Alcohol: Which is the better option?

Source: CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When choosing between wine, beer, spirits and cocktails, which is the healthier option? There is a common misconception that alcohol is the enemy because it is a carbohydrate which is not true. Alcoholic drinks contain carbohydrates, but alcohol in itself is not a carbohydrate. A true carbohydrate molecule is made of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. An alcohol molecule is made of just oxygen and hydrogen. However, one gram of alcohol does contain 7 calories, whereas one gram of carbohydrate will give you 4 calories.

It is difficult to label each alcoholic beverage with a standard calorie value because it depends on the alcohol content. The higher the proof of an alcohol, the higher the calories. This may be a good and a bad thing. Let me explain. If you are going to an event where it would be more comfortable to hold a drink in your hand for the sake of having a drink, go for the lowest calorie beverage. However, let’s say your goal is to actually feel a little buzz. Choosing “light” beers will require you to drink many light beers, and you’ll end up consuming more calories than you intended (and you will also feel bloated!) In this case, it may be a better idea to go for the higher calorie beer that’s stronger. Since alcoholic beverages contain little to no protein or fat, carbohydrates will be the only relevant nutrient used to compare nutritional profiles below.

Wine (serving 5 oz)

White Wine and Red Wine  – White and red wines have similar nutrition profiles. Each glass is about 120 calories and 2-4 grams of carbohydrates.

Dessert Wine – A dessert wine is a wine that is enjoyed at the end of a meal. Most dessert wines are sweet, but there are some dessert wines such as a “sherry” that are considered dry. Any wines that contain over 35 g of sugar is considered a “sweet wine”. Remember, dessert wines should be enjoyed in smaller amounts, hence they are usually served in smaller glasses at restaurants.

Sparkling Wine – Sparkling wines can surely be confusing. There are a slew of options from brut to dry to demi sec. What’s the difference? Interestingly, “dry” is considered to be sweeter than “brut”. If you want to go for the lowest sugar in sparkling wines, brut nature, extra brut, or brut will be the lowest. The dry, extra dry, and demi sec will have more sugar but even then, relative to other alcoholic drinks such as cocktails and beer, sparkling wines have a rather low sugar content (<10 g sugar) per 5 oz pour.

In this graphic below each glass is filled with actual amounts of granulates sugar (values indicated are in grams of sugar).

Source: Wine Folly

Beer (serving 12 oz)

Craft – In the past, you may have not seen nutritional facts on craft beers, but in May of 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations to include nutritional information for regular menu items, including beer.  Yay! Now we can see how many calories are in our favorite craft beers.

A single Yards American IPA is 235 calories and 15 g carbohydrates (15 g carbohydrates is equivalent to 1 slice of bread). On a single summer day, it could be easy for someone to consume 4 of these equalling 900 calories.

Light – When it comes to light beers, don’t get stressed out about comparing small carbohydrate differences from bottle to bottle. If you don’t do this food (which you consume every day), why do it with alcohol which you only enjoy occasionally? It’s a treat, so pick something that you like.

5 low calorie beers under 100 calories
Budweiser Select 55 55cal/2.40% ABV
Miller64 64 cal/2.80% ABV
Corona Premier 90cal/4.00% ABV
Kirin Light 95cal/3.20%ABV
Miller Lite 96cal/4.20% ABV

Cider – Ciders can be high in sugar as a result of the fermentation process. A single serving of Angry Orchard’s Crispin Apple Cider has 23 g of sugar (7 teaspoons of sugar).

Spirits/Liquor (serving 1.5 oz)

Liquor – The great thing about spirits like whiskey, vodka, tequila, gin, rum etc is that there are usually zero carbohydrates. The best way to enjoy these are straight or on the rocks. Instead of having a shot of vodka with cranberry and a splash of club soda (170 calories). Have it the other way. Order vodka with club soda and splash of cranberry juice (100 calories). This will save you 70 calories. Avoid tonic water. One cup (8 fl oz) of tonic water has 90 calories, 35 mg sodium, and 22 g sugar. Stick to seltzer and club soda, they are both 0 calories.

Cocktails – When ordering cocktails, you really have to be an informed consumer and know exactly what the bartender is putting in your drink. Sugar is something to look out for, whether it is simple syrup, some type of cocktail mixer or sweet liqueur. Know that you can always order your favorite cocktail without the sugar. For example, you can get an unsweetened mojito and ask for “no simple syrup”.

Liqueurs – Liqueurs and liquors are often confused because they share similar spellings. Liqueurs are actually liquors that have been sweetened. Coffee flavored liqueurs like Kahlua, fruit liqueurs like Hypnotiq, and nut flavored liqueurs like amaretto should be used conservatively.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying a glass or two of wine, light beer, or a vodka with a splash of juice.. To put it into perspective, a typical protein or granola bar is ~ 200 calories, which is equivalent to 2 glasses of wine or 2 light beers. So if you’re enjoying alcohol in moderation, just but be mindful that most people also underestimate how much they’re consuming. If you are having a glass of wine or two each night, think about how many calories you are consuming at the end of the week or even the end of a month. A standard glass of wine is 5 oz but your pour at home may be even double. A typical bottle of wine should serve you about 5 glasses. Also, remember that your body recognizes alcohol as a toxin and tries to metabolize it in the liver, but the liver can only metabolize so much alcohol at one time.