Alcoholic Beverages on a Low-Carb Diet

Carbs in Wine, Beer, Spirits, and Liqueurs

Wine
A dry wine has little residual sugar, whereas a sweet wine can have quite a bit. Rob MacDougall/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Most of us imbibe an alcoholic beverage from time and time. Research is showing that unless we have a tendency towards abuse, a little — one drink or less per day for women; two drinks or less for men — may be a good thing for our hearts. But what is the best way to handle alcohol when following a low-carb way of eating?

Alcohol vs. Carbs

Although alcohol is sometimes lumped in with carbohydrates, our bodies treat alcohol and carbohydrate quite differently.

From a pure calorie standpoint, one gram of alcohol provides the body with 7 calories per gram, whereas carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram. Moreover, the body uses the calories from alcohol for energy before carbohydrate or fat.

Some of the popular low-carb diets recommend not drinking alcoholic beverages at all, at least for the first phase of the diet. This is likely because alcohol can cause your blood sugar to be erratic, depending upon the type, amount, and whether we have food in our stomachs. (Tip: Don't drink on an empty stomach.)

Where Do the Carbs Come From in Alcoholic Beverages?

Fermented beverages, by definition, start as a high-carb plant which is typically grapes or a grain. During the fermentation process, the yeasts eat up the carbohydrates and produce alcohol. Whatever sugars are left contribute to the carbohydrate in the beverage, which will vary from one to another.

For instance, a dry wine has little residual sugar, whereas a sweet wine can have quite a bit. Liqueurs such as Kahlua and Cointreau have sugar added and quite often this is a considerable amount.

Distilled spirits (vodka, rum, whiskey, etc.) have nothing left but the alcohol, so they have zero carbs.

However, the mixers you might use in a cocktail are often sugary, so watch out for this.

Just two ounces (1/4 cup) of sweet and sour mix — often used for whiskey sours, daiquiris, and margaritas — has 17 grams of carbohydrate. As an alternative, you can ask for lemon or lime juice and add your own diet-friendly sweetener. Many cocktails also contain liqueurs like the triple sec (an orange-flavored liqueur) used in margaritas.

When you're home, you can certainly make your cocktails low-carb with a few simple changes. If you need inspiration for doing this, there are plenty of low-carb cocktail recipes available

Note: There is a great deal of variability as to the amount of carbohydrate in beers and wines, as many factors will contribute to the carbohydrate of the final product. The following are only averages of what is available.

Carb Counts in Beer

These carb counts are what you might expect in the average 12-ounce serving of beer. However, it can vary from one brand to another. Be sure to read the label before choosing a beer. Many beers — especially "light" beer — will also provide carbohydrate information on their website.

In general, the darker or heavier the beer, the more carbs it will have.

  • Regular Beer: The average is about 12 grams of carb.
  • Light Beer: Check the label, though most are 3 to 7 grams.
  • Ale: The majority will have around 5 to 9 grams.
  • Stout (for example, Guinness): These can vary greatly, but plan on about 20 grams.

Carb Counts in Wine

You can use the generally accepted carb counts for each wine varietal to get an idea of what they contain. These are for one 5-ounce serving.

As a general rule, we can say that the sweeter the wine, the higher the carb count.

  • Dry Champagne: ~2.5 to 4.5 grams
  • Dry White (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay): 3 grams
  • "Off Dry" (e.g. Reisling, Chenin Blanc): 5 to 6 grams
  • Muscat: 8 grams
  • Dry Red (e.g. Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sav.): 3.5 to 4 grams
  • Zinfindel: 4.2 grams
  • Dessert Wines: 12 to 14 grams
  • Sweet Late Harvest Wine: 20 grams

Carb Counts in Liqueurs

The liqueurs we use in cocktails can hold the greatest amount of carbohydrate among all alcoholic beverages. These carb counts are based on the measure of one regular-sized jigger, which is typically 1 1/2 ounces. However, in many cocktails, the pour may be half (or even less) than this. In order to get an accurate carb count, you need to know how much is actually poured.

In addition, it's important to remember that some styles of liqueur (e.g., amaretto, creme de cacao, triple sec, etc.) are produced by various brands. Each brand may differ slightly in the amount of carbohydrate it has.

  • Amaretto: 25 grams
  • Bailey’s Irish Cream: 11 grams
  • B & B Benedictine: 8 grams
  • Campari: 12 grams
  • Coffee Liqueur (e.g. Kahlua): up to 24 grams
  • Cointreau: 15 grams
  • Creme de Cacao: 22 grams
  • Creme de Cassis: 17 grams
  • Creme de Menthe: 21 grams
  • Grand Marnier: 10 grams
  • Kirsch: 9 grams
  • Ouzo: 16 grams
  • Sambuca: 17 grams
  • Triple Sec: 16 grams

Source:

Bell S, et al. Association Between Clinically Recorded Alcohol Consumption and Initial Presentation of 12 Cardiovascular Diseases: Population Based Cohort Study Using Linked Health Records. BMJ. 2017:356. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j909.

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