kick you out of ketosis (it will, however, likely kill you. DO NOT DRINK PURE ETHANOL).
However, while alcohol isn’t a carb, it does contain calories – 7 calories per gram, to be precise, which is almost double the 4 calories per gram that carbs and protein contain, and only a little bit less than fat, at 9 calories per gram. Does this mean that you’ll gain weight by drinking alcohol?
Not necessarily, it turns out. First of all, it actually takes a fair amount of energy for the body to actually process alcohol, so the net calories are closer to 5.6/g. Secondly, our bodies aren’t that great at converting it to fat, so the energy contained in it tends to get used. Thirdly, moderate drinking is actually associated with a number of health benefits, including improved insulin sensitivity and reduced triglyceride levels. So the odd drink here and there can potentially be good for you!
However, it’s not all good news. When we consume alcohol, our bodies burn it preferentially to fats, carbs, and proteins, probably because its byproduct is toxic and we need to get rid of it fast. So when you drink, fat-burning stops – you won’t knock yourself out of keto, but you will delay its effects.
Does that mean you can’t drink? Not at all – just be aware that it will slow your fat-burning. Also, as it does contain calories, you should count them towards your daily caloric goal if you’re counting (which you should be) – just because they aren’t carbs doesn’t mean they don’t count!
So what’s safe to drink?
If you’re planning to stick to your low-carb diet, then I’m afraid that the range of alcohols that you can regularly enjoy is somewhat…reduced. Kiss goodbye to ciders and craft beers, my friend, because those things tend to be loaded with carbs. In general, you’re going to be looking at spirits, mixed with diet soda, diet tonic water, soda water, or straight. Liqueurs often have added sugar, so be sure to check before ordering that Bailey’s and Chambord shot you were eyeing off…
So, as a handy reference, remember the following:
- Distilled spirits (vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, etc.) tend to be very low in carbs. These are a great choice – just be careful of the mixers. You’re going to need to ask for whiskey and diet coke now, sadly. My drink of choice here would probably be vodka, lime, and soda water – the lime gives it a refreshing twist. Also note that specially flavoured versions of these (like apple vodka, honeyed whiskey, etc.) tend to have added sugar, and thus aren’t low-carb friendly.
- Dry wines are also very low-carb. The drier the wine, the lower the amount of sugar in it, and therefore the lower the carbs. Pretty simple. So if you’re looking to be classy and drink wine all evening, make sure it’s a dry one. There’s a very informative chart over at winefolly.com that will give you an idea of relative amounts of carbs in different wines. But basically, the sweeter the wine, the more sugar it has. Easy!
- Beers are going to be tough to fit on a keto diet, unless you’ve managed to consumer zero carbs all day in anticipation. And even then, you’re probably going to have to stick to light beers or low-carb ones, if you can find them. And do you really want to spend your night drinking light beer? Really? I didn’t think so. Either skip it, or resign yourself to the fact that you’re having a cheat day and will have to get back into keto. Yup, it sucks.
- Cocktails. This will vary immensely, depending on the cocktail. Dry martinis (shaken, not stirred) or other cocktails that rely on a mixture of spirits, without sugary mixers, will probably be fine. Or, alternatively, you can try to get your favourite cocktail made with diet mixers instead. As long as one of the key ingredients isn’t “sugar syrup”, you should be fine.
- Liqueurs are basically a no-go, unless you’re cheating. Then go for it. But otherwise, they tend to be some of the highest carb alcoholic drinks you can get, so if you want to stay low-carb, you’ll have to go without.
The takeaway from all this is that just because you’re on a low-carb diet, it doesn’t mean that you can’t drink at all. Just be aware of the caloric content of your drinks, try to stick to spirits where possible, and be aware that even if a glass of wine has only 2g carbs, they will add up if you have more than one glass – so don’t go overboard. But that should be your general approach anyway – drink in moderation, and don’t risk breaking your diet because you got drunk and forgot you were on one. For a much more in-depth chart of various alcohols and their carb content, check out getdrunknotfat.com (I know, it’s a great name).