The R29 Cheat Sheet To “Healthy” Drinking

We love ourselves a happy hour as much as the next gal. And while the extra calories are usually worth it in the name of good times, arming yourself with cocktail-calorie knowledge could make the whole thing oh-so-much better. 

So, we’re taking the guesswork out of figuring out what to drink (and what not to drink — mudslides and mojitos, we’re looking at you you) and why. Here, Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. (yeah, we got tired just typing that out), a nutritionist in New York City and the author of The Small Change Diet , weighs in on the rules of “healthy” drinking. Now, if only we could take away your hangover, too.

Don’t Drink On An Empty Stomach

It’s a well-known fact that you feel better when you have a little something in your stomach — and here’s why: “Once alcohol enters your body, 20 percent goes right into your blood stream,” says Gans. Great if you’re aiming for immediate intoxication, not so super if you want to spend the night gracefully easing into it. “Having food in your stomach can help slow down the rate of absorption and avoid poor choices due to lowered inhibitions influenced by alcohol and hunger,” she says. As in, be sure to get in a meal at the beginning of the night and you might be able to skip the 2 a.m. pizza run.

Another no-brainer: “There really isn’t much to say from a nutritional standpoint about alcohol,” says Gans. But here’s what’s interesting: Alcohol is not stored in your body like protein, fat, or carbohydrates and therefore when it’s ingested, your body makes it a priority to metabolize it. So basically, unlike those brownies that seem to permanently bind to your butt, alcohol alone (not factoring in everything else added into the glass besides the booze itself — more on that later) doesn’t stick around the same way. 

But, Gans is adamant about this one point, so listen up: It’s the subsequent actions post-cheers that can attribute to weight gain — i.e. the aforementioned late night pizza binge coupled with the day-after boozy (and greasy) brunch, and then ditching your workout to veg on the couch. Over time, it’s these not-so-healthy lifestyle choices that will pack on the pounds.

Clear And Dark Alcohol Are Calorie Equals

Vodka, rum, gin — it doesn’t really matter. “There is no support to say that clear alcohols are healthier than dark ones — it may be there’s a ten calorie difference, but that’s about it,” says Gans. “It’s not the alcohol that results in additional calories or sugar — it’s what goes in the glass along with it.” Read the label and you’ll see for yourself: If you’re a Jack girl, a straight-up pour is gonna rack up about 56 calories per serving size. Love yourself some Grey Goose? That’s around 69 calories.

What Matters Is The Mixers

Once you start adding in sugary liquors (i.e. St. Germaine, Frangelico, Bailey’s), juice, regular soda, or tonic (which has sugar too, unlike seltzer), the calorie count on your favorite adult beverage is clearly going to skyrocket. That means a screwdriver with OJ is going to have way more calories and sugar than say, vodka with a wedge of orange.

The seemingly healthy go-to of gin and tonic is no good either because tonic has approximately 32.2 grams of sugar (the equivalent of about 8 teaspoons) in 12 oz., essentially the same as juice and soda. And of course those beloved beach cocktails — a pina colada (yum!) and strawberry daiquiri — well, you might as well eat a Big Mac since these sweet drinks can contain around 700 hundred calories each. “If you add juice and soda or any other high-sugar mixers to your drink you are mainly adding extra calories to your diet, which can lead to weight gain,” says Gans. “And weight gain can lead to increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.”

Size Matters, Too

How much do docs say you should sip on the daily? About 5 oz., which is kind of like drinking your wine out of a Sippy cup. So, lets be real — you probably are drinking double, triple, or maybe even four times that on a girls’ night out. Gans estimates that most of us pour a 10 oz. glass of wine when at home; while margaritas from the bar could be double that. 

“Five ounces is the sweet spot for research that shows any type of alcohol actually being good for you,”says Gans. After that, well, it can have the reverse effect. “Drink too much and you force the liver to go into overdrive,” she says. That’s exactly why Gans says opting for a (light) beer from a bottle could be your best low-cal bet — you’ll know exactly how many ounces and calories you’re getting compared to a ginormous pour of draft beer from the tap.

Be Wary Of So-Called “Low-Cal” Cocktails

Pre-mixed “healthy” cocktails are kind of like that guy you met on Match: He seemed great on paper, but once you started to spend a lot of time with him, he wasn’t all he cracked up to be. “The numbers might look good, but when you do the math, they don’t add up,” says Gans. For example, the Skinny Girl portion size is 1.5 oz. and promises a super-low 35 calories. Too good to be true? Pretty much: That’s the size of a shot glass and half and there’s no way you’re going to drink a margarita shot. As for the Skinny Girl wine at 100 calories per serving? The real deal is probably around 120, so you might as well just pick up your favorite Pinot.

Gans does note that, originally, the story behind Skinny Girl was more about it being made of all-natural ingredients (not solely about the calorie count) as it’s sweetened with agave (which, by the way, has recently gotten some not-so-sweet buzz because if you use too much, it has the same unhealthy side effects as high-fructose corn syrup). But, she adds this isn’t necessarily true and you can whip up a natural (and skinny!) drink yourself or tell someone at a bar to do it for you. It doesn’t get any more natural than vodka, seltzer, and an orange slice, says Gans.

Where these premixed drinks do come in handy: “Low-calorie alcoholic mixers can be helpful in keeping overall calories in check; however, if many drinks are consumed, the end result is still excess calories leading to weight gain,” she says. So, if you are comparing these low-cal options to say, a regular frozen strawberry margarita in the humongous glass it normally comes in, then sure, it’s going to have fewer calories.

Drink A Drink You Don’t Love

If you think it’s the sweetest, most delicious treat ever, you’re going to down that baby and order another (and another and another). “I tell patients to get a drink that they’re going to sip on — like a scotch or vodka on the rocks,” Gans says. Added benefits: Portion size and calories remain in check without you having to think about them.

Wine Might Be Your Best Option

Sure it’s made from grapes, but that doesn’t mean it’s as sugary as grape juice. “Wine doesn’t have a lot of sugar in it when it’s plain,” says Gans. But we can’t say the same for its super-fun and festive counterpart, sangria. “Sangria would obviously be a poorer choice than a glass of just red wine — it has added fruit as well as actual sugar,” she says. “Plus, it tastes like fruit punch, so you end up drinking too much of it, and consuming too many calories, which is not good for your liver or any part of your body.” 

And of course, wine is full of polyphenols, antioxidant powerhouses linked to lowered heart disease and a whole list of live-longer benefits. Just another reason to raise a glass. However Gans warns, “While there is some research that does suggest that wine may be healthier due to its high content of antioxidants, it’s not conclusive.”

The Best Mixers Are Seltzer, Fruit, And Diet Soda

Simply because they are all low-calorie and therefore guilt-free add-ons. “Club soda, seltzer, and diet soda have no calories, and a wedge of fruit — lime, lemon, orange, or even cucumber — gives a little sweetness without all the calories of juice,” says Gans. The number one drink she tells patients to order when out for the night? Vodka with club soda and a lime, or vodka on the rocks with an orange.

There Could (Possibly) Be Some Health Benefits To Alcohol

We know, we got excited too. “Some research will support that alcohol can help lower blood pressure and lower LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) when consumed in moderation — as in no more than one drink per day for a woman and up to two drinks for a man,” says Gans. The definition of one drink, in case you forgot: 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. And beer is actually rich in B vitamins. But the golden rule of health still applies here: Too much of anything is going to be unhealthy, so, as all the commercials say, be sure to enjoy responsibly and drink in moderation.

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