‘Tis the season to make merry! Seems to me that there are more parties crammed into the month of December than all the rest of the year put together. For many of us, parties mean downing cocktail or two. So how does drinking alcohol fit into a low carb diet?
Plain alcohol – hard liquor – is carb-free. It’s the fourth class of calorie-containing substances; the other three, of course, are fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. With 7 calories per gram, alcohol has more calories than carbohydrate or protein, but fewer than fat. So alcohol is in a class of its own.
No doubt, however, that alcohol can be fattening, not only because of the calories it contains, but because it slows metabolism – to quote a medical journal article I read, “Alcohol profoundly inhibits lipolysis.” In English this means that alcohol slows fat-burning to a crawl. Like carbs, your body burns alcohol preferentially. Don’t expect to burn any fat until you’ve burned through all your alcohol calories.
This makes alcohol a luxury on any weight loss program. Still, many of us just plain like it. Keeping in mind that whatever you do to lose weight is what you must continue to do forever to keep that weight off, it’s a good idea to learn to drink in moderation without torpedoing your diet.
Too, there’s a lot of evidence that moderate drinking is good for your health. It’s clear that it raises your HDL cholesterol, while lowering LDL cholesterol, theoretically improving your ratios. I’m unconvinced of the dangers of cholesterol in general, but the HDL/LDL ratio looks more predictive than total cholesterol. Dr. William Castelli, speaking as director of the Framingham Heart Study, said, “…a non-drinker who began drinking five ounces of alcohol a week would accomplish as large a reduction of LDL cholesterol as he would by the usually suggested lipid-lowering diets.” Sounds a lot more fun than Lipitor. Safer, too.
(My favorite quote on the subject – and I wish I knew where I read this, because I’d look up the exact wording – was something like “Thirty years and billions of dollars spent on heart disease research, and the best advice we’ve come up with so far is “Have another drink.””)
If you are going to drink on your low carbohydrate diet, here are some points to keep in mind:
- The alcohol is potentially fattening enough; keep your drinks low carb.
- Red wine has gotten a lot of good press, and with reason. It’s a great source of antioxidants, along with the heart-healthy properties of the alcohol. Most dry wines are between 1 and 4 grams of carbohydrate per glass. Dry whites are low carb, too, they just don’t have the same antioxidant content. Dry reds include cabernet, merlot, pinot noir, zinfandel, and shiraz. Dry whites include chardonnay, pinot grigio, chablis, sauvignon blanc, and riesling. If you’re not sure, ask the wine guy at the liquor store, the bartender, or your waiter.
- Sipping champagne? Keep in mind that the driest is labeled “extra brut.” “Dry” champagne is actually fairly sweet – and carb-y. We won’t even discuss sweet champagne.
- A taste-test convinced me and my fellow testers that Miller Lite tastes a lot better than Michelob Ultra, and it’s only about a half a gram of carbohydrate more per serving. Miller Lite is also considerably lower carb than Bud Light. My favorite beer for 5 grams per serving or less? Amstel Light.
- On a budget? (Like anybody isn’t, these days.) That Nice Boy I Married and I are convinced that Milwaukee’s Best Light is Miller Lite in a different can – it’s made by the same company, has the same carb count, and tastes the same to us. I can’t see spending extra on the prestige label.
- Steer clear of “alko-pops” – coolers, hard lemonade, Zima, the new energy/alcohol drinks, etc. They’re all sugary. A shot of vodka in a glass of sugar-free lemonade makes a good hard lemonade. If you like it fizzy, use half lemonade, half lemon-flavored sparkling water or club soda.
- You could also, of course, put a shot of vodka in a glass of fruity diet soda.
- Hard liquor is, as mentioned, carb-free. Watch out for sugary mixers — soda, fruit juice, sour mix, even tonic water are full of sugar. Diet soda, diet tonic, club soda, sparkling water, Crystal Light, all make great low carb mixers. A wedge of lime is fine, but Rose’s Lime Juice has added sugar. A splash of “light” cranberry juice cocktail can add a nice flavor, but I sure wouldn’t go for a whole glass of the stuff.
- Don’t forget Baja Bob’s sugar free mixers. Awesome!
- Liqueurs and cordials like Kahlua, Midori, Irish Cream, Creme de Cacao, Creme de Menthe are very sugary. Remember, if it tastes sweet, and it doesn’t say “sugar free,” it has sugar in it.
- Packaged eggnog is quite sugary, but you can make your own with eggs, cream, Splenda, and a shot of liquor. Since I have chickens in my backyard, and know my eggs are super-fresh and from healthy chickens, I am unafraid to make uncooked eggnog, but you may want to cook yours – or use pasteurized eggs.
- DaVinci Gourmet makes sugar-free Irish Cream flavored syrup. A shot each of Irish Cream syrup, Irish whisky, and heavy cream makes a pretty good simulacrum of Irish Cream, with about 1 gram of carbohydrate per serving.
Here’s a recipe for you Kahlua fans. It makes a lot, but it keeps just fine. This would be a very easy gift to make!
My sister, a long time Kahlua fan, says this is addictive. And my husband demanded to know, “How did you do that?!” You can make this with decaf if caffeine bothers you.
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 3 cups Splenda
- 3 tablespoons instant coffee crystals
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 750 milliliter bottle 100 proof vodka – use the cheap stuff
In a large pitcher or measuring cup combine water, Splenda, coffee crystals, and vanilla. Stir until coffee and Splenda are completely dissolved. Pour through funnel into a 1.5 — 2 liter bottle – a clean 1.5 liter wine bottle works fine, so long as you’ve saved the cork. Pour in the whole contents of the bottle of vodka. Cork, and shake well. This makes 32 1 ½½ ounce servings — a standard “shot”. Each shot will have 2 grams of carbohydrate, no fiber, and the merest trace of protein.
I don’t have to tell you to drink your Mockahlua straight, or mix it with cream and vodka for a White Russian, or just vodka for a Black Russian. But might I also suggest a shot in a cup of coffee or sugar-free cocoa?
One last thought, offered at risk of sounding… well, as old as I am. Increasingly, alcohol is served in sweetened forms. Even the venerable martini, the sophisticated, super-grown-up cocktail of the mid-20th century, has been transformed into an array of sugary kiddie drinks, from apple-tinis to, heaven help us, choco-tinis. These are not martinis, the glass be damned. Martinis come with only two acceptable variations: Gin versus vodka, and an olive versus a twist. (The classic formula for a martini? “Hearts full of youth, hearts full of truth: Six parts gin to one part vermouth.” Thank you, Tom Lehrer.)
It seems that many members of a generation weaned on soda pop can’t bring themselves to drink anything that isn’t sweet. I hereby call for the return of adult drinking habits: Scotch and soda, the “soda” in question being club soda, not Mountain Dew. Bourbon, neat. Tequila with a little salt and lime. A proper martini, as described above. Perhaps a gin rickey – a shot of gin and a wedge of lime over ice, fill with club soda. A nice dry wine with dinner, or perhaps a snifter of brandy sipped in front of the fire.
Not a bunch of candy-sweet kiddy drinks rendered intoxicating. Drinking is for adults, after all.
Having lectured you about nutrition, I trust I don’t have to lecture you about drinking and driving. Have a great time!