If you’re looking for the lowest calorie alcohol to drink because you’re on a diet, you’re not the only one. While drinking famously gets in the way of weight loss progress, and there’s certainly no such thing as healthy alcohol, not everyone wants or needs to give up booze for good when they’re trying to lose weight.
In fact, regardless of what it is, there’s an argument for not entirely removing the parts of your diet you enjoy when trying to lose weight. As evidence here will show, it’s more likely to lead to binging behavior further down the line than actually contribute to weight loss in any significant way.
Naturally, we should all be aware of mindful drinking and monitoring how much we drink - for so many other reasons other than weight loss. However, if you’re looking for the best low-calorie alcoholic drinks in a can or the best drink to order at a bar the next time you’re out, we’ve got you covered. This is what you need to know about losing weight and drinking, according to two nutritionists.
What alcohol is best for weight loss?
The alcohol that’s best for weight loss is going to be vodka (100 calories per 1.5oz/44ml), whisky (110 calories per 1.5oz/44ml), or tequila (110 calories per 1.5oz/44ml). Although these are high percentage spirits, they contain fewer calories than other types of alcohol, meaning you’re more likely to be able to maintain a calorie deficit.
This is when you consume fewer calories than you burn every day. “You can do this by eating less, exercising more, or changing the way you eat,” explains Dr Alona Pulde (opens in new tab), who specializes in nutrition and lifestyle medicine. “Those who have been on the dieting wagon know that the first two don’t work long-term. However, eating healthy, especially when choosing a whole foods plant-based diet, has been shown to support weight loss without restriction and deprivation.”
Drinking in moderate quantities can be part of this but it’s important to stay within the recommended guidelines for alcohol intake, for both your goals and your overall health. While there's research, including a study by the University of Iowa (opens in new tab) to suggest that no quantity of alcohol is safe for human consumption, these guidelines according to the NHS (opens in new tab)are 14 units of alcohol per week with several completely alcohol-free days a week. The CDC (opens in new tab) recommends no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men.
If you can’t achieve this then it’s worth considering whether you could be dealing with a drinking problem and if this is the case, contact your doctor for advice.
Lowest calorie alcohol options
1. Vodka soda
A standard vodka soda contains around 100 calories if you use 1.5oz (around 44ml) of 80 proof vodka (40% alcohol) and unflavored soda water, which contains 0 calories. Spice up your drink with a slice of fresh lime rather than cordial to stick within the daily recommended sugar intake as well.
For the same reasons, if you're heading out for a cocktail hour, choose a Martini made with vodka as this will be the lowest calorie option.
Whisky is another one of the lowest calorie options for weight loss, with a standard 1.5oz serving of 86 proof (43% alcohol) setting you back about 110 calories.
As with most alcoholic drinks, it’s not necessarily the alcohol that will push you out of your calorie deficit, it’s the mixer. This is definitely the case with whisky, as unless you drink it straight up, it’s mixed with sodas and drinks packed with sugar or artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners, while null in calories, have been known to actually prevent weight loss in some cases. As a study by Yale University (opens in new tab) explains, sucralose and other artifical sugar replacements will still encourage a sugar craving and can eventually lead to sugar dependence, since repeated exposure trains our flavor preferences.
So if you’re looking to cut back on the calories, spritz your whisky with soda water to dilute the intensity rather than high-sugar drinks like cola or ginger beer.
Tequila is having its moment in 2022 and when it comes to the best alcohol to drink when dieting, it’s definitely clear to see why. A normal 1.5oz serving of tequila has 110 calories per shot, making it one of the lowest on our list.
But don’t be fooled when it comes to the other health claims made about this popular spirit, as outlined in a study by the University of Guadalajara (opens in new tab). It’s true that tequila contains agavins, a natural sugar that both sweetens the drink and acts as a form of fiber, which is an important macronutrient involved in the weight loss process when it comes to feeling full. However, any benefit this fiber offers will be quickly quashed if you drink a little too much of the spirit.
Seltzers like White Claw, which is essentially flavored alcoholic sparkling water, have soared in popularity in recent years thanks to their relatively high alcohol percentage and low-calorie count. Typically served in a can, the standard seltzer contains around 95 calories per serving,
If you're looking to cut down your alcohol intake, then these are also a good option to go for as they're a popular one in the range of best non-alcoholic low-calorie drinks in a can as well, meaning you can alternate between drinking alcohol with a soft drink.
If you're more of a wine drinker, then prosecco might be a good alternative for you. With just 70 calories per 4oz/118ml glass, it's one of the lowest calorie options on our list.
Another way to reduce your calorie intake when it comes to wine is to buy low-alcohol wines as the higher percentage of alcohol there is in a drink, the higher it is in calories. Reduce the alcohol, reduce the calories.
It's one of the more expensive alcohols but if you're concerned about calorie intake, then it's one of the best. At a standard 80 calories per 4oz/118ml glass, it's along the same lines as prosecco but has a much drier taste.
However, it's best to opt for 'low dosage' champagne. Often marked out on the bottle, this is when less sugar than normal is added to the brut at the end of the bottling process. Choosing one of these champagnes could reduce your count per glass down to just 65 calories in some cases.
7. Light beer
If you like a pint at the pub, try to go for something a little lighter on the calories like a light beer. These are usually easy to identify as they're often just 'lighter' (read: low calorie) versions of traditional lagers and ales, like Bud Light or Coors Light, and are labeled as such.
Surprisingly though, some regular beers also make it onto this list. Guinness on draught, for instance, only contains 125 calories per 20oz/pint.
8. Red wine
Red wine is hardly one of the best foods for weight loss at around 120 calories per 6oz/175ml glass, it's one of the higher calorie drinks on our list. But it's still lower in calories than white or rose wine, and sticking with darker red wines will be best as a Merlot may contain as little as 88 calories per glass depending on brand.
9. Gin and slimline tonic water
Gin is another lower-calorie spirit, made in the same way as vodka but infused with botanicals. Unlike vodka, whisky or tequila though, it's rare to drink gin straight as a shot so people often mix it with tonic water - which needs to be slimline if you're after the best alcohol to drink when dieting.
A 1.5oz/44ml shot of gin comes in at 123 calories and when combined with slimline tonic water, 5 calories per 8oz/250ml on average, the drink comes in at under 130 calories per serving.
10. White wine
If it's the choice between red or white when you're looking for a drink to order at a bar, always go for red. However, white wine - depending on the type that you choose - has around 131 calories in each typical 6oz/175ml serving.
A drier white like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc is also preferable to sweeter ones like Chardonnay, which tend to have more sugar in them and so more calories.
11. Rum and Diet Coke
A Cuba Libre, otherwise known as white rum and Diet Coke with a slice of lime, is a popular cocktail you'll be able to find at most happy hours. A 7.5-ounce/225ml serving comes in at about 135 calories with 33% less sugar than a traditional, full-fat Coca Cola - so be sure to order the 'diet' version.
If a Martini doesn't take your fancy and you're in the mood for a cocktail, go for a Caipirinha. This is the national drink of Brazil, made from a type of sugarcane spirit called cachaça, sugar, and muddled with lime.
At 152 calories per serving on average, it sits on the lower end of the cocktail spectrum where calories are concerned.
13. Bloody Mary
Next up is brunch's homegrown cocktail, the Bloody Mary. This one has 167 calories per serving - depending on the ingredients - and is made from a spicy combination of vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, a dash of lime juice, a splash of Tabasco, and a sprinkle of pepper.
If you've ever sat over the table and wondered how long do hangovers last with a pounding headache, someone has probably told you to try one of these. However, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that so-called 'hair of the dog' is the worst thing to do if you're feeling the effects of the night before, as not only does additional alcohol equal additional calories, but drinking more will put more strain on your liver to break down the alcohol. A study by Purdue University (opens in new tab) also found that those who drink on a hangover are more likely to have alcohol problems further down the line.
Can you still lose weight if you drink alcohol?
Yes, you can still lose weight if you drink alcohol because weight loss depends exclusively on whether you’re in a calorie deficit. As long as you continue to consume fewer calories than you’re burning every day, you will lose weight.
Dr Pulde, who works with the healthy eating app Lifesum (opens in new tab), offers a suggestion for how to do this when drinking. “Decide ahead of time how much you plan to drink and honor that commitment,” she says. “Try having smaller glasses or bottles, and if it helps, let your wallet limit you and take only the money you will need for the evening you have planned.” This, along with following a plan like the 80/20 diet rule which is based around moderation, could help you avoid ‘accidentally’ drinking too much and pushing yourself out of that all-important deficit.
Naturally though, staying in the deficit while drinking is harder than going tee-total for a while or reducing your consumption right down.
How alcohol affects weight loss
Firstly, alcohol calories are ‘empty’, meaning they hold no nutritional value and don’t meet any relevant nutritional needs - but are still stored in our body as fat. “These add up quickly when multiple drinks are consumed in one sitting,” warns Dr Pulde, “And the impact can be quite significant as alcohol rarely replaces, but rather is added on to, our daily caloric intake.”
Not only that, she continues, but alcohol interferes with the part of the brain that controls our hunger cues. “This often leads to a decrease in willpower and an increase in poor food choices,” she says. “Not only do we choose unhealthy foods but we are also more likely to overeat those foods.”
As research from Indiana University School of Medicine (opens in new tab) confirms, drinkers often suffer from a so-called ‘aperitif effect’ where we are more likely to eat more food if we have a drink before a meal. One of the reasons behind this, the study leads concluded, was that alcohol increases activity in the brain regions that signal reward and regulate our normal feeding behaviors, including hunger signals.
Another study by the University of Sheffield (opens in new tab) also found that this is particularly the case with those already on some kind of restrictive diet as alcohol encourages disinhibition and the abandonment of restraint thanks to its effect on the brain.
And the following day, post-drinking session, you’re unlikely to be up and moving to a Pilates for weight loss class to help burn any additional calories you consumed the night before. “After a night of drinking we feel sluggish and tired and less motivated to get up and move,” Dr Pudle says, “Plus, alcohol disrupts both sleep duration and quality.”
It’s not only our brains that are affected by alcohol though. “It also causes our blood sugar to drop by interrupting the way the liver breaks down and releases glucose into the bloodstream,” Elisa Gomez de Bonilla (opens in new tab), a nutritionist with a holistic approach to wellness, explains. “As soon as blood sugar dips, we’re likely going to want to find a quick solution and this normally leads to us eating more.”
As well as this, alcohol slows down the body’s fat-burning process. “Our liver is responsible for the storage and processing of the fat, carbohydrates, and proteins we consume, breaking them down and metabolizing them into energy. But as our bodies cannot store alcohol, they must break it down before everything else, including fat,” Gomez de Bonilla, who works with Oxford Online Pharmacy (opens in new tab), says.
The result, she continues, is an interruption and this slows down the metabolic rate of the body and reduces the amount of fat that the body burns for energy.
Tips for drinking on a diet
The evidence is pretty clear here: sure, you can theoretically stay in a calorie deficit when you’re drinking regularly but in actuality, whether you’re able to stay in control when your own body is working against itself is another matter entirely.
So, if you are looking to lose weight and want to stick with a couple of drinks during the week, these are Dr Pulde’s and nutritionist Gomez de Bonilla’s tips:
- Have something to eat before you drink
- Drink water between alcoholic beverages
- Swap your regular gin and tonic (at 170 calories per serving) for a gin and slimline tonic (at 115 calories), or gin and soda with lime (100 calories)
- Take a break from drinking
- Avoid triggers like people or places that may tempt you into drinking more than you normally would
- Share your commitment with friends and family so they can help you maintain accountability
If you’re struggling to lose weight healthily or you’re concerned about your alcohol intake, speak to your doctor.
A digital health journalist with over five years experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.
She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.
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