Low Carb New Year’s Alcohol Guide

As I write this, it is December 30th, 2011, and tomorrow is the biggest party night of the year. If I don’t write my annual article about alcohol today, I’ll just have to skip it till next year – and think up something else to write about. So here goes:

Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not turn to sugar in your bloodstream. However, it it is carbohydrate-derived; alcohol is what yeasts pee out after eating sugars. Doesn’t that sound yummy? Hey, it doesn’t stop me. Alcohol does behave like a carb in one important way: your body burns it preferentially. Just as eating carbohydrate shuts down fat burning, so does drinking alcohol. Or as a medical journal article I read donkey’s years ago phrased it, “Alcohol profoundly inhibits lipolysis.” Furthermore, at 7 calories per gram, nearly twice the calorie count of carbs, it can take you longer to burn through the booze. This is why alcohol, despite some genuine benefits, is always an indulgence when you’re trying to lose weight.

Because alcohol is carbohydrate-derived, there are a fair number of alcoholic beverages that contain residual carbohydrate. Beer is the worst offender; your average can of beer has in the neighborhood of 15 grams of carb, and dark beers and “red” beers can run considerably higher. Some of those red beers have sugar added, too.)

Really, the only beers that fit into a low carb diet are the lightest of light beers, those with 5 grams per 12 ounce serving or less. Miller Lite and Michelob Ultra are probably the best known of these; Mich Ultra is a teeny bit lower carb than Miller Lite, but I think Miller Lite tastes enough better to be worth the extra half-gram or so. Milwaukee’s Best Light, a big favorite with the frat boys here in town, is made by Miller brewery, has the same carb count as Miller Lite, and tastes the same to me. Since it’s cheaper, it would be my choice, but I caution you that beer snobs will make fun of you. However, since they’ll make fun of you for drinking light beer at all, I don’t see why it should make a difference. If you’re a beer snob, the best tasting beer I know of for 5 grams per bottle is Amstel Light.

Do not assume that all light beers are under 5 grams per serving. READ THE LABELS. They vary a lot.

Wines run the gamut from quite dry to quite sweet. If you only like sweet wines, you’ll do better to drink something else; sweet wines have a lot of sugar in them. We have an award winning winery in town – yes, the fine wines of Indiana – and they’re known especially for their sweet wines. Oliver’s Soft Red tastes for all the world like Welch’s Grape Juice for Grownups. Tasty, but very hard on the blood sugar. (For my pagan and Ren Faire friends, I’m sorry to tell you that most mead is also very hard on the blood sugar.)

The rule of thumb is “If it tastes sweet but isn’t artificially sweetened – or sweetened with stevia or the like – it has sugar in it.” That said, if you’re new to low carbing, your taste buds probably aren’t sensitized yet; wines that would be cloying to me won’t taste sweet to you. Best is to go to a store where they have a knowledgeable wine staff and ask “Is this dry or sweet?” (If you’re at a bar or restaurant, a good waiter or bartender should be able to tell you.) If you don’t have such a store near you, here’s a short list of wines that can be counted on to be reasonably dry:

Reasonably Dry Wines

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Bordeaux
  • Burgundy
  • Merlot
  • Shiraz
  • Chianti
  • Malbec
  • Pinot Noir
  • Pinot Grigio
  • Rhine
  • Chablis
  • Chardonnay
  • Sauvignon Blanc

All of these should have in the neighborhood of 1-3 grams of carb per 6 ounce glass.

If you’re a champagne-on-New-Years-Eve kind of person, it’s good to be aware that the driest champagne will not be labeled “dry” – indeed, dry champagne is generally pretty sweet. The driest is “extra brut.” Me, I find that champers gives me a hangover before I even catch a buzz. Give me dry red wine or a good tequila, thanks. If, like many, you prefer the trendy prosecco, go with one labeled “extra dry.”

Beware flavored wines, like Arbor Mist. One of the flavors they add is sugar.

Likewise, stay away from alcopops – wine coolers, hard lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezers, etc, etc, etc. They’re all sugary as heck. If you’re a wine cooler fan, have 4 ounces of wine in a tall glass of ice, filled with diet lemon-lime soda or club soda. If you’re fond of hard lemonade, try a shot of vodka – citron vodka would be good here – on the rocks, filled with half sugar-free lemonade, half lemon sparkling water.

(May I insert here, parenthetically, my old lady what’s-the-matter-with-kids-these-days grousing about the fact that so many young people seem to be unable to drink any alcoholic beverage that isn’t sweet? From my parent’s generation, who drank their coffee black, their whiskey straight, and their martinis made from gin and vermouth, we’ve come to a place where coffee tastes like milk shakes, and booze tastes like Kool-Aid. Just doesn’t seem very grown up to me, she said, sipping her unsweetened black tea. A little sophistication, if you please.)

(Oh, and just because you serve it in a V-shaped glass does not make a drink a “martini.” Martinis are made of gin and dry vermouth, or possibly vodka and dry vermouth. They come with either an olive or a twist of lemon. They do not involve apples, caramel, chocolate, or any other sweet flavor. This has been a public service announcement.)

Hard spirits are, for the very most part, sugar- and carb- free – vodka, bourbon, scotch, Canadian, rye, gin, rum, tequila, etc. It’s the mixers you need to be wary of, a good argument for a nice scotch-on-the-rocks, or my favorite, tequila sipped slowly from a rocks glass. Again, if it tastes sweet and isn’t “diet,” it has sugar in it. This includes soda, juice, sour mix and margarita mix, of course, but also tonic water, which may not taste sweet to you, but sure tastes sweet to me. Fresh lime juice is quite low in sugar, but the ubiquitous Rose’s Lime Juice has sugar added; ask the bar staff what they’re using.

Possible low carb mixers include

  • Diet soda. Duh.
  • Diet tonic water
  • Club Soda
  • Flavored but unsweetened sparkling water – La Croix and the like.
  • Diet cranberry juice cocktail (go easy, it’s not carb-free, just lower than the regular stuff.)
  • Crystal Light and other sugar-free drink mixes
  • Fresh lemon or lime juice
  • Baja Bob’s sugar-free margarita and daquiri mixes, but it’s a tad late to order them for tomorrow.

I can’t think of another place to put this, so I’ll insert it here: A nice substitute for a margarita is a shot or two of tequila in a tall glass of ice, with a wedge or two of lime, filled with orange sparking water. Oh, and Splenda works great in mojitos: Muddle a sprig or two of fresh mint and a squeeze of lime juice with a teaspoon or so of Splenda. Add ice and a shot of rum, and fill with club soda.

Spirits may be carb-free, but liqueurs and cordials most definitely are not. Remember the rule: If it tastes sweet, it’s sugary. Midori, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Amaretto, Kahlua, Hot Damn, Buttershots, creme de menthe, creme de cacao, etc, etc, etc, are all syrupy-sweet. Jagermeister, too, though the heavy herbal flavoring can make you miss it.

Sugar-free syrups can help here. Combine a shot each of sugar-free Irish Cream syrup, heavy cream, and Irish whiskey, and you have a passable substitute for Irish Cream. I’m betting you could use the chocolate-flavored syrup plus a little vodka in place of creme de cacao, and possibly Da Vinci Gourmet’s Watermelon Syrup plus vodka in place of Midori, though Midori is more honeydew-flavored. Still, it would give you a melon note. If you’re fond of fancy mixed drinks, this could be an interesting path to walk.

Oh, and I have a recipe for Mockahlua in 500 Low-Carb Recipes; it’s super-easy to make, and great mixed with cream. You could, instead, have coffee and cream with a shot of sugar-free vanilla syrup and a shot of vodka or rum. Similar flavors, you know?

One more thought: There was an article in our local paper today regarding warding off hangovers. This is a subject dear to my heart, since my tendency to feel it the day after seems to have increased with age. There are many supposed hangover preventives and cures out there. Here are the few I really think are worth your attention:

  • Eat a good low carb supper before partying, or be sure there are low carb party snacks at hand – deviled eggs, chicken wings, cold shrimp, nuts, cheese, breadcrumb-free meatballs, stuffed mushrooms, likewise breadcrumb-free, all are party snacks that will please low carbers and carbivores alike. The point is to buffer the absorption of alcohol, and keep your blood sugar on an even keel.
  • Speaking of blood sugar, keeping your libations low in sugar will also help ward off a hangover, again, by preventing a blood sugar crash.
  • Drink a non-alcoholic beverage for every alcoholic one you down. I learned this one the hard way. I’m a thirsty person, always have to have something to sip on, or I’m rapidly uncomfortably dry. If all there is in front of me is booze, I’ll keep sipping just because I’m thirsty, with predictable results. I’ve learned to keep a good supply of sparkling water at hand, and use that to quench my thirst. Makes a HUGE difference. On the Low Carb Cruise I buy the unlimited soda package – pay a flat fee for the week for all the soft drinks you can swallow, which otherwise run $2/can – just so I can suck down club soda while we’re all out in the bars and lounges at night. Not only does this help to moderate drinking, but it also prevents dehydration, which is a big contributor to hangovers.
  • Since dehydration does, indeed, contribute to hangovers, downing a big glass or two of water before hitting the sack is a great idea. Gulp down a couple of aspirin or ibuprofen with it, and your prospects for a good New Years Day become even brighter. Here’s another public service announcement: DO NOT TAKE TYLENOL FOR HANGOVERS. Both alcohol and acetaminophen are rough on the liver; taking the two together can cause permanent liver damage, or even liver failure.
  • Pop a multivitamin with those aspirin, to replace the water soluble vitamins you’ve washed out.
  • I don’t have to tell you not to drive drunk, right? Many towns have free public transit on New Years Eve; take advantage. Around here, the cabs run free, but will only take you home, not to another bar. It’s a huge public service, and I laud them.

That’s it! Have a fabulous time, do some dancing and freelance midnight kissing, get home safely, and I’ll see you on Sunday, when we’ll talk about resolutions.

© 2011 by Dana Carpender. Used by permission of the author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments to Dana Carpender.

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  1. Hey, you need another opinion on the metabolism of alcohol. This Ms. Carpender is biased. Alcohol is metabolized as a fat not as a carbohydrate!!! One person’s opinion does not make it true. Remember the ‘Drinking’s Man Diet’ and the original Banting’s claim of drinking several glasses of wine and still loosing weight? So let’s keep the opinion out of this subject and stay with the actual biochemistry and metabolism of alcohol.

    • Dana Carpender

      I haven’t said that alcohol is metabolized as a carbohydrate. Neither is it metabolized as a fat. It is metabolized as alcohol. The similarity to carbohydrate is simply that the body will metabolize it before it returns to burning fat.

      I remember the Drinking Man’s Diet and have read Banting. That it is possible to lose weight while consuming alcohol doesn’t contradict the fact that it alcohol can slow loss, and, for some of us, prevent it.

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