Counting Drink Calories at the Bar

We all know that when it comes to alcohol you’re “drinking your calories,” but that probably doesn’t stop you from going out. It doesn’t stop our dietitian, either. Here’s how to navigate the drink menu without guzzling too many calories.

You’re in the clear ordering a Bloody Mary at Happy Hour. Photograph by Erik Uecke

It happens to all of us: You make it out to happy hour only to look at the drink menu and wonder how you can enjoy a drink without busting your diet. “Beer or wine? Or liquor?” you ask yourself. To help you make wiser choices at those after-work happy hours or on a night out, we asked registered dietitian Katrina Seidman to take a closer look at what’s in our glass.

As a licensed dietetic nutritionist and an NCAA-certified personal trainer, Seidman is currently the lead dietitian at the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. To stay fit, she works out six days a week with a vigorous mix of cardio and weight-training classes. But aside from her impressive expertise and admirable fitness regimen, we picked her because she goes out to bars just like we do.

“I definitely go out,” she says. “It’s healthy and normal to want to go out and have drinks.” USDA guidelines for a balanced diet allow for moderate drinking: one drink per day for women and two for men. There’s even some evidence to suggest enjoying the occasional alcoholic beverage helps boost HDL—the good cholesterol, which actually helps you fight heart disease. One drink constitutes a 12-ounce beer, five ounces of wine, or one shot.

You can and should have a great time at the bar, but there are a few things to keep in mind when including alcohol in your diet. Keep in mind: The ideal drink is 150 calories or less.

Generally light beers are good place to start, since they’re typically about 100 to 120 calories. Most liquor is about the same, calorie-wise, she says. “Every shot is about one ounce and about 100 calories,” Seidman explains. The same is true for wine, both red and white, with the exception of sweet wines such as sherry.

“But it’s the mixers you have to be careful about. They’re higher in sugar, and sometimes it’s just straight sugar, as with simple syrup. With cocktails, you never know how much of everything you’re getting.” If you can, be specific with your order and ask for a “splash” of sugary ingredients instead of a full pour, or substitute diet sodas when you can.

Of course, it’s hard to think about ounces and calories when you go out, and it’s often difficult to get a bartender to honor special requests at a busy bar. Seidman says it’s okay to get a bit carried away every once in a while, so long as you don’t make a common mistake afterward.

“One night won’t kill your good diet, but it’s important to get back on track as soon as possible; don’t fall into the ‘might as well’ way of thinking,” she cautions. “If you go out Friday night and wake up on Saturday and say, ‘Oh well, I might as well have this donut and start back on Monday.’ That makes it worse.”

To guide you through that drink menu, here’s what Seidman has to say:

See Also:

Lower-Calorie Choices at Happy Hour

Happy Hour Finder

Lunch Break: What Are Healthier Options at Five Guys?

DO ORDER . . .

• Microbrews with standard calorie levels, such as Magic Hat: “Magic Hat tends to be about 150 calories, no matter which brew you pick,” Seidman says, adding that not all microbrews are created equal. Check online if you aren’t sure about your favorite label.

• Guinness (draught or black lager only): Ordering a Guinness draught, which is 4 percent alcohol as opposed to extra stout’s 6 percent, will save you about 40 calories.

• Gin and tonic (even better if you ask for diet tonic): At 128 calories and only 11 or 12 grams of sugar, you can’t go wrong with this classic. Seidman says, “It’s a simple drink and you know exactly what’s in it.”

• Mimosa: The mimosa’s small serving size and nutritional orange juice makes it a great choice. Plus, it’s mostly sparkling wine, which is already low-cal, so there’s room to have more than one flute.

• Bloody Mary: It’s one of Seidman’s favorite drinks, and with good reason. “Tomato juice counts as a vegetable and it contains lots of lycopene, an antioxidant that helps with weight loss; Tabasco, which is good for your metabolism because of capsaicin (the compound that makes it hot). “Also,” she explains, “it’s a very flavorful drink, so you’ll probably drink it slowly as opposed to chugging a beer and then having another one.”


• Robust microbrews, such as Dogfish Head’s 120-minute IPA: It’s an impressive brew—all 450 calories of it. It’s also between 15 and 20 12 percent alcohol, which is comparable to a full-sized bottle of wine.

• Long Island Iced Tea: “[It] has five different liquors in it—right there, even if the bartender is being skimpy, you’re basically having the equivalent of four or five drinks in one beverage.” It’s also about 340 calories and is the perfect start in a series of poor decisions. Though perhaps it’s a drink you’d be too ashamed to order in public anyway.

If there are any other drinks you’re curious about, Seidman recommends checking Calorie King for guidance.

So after all that advice, what does Seidman drink when she goes out? “If I’m having dinner, I love having wine, but if I go dancing I’ll stick with vodka and low-cal mixers. I like to do Coke Zero with flavored vodkas,” she says.

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