You can still enjoy a tipple without sabotaging your weight loss goals.
By Annie Hayes
If you’re trying to lose weight or adopt healthier habits, low-calorie alcoholic drinks make it possible to enjoy your favourite tipples without sacrificing flavour. After all, alcohol is notorious for widening the waistline – beer belly, anyone? – with a pint of lager containing as many calories as a slice of pizza.
Moderation is always best when it comes to imbibing, so low-calorie alcoholic drinks aren’t an invitation to drink more. But since the caloric content of drinks can vary so wildly between serves – a Piña Colada contains 650 calories, whereas a glass of Champagne contains just 90 – a little knowledge goes a long way towards keeping your goals on track.
Nutritionists Jenna Hope and Jamie Wright reveal how the calories in beer, wine, cocktails and spirits quickly stack up, and share tips for making low-calorie alcoholic drinks at home. Plus, we share 16 of the best recipes to try:
What is the best alcohol to drink on a diet?
If you’re on a diet, most alcoholic drinks can be lightened up. Of course, there’s a minimum threshold that you can’t drop below, due to the calorie content of alcohol. ‘Alcohol contains seven calories per gram, so a little under that of fat but certainly higher in energy density than protein or carbohydrates,’ says Wright.
The ingredients that go into spirits are fermented and then distilled, resulting in a liquid made up of pure alcohol and water (though sugar and additives are sometimes added before bottling, depending on the brand and style of spirit). In wine and beer-making, however, the ingredients are only fermented, so they retain most of their original calories as well as the additional calories from the alcohol.
When your body is burning alcohol as its main source of energy, it stores other nutrients as fat.
‘One pint of beer contains around 180 calories, one small glass of wine contains around 160 calories, and one single serve of spirit contains around 60 calories. While spirits do contain fewer calories they are often mixed with high-sugar mixers, which can add to the total calorie intake. People don’t always consume just one, and therefore two glasses of wine or beer can increase your total energy intake by up to 360 calories.’
It’s not just the calorie count that makes alcohol fattening – the way your body processes those calories plays a part, too. Unlike the proteins, fats and carbohydrates found in food and drinks, ‘alcohol can’t be stored,’ Wright continues, ‘and takes priority to be metabolised, leading to an increased tendency to store these nutrients.’
When your body is burning alcohol as its main source of energy, it stores other nutrients – glucose from carbohydrates or lipids from fats – as adipose tissue, a.k.a fat. Add an end-of-night kebab into the mix, and it’s easy to see how a night on the sauce can derail your weight loss efforts. ‘We know that alcohol can reduce inhibition whilst increasing cravings — this makes for the perfect storm of nutrient storage,’ he adds.
If you’re knocking back a cheeky few pints and a kebab every weekend, Wright says, you could end up consuming a couple of thousand calories extra habitually week after week. ‘Eventually, excess weight gain will become significant as the excess calorie-induced fat accumulation adds up,’ he says.
Low-calorie alcoholic drinks to make at home
Before you start pouring low-calorie alcoholic drinks, be sure to line your stomach – and if you’re the type of person that can’t resist the lure of fried food after a few drinks, anticipate any cravings by preparing a low-calorie, high-protein, high-fibre snack.
‘I’d recommended to plan for eating once the drinking session has ended,’ says Wright. ‘The intake of calorie-dense, highly-palatable foods that we all crave post-boozing will likely affect your body fat more than the alcohol itself.’
Here’s what you should know about making low-calorie alcoholic drinks at home:
‘Clearer spirits tend to be lower in calories than darker spirits,’ says Hope. ‘It can be easy to over-pour your drinks, so remember to use a unit measure.’ And if you’re not planning on sipping them neat, take care with mixers. ‘Lime and soda, slimline tonic, kombucha or vegetable juices are all lower-calorie, lower-sugar alternatives to sugar-sweetened mixers,’ she says.
If you enjoy making cocktails but want to keep calories to a minimum, opt for recipes that aren’t heavy on liqueurs and other high-calorie ingredients. ‘Where possible, avoid adding sugar syrup to drinks and muddle fresh fruits, fresh herbs and fresh spices to optimise flavour rather than using flavoured syrups or high-sugar mixers,’ says Hope. ‘Try using frozen fruits as ice cubes.’
A single glass of wine can contain up to 8g of sugar, depending on the wine varietal. Unfortunately, you can’t make wine without the naturally-occurring sugars in grapes – it’s integral to the fermentation process – so you’ll have to be picky with your choices. ‘Opt for dryer wines, as these are lower in sugar,’ says Hope. Skip the dessert wines, as they can contain up to 16 times more sugar than your typical glass or red or wine.
🍹 Beer and cider
There are plenty of low-calorie beers and ciders on the market, although it’s worth mentioning that many are also lower in alcohol as a result. To retain maximum flavour, look for bottles that sit somewhere between four and five per cent ABV. Anything weaker, and it may taste a little watery compared to your usual brew.
16 of the best low-calorie alcoholic drinks
If you want to keep calories to a minimum without sabotaging your healthy eating plan, you aren’t limited to one option. There are plenty of great-tasting serves to choose from, depending on your personal preferences. Whet your whistle with our pick of the best low-calorie alcoholic drinks:
1. Vodka, soda and lime
Thanks to the zero-calorie sparkling mixer, you’re only consuming calories from the vodka – around 61 in total. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime rather than syrupy cordial, and garnish with a sprig of mint or rosemary to add a burst of aroma. Smell plays a dominant role in our perception of food and drink.
2. Light Moscow Mule
Made with vodka, ginger beer and lime juice – garnished with a wedge of lime – the Moscow Mule can be made diet-friendly by swapping the regular ginger beer for a slimline version. Total calories? 80 per serving.
At 86 calories per 125ml glass, Champagne is certainly a low-calorie celebratory tipple. If your pockets don’t stretch quite deep enough to keep your fridge stocked, Prosecco is a far more reasonably-priced option, containing 87 calories for the same size serve.
4. Gin & Tonic
It’s possible to enjoy this summertime beverage as a lighter serve – just be sure to pick a slimline tonic t0 keep the count below 100 calories. You could even experiment with using a smaller serve of gin to retain the botanical flavour without the extra calories.
5. Hard seltzer
Popular in the US – and more recently, the UK – hard seltzer is a type of canned highball drink comprising carbonated water and alcohol often infused with fruit flavourings. While the calorie count varies from brand to brand, it’s typically below 125 per serve.
6. Light beer
Generally, the darker the beer, the more calories it contains – so stick to lighter options like IPA, pilsner, or other pale lagers. Skip stouts, porters, and other heavy brews. As above, look for a beer than contains somewhere between four and five per cent ABV.
Containing nothing other than vermouth and vodka (or gin, per your preference), the Martini is one of the lowest-calorie cocktails you can drink, with around 180 calories per serve. Given that it’s made up entirely of booze, it’s also extremely potent – best sipped and savoured, rather than gulped down.
8. Whisky on the rocks
At 61 calories per 25ml serve, whisky on the rocks makes the list. If you’re not a fan of neat spirits, why not top it up with soda water to turn the drink into a refreshing highball?
Frosé, AKA frozen rose, is made by blending rosé wine with ice to make a slushy-style drink. Thanks to the water content, it’s lighter than a standard glass of rosé, which usually contains 120 calories – so long as there’s no extra sugar syrup added.
10. White wine spritzer
By cutting your vino with soda water, you’ll save on calories – especially if you choose a dry white wine like pinot blanc, chardonnay or pinot grigio – and make your bottle go further. ‘Spritzers can be a great way to reduce your total calorie intake without reducing the volume you’re consuming,’ says Hope.
Fans of agave spirits should swap their sugar-laden Margarita for a Paloma, which combines Tequila, grapefruit juice, soda and lime. You could even use a grapefruit soda – instead of grapefruit juice and soda – to slash calories further.
12. Bloody Mary
Now, we have to add a caveat with this one. An elaborate Bloody Mary with bacon trimmings probably won’t keep your health goals tracking. But combining a single measure of vodka with fresh tomato juice and a glug of Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce should hit the spot while keeping calories to a minimum.
The drier the wine, the fewer calories it usually contains, so plump for Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.
13. A glass of red wine
Containing 85 calories in each 125ml glass, red wine is a solid low-calorie option. The drier the wine, the fewer calories it usually contains, so plump for Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. You’ll also enjoy a bonus hit of antioxidants, too.
14. Watermelon Mojito
Since your standard Mojito is packed with white sugar or syrup, it tends to be a high calorie serve. For a healthier take on the classic, start by crushing cubes of watermelon with fresh mint leaves in a glass. Add crushed ice and a single measure of rum, before topping with sparkling water.
15. Light Tom Collins
A traditional To Collins combines gin, lemon juice, sugar and carbonated water. For a lighter take on the serve, ditch the added sugar and swap the gin for vanilla-flavoured vodka – be sure to check the spirit is infused with botanical extracts, rather than syrup.
16. Kombucha Sour
If you’re a sucker for a Whisky Sour – that’s whisky, lemon juice and sugar – why not try making the drink with kombucha instead? It’s simple, refreshing, and the probiotics in this effervescent fermented tea are good for your gut. Just make sure to pick one without added sugar.