June 7, 2018

Why Drinking Alcohol Can Stymie Weight-Loss Plans

By Nicole Martinez
Clinical Nutritionist Educator

Drinking alcohol can impede weight-loss efforts. Like protein, carbs and fat, alcohol also contains calories (7 calories per gram). Although liquid calories are often overlooked, they can quickly add up and lead to weight gain. The general rule when assigning calories to alcohol is as follows: 100 calories for 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of spirits (gin, rum, vodka, tequila, whiskey). This general rule, however, does not work well in many cases.


While it is true that a 12-ounce bottle of Bud Light contains about 100 calories, this is definitely not the case with all beer. Calories in beer increase as the alcohol content increases. Alcohol by volume (ABV) can range from 4 – 10 percent or more. In addition to calories from alcohol, beer also contains calories from carbohydrates. The carbs in beer come from residual sugars left over from the fermentation process.

A common misconception with beer is that the lighter the color the “lighter” the beer. This is not always true. For example, Guinness, a dark stout, is lower in calories than a pale-colored Heineken lager. That’s because the Guinness has less alcohol with an ABV of 4.2 percent, compared to 5.0 percent for Heineken. Small craft breweries are not required to post the calories in their final products, and, due to a wide range of styles, calories can range from 160 – 400+ per pint. There is a complicated formula to calculate exact calories, but an ABV/calorie chart can provide an estimate – both of these can be found by clicking here.

Other Alcohol

Calories in wine also depend on ABV. Typically white wines are lower in calories than red wines. Some higher-alcohol wines, like Syrah, can have 200 calories per 6-ounce pour. Sweet dessert wines, like port, have more calories because of the higher sugar content, as well as a high ABV – 20 percent is typical.

Restaurants with 20 or more locations must provide calorie information for foods and beverages. This can make choosing an alcoholic beverage that fits in with your weight goals a little easier. Mixed drinks can be deceptively high in calories and may even contain more than your meal. Some common chain restaurants, such as Red Lobster and the Cheesecake Factory, have cocktails containing 500 or more calories. Mixed drinks get most of their calories from sugary syrups or mixers like sodas and tonic.

Indirect Effects

Alcohol can also lead to weight gain in less direct ways. Alcohol has a disinhibiting effect, which can lead to weight gain by consumption of higher-calorie foods while drinking or eating larger portions than usual. Think of the easy-to-eat finger foods typically available at holiday parties and happy-hour spreads. Although the reasons for alcohol-induced over-eating remain unclear, current research using mice shows alcohol stimulates certain neurons that would typically only signal in cases of extreme starvation, therefore causing intense hunger.

Enjoy Alcohol Sensibly

If you do enjoy alcoholic beverages, it’s important to do so in moderation – not only for weight control but for general health as well. These tips can help minimize calories for those times you do have a drink:

  • Mix wine with calorie-free sparkling waters to create spritzers with less calories.
  • Have a small snack before you go out to help minimize nibbling while drinking and slow the absorption of alcohol.
  • Review menus ahead of time so you can make the best choice.
  • Ask for a small pour (some breweries will serve as little as 5 ounces).
  • Order a flight to share with friends.
  • Walk or bike to the establishment to help offset the extra calories.

Nicole Martinez, MHS, RD, LDN, is a Clinical Nutritionist Educator with Mission Weight Management.

To learn more about Mission Weight Management and to sign up for a free information session, call (828) 213-4100 or visit missionweight.org.