Alcoholic Beverages on a Low-Carb Diet

Carbs in Wine, Beer, Spirits, and Liqueurs

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 (1 drink or less per day for women; two drinks or less for men) could be a good thing for our hearts (more than this is associated with certain cancers and other health problems). 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 first 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 probably because alcohol can cause 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, usually grapes or a grain. During the fermentation process, the yeasts eat up the carbohydrates, producing alcohol. Whatever sugars are left contributes to the carbohydrate in the beverage, which will vary from one to another. 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, often quite a lot (see list below).

Distilled spirits (vodka, rum, whiskey, etc.) have nothing left but the alcohol, so they have zero carbs. However, mixers 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 sweetener. Many cocktails also contain liqueurs - for example, margaritas use a orange-flavored liqueur such as Triple Sec. When you're home, here's How to Make Low-Carb Cocktails, and Recipes for 12 Low-Carb Cocktails.
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 averages only.

Carb Counts – Beer – Per 12 Ounce Serving

Regular Beer: average is about 12 grams  of carb
Light Beer: check the label –- most are 3 to 7 grams
Ale: most are 5 to 9 grams
Stout (for example, Guinness): variable, but plan on about 20 grams

More About Beer on a Low-Carb Diet

Carb Counts – Wine – per 5 Ounce Serving

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 – Liqueurs – per jigger = 1.5 fl oz

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

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