Know thy Liquor: What’s in a Drink?

by Leah Frankel, MS, RD | frankel@myhousecallmd.com

Alcoholic DrinksIt’s Friday afternoon and after a long week of work you head to the bar for happy hour and order a margarita, but did you ever stop to think about what’s really in that drink? Drinks can be filled with hidden calories, sugar and sometimes even fat. So does that mean you should cut out drinking all together? Not necessarily. With a little help you should be able to navigate your way through a bar menu and enjoy your drink as a cocktail connoisseur!

Before we understand the nutrition in our drinks it’s important to understand what constitutes a “drink”:

  • 0.5 ounce of pure alcohol

  • 12 oz of beer (5% w/v)

  • 5 oz wine

  • 1.5 oz whiskey, rum, vodka etc. (80-proof)

alcohol breakdown

So when you’re out enjoying $1 pint night, after 3 pints (16 oz x 3 = 48 oz) you’ve actually had 4 drinks. Remember that moderate drinking is defined as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, and no you can’t “save” up all your drinks for one night.  We appreciate your creative, “outside the box” thinking, however.

To better understand where the calories in your drink come from, it is essential to have some basic knowledge of where calories come from in general. In our diet there are three macronutrients that provide calories: carbohydrates, protein and fat. Both carbohydrates and protein provide 4 calories (kcal) per gram(g) (of carbohydrate or protein), but fat provides 9 calories per gram of fat. For instance if your cookie contained 10 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat it would have a total of 93 calories.

Breaking that down:  (10 g carb x 4 kcal/g carb4) + (2 g protein x 4 kcal/g protein) + (5 g fat x 9 kcal/g fat)

Pure alcohol has 7 kcal per gram, which means it provides more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates but less than fat.  However, most drinks, luckily, aren’t 100% alcohol (which would be 200 proof).

beer bellyWe know that alcohol has more calories that protein or carbs, but that’s not the only reason a few drinks can add up to a lot of calories. Mixers, whether it’s soda, juice, margarita mix or flavored liqueur, can add excess calories to a drink. It’s not uncommon to find martinis that look and sound more like desserts, consisting of creamy liqueurs and sugar-rimmed glasses. Many of these mixed drinks are also being supersized and can have up to 1,000 calories!

To play devil’s advocate, even though drinking can add inches to our waistline there are some benefits associated with moderate drinking. Moderate drinking (1 drink for women or 2 for men per day) has been linked with a reduced risk of heart disease and heart attacks in the elderly, if they are at increased risk for developing heart disease. Wine contains potassium which may help lower blood pressure, as well as flavonoids and resveratrol. Flavonoids have an antioxidant property which can help prevent blood clots and the formation of plaques in your arties. Resveratrol is found in grape skins and seeds and has been shown to increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol and prevent blood clots. Alcohol has been shown to improve appetite in the elderly or other populations with a poor appetite (enter drunk muchies).

Now to the magic numbers you’ve been waiting for…

Calories in common drinks (Note: Calories vary slightly depending on brand):

  • 12 oz regular beer: 150 kcalMargarita

  • 12 oz light beer: 100 kcal

  • 5 oz wine: 100 kcal

  • 12 oz wine cooler: 180 kcal

  • 1.5 oz 80 proof spirit (not including mixers): 100 kcal

  • 1.5 oz cordial or liqueur (not including mixers): 160 kcal

  • 8 oz Margarita: 336 kcal

  • 9 oz Pina Colada: 460 kcal

  • 6 oz Long Island Ice Tea: 350 kcal

Is it possible to enjoy a drink and watch your waistline?  Of course it is!

Healthy Drinking Tips:

  • Alternate your alcoholic drink with water or a low calorie non-alcoholic drink


  • Use low calorie or diet mixers whenever possible

  • Plan your alcohol consumption into your daily calorie intake like you would with food

  • Stay away from “sweet” drinks, the added flavored liqueurs are primarily sugar

  • Dilute your drink with club soda or sparkling water

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10 2009

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