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Alcohol and Health

How Many Calories Are in Alcoholic Beverages?

June 2, 2023
25 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 2, 2023
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While most people are relatively aware of the caloric content in foods, the same level of attention is seldom given to alcoholic beverages. These "invisible calories" can subtly and consistently tip the balance in the wrong direction, leading to weight gain and even high blood sugar.

We don't equate a few beers with a full meal, but calorically, they can be strikingly similar.

It’s important to understand the amount of calories in alcoholic beverages. By gaining this awareness, we can drink mindfully and protect our long-term well-being.

What Are Calories?

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The term "calories" is often thrownaround in discussions about food, weightloss, and health, but what exactly arethey? Understanding what calories are and how they function can be a key element in making informed dietary and lifestyle choices.

Calories: Scientific Explanations

At its most basic, a calorie is a unit of measurement for energy. This is the energy that our bodies extract from food and drink to perform all functions, including mundane activities like breathing and even sleeping.

Macronutrients and Their Caloric Content

Calories come from four sources: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and alcohol. Each of these macronutrients has a different caloric density:

  • Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram
  • Proteins also offer 4 calories per gram
  • Fats are more energy-dense, offering 9 calories per gram
  • Alcohol sits in the middle at 7 calories per gram

Understanding these values help us gauge the caloric content in the foods and beverages we consume, steering us towards better choices.

Calories: Quality vs. Quantity

While counting calories can give you a straightforward metric for managing your weight, it's important to note that not all calories are created equal. The quality of the calories we consume matters just as much as the quantity. For example, 100 calories from a sugary soda impacts our body differently than 100 calories from a serving of almonds. The latter offers not just energy but also essential nutrients and fiber.

How Does Our Body Use Calories?

The calories we consume are used in three main ways:

  • Basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the number of calories our body needs to maintain basic functions such as breathing, circulating blood, and regulating body temperature while at rest.
  • Physical activity. Exercise and other physical activities consume calories above and beyond our BMR. This is the most variable component of energy expenditure, as it depends on both the type and duration of the activity.
  • Thermal effect of food. Surprisingly, our body also burns calories in the process of digesting, absorbing, and metabolizing the nutrients in the food we eat.

Caloric Surplus and Deficit

Consuming more calories than we burn results in a caloric surplus, leading to weight gain as the excess energy is stored as fat. Conversely, a caloric deficit occurs when we consume fewer calories than we burn, resulting in weight loss.

Understanding what calories are and how they work can empower us to make smarter food choices, manage our weight effectively, and lead a healthier lifestyle.

How Many Calories Are in Alcoholic Drinks?

It's easy to dismiss alcoholic beverages as “liquid fun” and forget about their caloric impact. But the truth is that alcohol is packed with more calories than we might realize. As we just discussed, each gram of alcohol contains seven calories. Compare that to the four calories per gram we’ll find in proteins and carbohydrates. Only fat, with nine calories per gram, packs a bigger caloric punch.

Drinking alcohol may be a social activity, a way to unwind, or even an accompaniment to a gourmet meal. But whether it's a casual glass of wine after work or a cocktail on the weekend, these beverages can quietly add up, sabotaging our well-intended diet plans. Let's examine how many calories are in alcoholic drinks and why these calories matter more than we might think.

Calories in Wine

At first glance, the calorie content in a glass of wine or a bottle of beer may not seem particularly concerning. Seven calories per gram of alcohol may not sound like a lot, but it quickly adds up. Consider the average 125 calories in a 5-ounce serving of red wine. If we have two glasses, that's 250 calories, roughly equivalent to a small chocolate bar. These aren't just any calories. These are “empty” calories devoid of any nutritional value. In a week, that casual daily wine indulgence can contribute to an extra pound of weight gain per month if those calories aren't burned off.

Calories in Beer

Craft beers have gained immense popularity, but their intricate flavors often come loaded with extra calories. A heavy stout or a fruity IPA can clock in at more than 200-300 calories per pint. If we’re consuming a couple of these during a social gathering, we’re essentially having an extra meal. As craft beers become more sophisticated and rich in flavor, they also become more calorically dense.

Calories in Cocktails

The world of cocktails is a minefield when it comes to hidden calories. While the distilled spirits themselves contain about 64 calories per ounce, the mixers are usually the culprits that make cocktails calorie bombs. Ingredients such as syrups, fruit juices, cream, and soda can skyrocket the calorie count, making a seemingly innocent piña colada clock in at nearly 500 calories. That's as much as a full meal in some cases!

Calories in Tequila

How many calories are in a shot of tequila? A typical 1.5-ounce (44ml) shot of 80-proof (40% alcohol by volume) tequila contains approximately 96 calories.

While tequila itself isn't particularly high in calories, the way we consume it can significantly impact calorie count. If we enjoy tequila in cocktails like margaritas, which include sugary mixers and syrups, the calorie content skyrockets. A classic margarita, for instance, can contain around 300-400 calories or more, depending on the ingredients and serving size.

Calories in Gin

A 1.5-ounce (44ml) shot of 80-proof gin contains roughly 96 calories, similar to tequila.

As with other spirits, it's essential to take the mixers and garnishes into account when assessing the calorie count of gin-based drinks. Popular cocktails like gin and tonic or the classic gin martini are relatively low in calories, especially when prepared with sugar-free tonic water and minimal vermouth.

However, flavored gins and cocktails with sweet mixers can significantly increase the calorie content. For example, a gin-based cocktail with sugary syrups or fruit juices may contain 200-300 calories or more.

Calories in Whiskey

A 1.5-ounce (44ml) shot of 80-proof (40% alcohol by volume) whiskey contains approximately 96 calories, similar to tequila and gin.

Whiskey is unique in that it is typically consumed straight, on the rocks, or with a splash of water, making it one of the more calorie-conscious choices among spirits. However, when used in cocktails, such as whiskey sours or Old Fashioneds, the calorie count rises with the addition of sweeteners, fruit juices, or sugary bitters.

Calories in Vodka

How many calories are in vodka? A standard 1.5-ounce (44ml) shot of 80-proof (40% alcohol by volume) vodka contains approximately 96 calories, like the other hard liquors.

Flavored vodkas, however, often contain added sugars and artificial flavors that can significantly increase the calorie count. When opting for flavored vodka, check the label for the calorie content and take that into account when deciding how much to use.

Beyond Liquid Calories

It's not just the alcohol and mixers that contribute to the calorie count. Behavioral factors also play a role. Alcohol can lower inhibitions and self-control, making us more likely to indulge in unhealthy foods that we’d typically avoid. Add some high-calorie bar snacks or late-night fast food to our alcohol consumption, and we’re looking at a significant caloric surplus.

The Long-Term Implications

Taking into account the long-term perspective, these hidden calories become even more alarming. Consuming just a bottle of wine each week translates to around 27,000 extra calories per year. That's equivalent to devouring an extra 100 slices of pizza annually! Similarly, if we enjoy five pints of regular beer per week, we could ingest around 44,200 surplus calories in a year. In simple terms, that's an extra 220 doughnuts we didn't plan on eating!

The Science Behind Alcohol and Weight Gain

Understanding alcohol's nuanced relationship with weight gain involves delving into biochemistry, psychology, and even endocrinology. While it's easy to think of alcohol merely in terms of its caloric value, this is only the tip of the iceberg when considering its potential impact on weight.

Alcohol’s Metabolic Priority Leads to Fat Storage

When we consume alcohol, our liver recognizes it as a toxin. To protect the body, the liver prioritizes metabolizing alcohol over other macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. This diversion of metabolic resources could lead to the delayed burning of fats and sugars, causing them to be stored in the body and contributing to weight gain over time. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “fat sparing” effect of alcohol. The body spares fats from being metabolized in favor of getting rid of alcohol first.

Alcohol Increases Our Appetite

Alcohol has a fascinating, albeit somewhat paradoxical, effect on appetite. Initially, alcohol can act as an appetite stimulant. The mechanism behind this isn't entirely understood, but some research suggests that alcohol can increase the release of certain hormones that promote a sense of hunger. As a result, an evening of drinking can often lead to late-night snacking, early-morning fast-food runs, or indulgence in high-calorie comfort foods, all of which contribute to weight gain. Interestingly, the alcohol-induced munchies happen even when the calories from alcohol should technically make us feel full.

Alcohol Impacts Our Dietary Decision-Making

Moreover, alcohol has well-known effects on the prefrontal cortex, impacting judgment and lowering inhibitions. This relaxed state of mind under the effects of alcohol might lead us to make unhealthy food choices that we would typically avoid. Whether it's an extra serving of dessert or a greasy late-night snack, these poor choices add up, ultimately sabotaging our weight management efforts.

Alcohol Leads to Low Blood Sugar, Increasing Appetite

Consuming alcohol can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels. While the liver is busy metabolizing alcohol, it's less effective at regulating blood sugar. This can lead to periods of low blood sugar, which might prompt us to eat more to compensate. Foods that quickly raise blood sugar (often sugary or fatty foods) can seem particularly appealing, leading to a cycle of poor dietary choices and subsequent weight gain.

Alcohol Affects Our Weight Through Hormonal Impact

Alcohol consumption also affects various hormones related to hunger and metabolism, including insulin and leptin. These hormones play a crucial role in how our bodies store fat and regulate hunger, and imbalances can lead to weight gain. Alcohol's impact on these hormonal systems, although not fully understood, complicates its relationship with weight management further.

Alcohol’s Impact on Sleep and Recovery Leads to Weight Gain

Alcohol is known to adversely affect sleep quality. Poor sleep has been linked to weight gain and obesity through multiple pathways, including increased hunger and decreased metabolic rate. Additionally, reduced sleep quality can lead to increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can further promote weight gain.

Alcohol’s Effect on the Liver Causes Fat Storage

The liver is a critical organ for metabolism, including the metabolism of fats. Chronic alcohol consumption can lead to a range of liver diseases, starting with fatty liver or hepatic steatosis. Alcohol metabolism in the liver produces harmful by-products like acetaldehyde and free radicals, which cause inflammation and fat accumulation. A diseased liver is less efficient at metabolism, which can contribute to weight gain and other health issues over the long term.

The Best Low-Calorie Alcoholic Drinks

What are some alcoholic drinks with the least amount of calories? Here are some popular choices:

  • Light beer. A regular beer can range from 150 to 200 calories per 12-ounce serving, depending on its strength and ingredients. Light beers, however, are brewed to reduce both alcohol and calorie content. A typical light beer contains about 90-110 calories per 12-ounce serving.
  • Dry wines. Generally, a 5-ounce serving of dry white or red wine ranges from 100 to 120 calories. Sweeter wines will have more calories due to their sugar content. Opting for a sparkling wine or champagne can sometimes mean even fewer calories; some brut varieties have as few as 85 calories per serving.
  • Vodka soda. A 1.5-ounce serving of vodka (one shot) has roughly 96 calories. Combine it with soda water, which has zero calories, and you have a simple, low-calorie cocktail. Add a splash of fresh lemon or lime juice for flavor without significant caloric impact.
  • Gin and tonic. Gin, like vodka, is distilled and relatively pure, with around 97 calories per 1.5-ounce serving. However, keep an eye on the tonic; regular tonic water contains sugar, which can add extra calories.
  • Rum and diet coke. Rum, as a distilled spirit, is also in the ballpark of 96 calories for a 1.5-ounce serving. Mix it with diet coke or any zero-calorie cola, and you've got a diet-friendly cocktail. (For more examples, check out our blog: “Your Guide to Low-Calorie Cocktails”)

While enjoying alcohol in moderation can be a part of a balanced lifestyle, it's essential to be aware of our drink’s calorie content. By choosing low-calorie alcoholic drinks, we can savor the flavors we love without compromising our health and dietary goals. Always remember to drink responsibly and stay conscious of both the calorie content and the alcohol content in your beverages.

Making Healthier Choices

In addition to choosing low-calorie drinks when we imbibe, we can make several other healthy choices:

  • Eat before drinking. Consuming alcohol on an empty stomach not only gets us intoxicated faster but can also lead to poor food choices later on. Eating a balanced meal before we start drinking helps us resist those late-night, high-calorie snacks.

  • Say no to sugary mixers. Cocktail mixers such as soda, fruit juices, or pre-made cocktail syrups can contain as many calories as the alcohol itself. Stick to calorie-free mixers like seltzer, diet soda, or a splash of lime or lemon to keep the calorie count low.

  • Be mindful of portions. It's easy to lose track of how much we’re consuming, especially in social settings. Keep in mind that standard servings are often much smaller than we think: 5 ounces for wine, 12 ounces for beer, and 1.5 ounces for distilled spirits. Anything beyond these amounts not only boosts our calorie intake but also impacts how our body metabolizes other nutrients.

  • Limit frequency. The calories from alcohol can quickly add up if you're drinking frequently. Make a conscious effort to limit how often you drink. Saving alcohol for special occasions can go a long way in reducing your overall caloric intake.

  • Alternate with water. For each alcoholic drink we consume, we should also have a glass of water. This will not only keep us hydrated but also occupies our hands and mouth. As a result, we will be less likely to mindlessly consume more calories in the form of additional drinks or snacks.

  • Consider the bigger picture. Finally, if we’re serious about weight management, we should consider reducing our overall alcohol consumption. Even with the best strategies, alcohol still introduces “empty calories” into our diet and complicates our body’s metabolic and hormonal balance. The most effective way to eliminate these hidden calories and metabolic complexities is to cut down on alcohol or quit entirely. Plus, this opens up more room for nutrient-dense foods that can genuinely support our health and wellness goals.

Calories in Alcohol: The Takeaways

By making these informed choices, we can better navigate the calorie-laden landscape of alcoholic beverages. Remember: it's not just about the calories we consume but also about how those calories impact us on a cellular level. Mindful choices will allow us to stay healthy and live our best lives!

Summary FAQs

1. How many calories are typically in alcoholic drinks?

  • A 5-ounce glass of red wine has about 125 calories.
  • A 12-ounce regular beer contains around 150 calories.
  • A 1-ounce serving of distilled spirits like vodka or gin has approximately 64 calories.

2. What makes alcohol high in calories?

Each gram of alcohol contains seven calories, which is almost double the four calories per gram in proteins and carbohydrates. Only fat, with nine calories per gram, has more calories.

3. How does alcohol affect weight gain beyond calories?

When consumed, alcohol takes metabolic precedence over other nutrients because it's a toxin. This slows down the metabolism of fats and sugars, potentially leading to weight gain. Alcohol can also stimulate appetite and weaken your resolve to make healthy food choices.

4. What can I mix with spirits to lower caloric intake?

Opt for calorie-free mixers like seltzer water, diet soda, or a splash of lime or lemon. Avoid sugary sodas and fruit juices as they can dramatically increase the calorie count.

5. How much do regular drinking habits contribute to caloric intake?

A bottle of wine per week can add up to about 27,000 extra calories per year, while five pints of beer a week could amount to around 44,200 additional calories annually.

6. What strategies can I use to limit caloric intake from alcohol?

  • Choose low-calorie alcohol options.
  • Eat a balanced meal before drinking.
  • Be mindful of portion sizes.
  • Limit the frequency of your drinking.
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with water.

7. Is quitting alcohol the best way to eliminate these hidden calories?

Reducing or quitting alcohol consumption can be the most effective way to eliminate these hidden calories and avoid complex metabolic disruptions in the body. It also frees up your calorie budget for more nutrient-dense food choices.

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