alcohol count calories not carbs

Alcohol – Count the Calories, Not the Carbs


Some say it’s good, others say it’s bad – but one thing for sure, it’s high in calories and hard to avoid during the holidays.

alcohol count calories not carbs
Dmitriy Shironosov /123RF Photo

It never ceases to amaze me how advertisers steer consumers into thinking their products are better and healthier than the next one. The message that low-carb is healthy and promotes weight loss carries over to alcoholic beverages as well, with the implication that if alcohol has zero or low carbohydrates, it will help you lose weight.

However, “low-carb” is not the free pass alcohol advertisers would like us to believe. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Adding to consumer confusion is all the news about how red wine supports heart health, and more recently, the news that white wine has anti-oxidant benefits.

Although wine producers have lobbied for permission to use a “heart-healthy” label for years (without success), the low-carb and no-carb claims on alcoholic beverages are legal — as long as the labels don’t state that drinking it promotes weight loss.

So even though you may anticipate a guilt-free alcoholic beverage with your meals, justifying that it’s  fat free, has zero carbs and is only 97 calories per 1.5-oz serving – it’s not the “free pass” you hoped for.

What Makes Alcohol Calories Different?

Alcohol is both a food and a drug. It is a food because it provides calories. It is also a drug because it can alter your physical and mental state. Although alcohol is sometimes lumped in with carbohydrates, our bodies treat alcohol and carbohydrate differently.

From a pure calorie standpoint, a gram of alcohol provides the body with 7 calories per gram, whereas carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram. Only fat, at 9 calories per gram, packs a higher caloric punch than alcohol!

Weight Loss and Alcohol

Now here’s the baffling thing: although alcohol is high in calories, some studies have shown that drinking it does not directly lead to weight gain. The research suggests that our bodies use the calories from alcohol first, before burning the calories we get from carbohydrates, proteins or fats.

For example, when our body is presented with both fat and alcohol, it stores the comparatively harmless fat and rids itself of the toxic alcohol by burning it as fuel. Alcohol also appears to significantly increase metabolic rate, causing more calories to be burned rather than stored in the body as fat.

It’s confusing because there are so many variables, including our genes, not to mention what and how much we eat — and how much alcohol we drink.

The Bottom Line

Even though advertisers want you to believe that low-carb equals low calorie, and such foods and beverages will help you lose weight, that’s not the case when it comes to alcohol. It you want to count something, count the calories and keep in mind that your body may burn the calories from that beer first, before moving on to the nachos.

Copyright © Pamela Wu / 2015 Singular Communications, LLC.

Pamela WuPamela Wu, DPA, RD is a registered dietitian and a self-proclaimed foodie. She brings the science of nutrition and translates them into real everyday food. When people ask her why she chose dietetics as a profession, her reply is always, “I like to eat so I might as well learn to do it right.” In addition to her role as the manager for wellness coaching operations for “OptumHealth,” Pam frequently lectures to professional and community groups on healthy living and wellness policy.
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