Alcohol and the Low-Carb Myth
In the never-never land of diet hype, something new is on the scene—alcoholic beverages labeled for carbohydrate and calorie content, and many of them boasting of “low carbs” (both wine and beer) and “no carbs” (liquor). You may not have noticed the labels yet, but they are either in the marketplace already or in the offing. The labeling of beer, wine, and the hard stuff for calorie content is not a bad idea—it is useful to know the caloric content of anything you’re about to consume. But carbs?
Wine producers, on another tack, have lobbied for permission to use a “heart-healthy” label, but the agency with jurisdiction over such matters (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, part of the Treasury Department, which has long regulated the “sinful” commodities, as well as firearms) has been cool to the idea, and has required so many disclaimers that a bottle of wine would need to come with a booklet tied around its neck.
However, though the wine industry can’t simply label wine as having heart benefits, the low-carb and no-carb claims on alcoholic beverages are legal—so long as the labels don’t actually say that they help you lose weight. But, in fact, the terms are now irrevocably linked in most people’s minds (especially young people’s minds) to “weight loss,” “Atkins diet,” or even “better for you.” “Cut carbs, lose weight,” many people now think. “Low-carb” has somehow come to mean “healthy.” Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to alcohol—and no subject could be more confused and confusing than the effect of alcoholic beverages on weight.
Knowables and variables
Scientists have not been able to tie alcohol consumption consistently to weight gain. Some studies have found that drinking beer or spirits, for instance, increases waist-to-hip ratio, while some have found no relationship at all. One study showed that among female twins, body fat actually decreases with increasing alcohol consumption. Other researchers have also found that heavy drinking reduces body fat, but still others point to evidence that it raises the risk of becoming overweight or obese. There may never be a simple answer, since there are so many variables. For example:
• Genes affect how the body processes alcohol.
• What you eat is important—if you consume a lot of cheese or other high-calorie snacks while drinking, you’ll most likely gain weight.
• People who drink a lot may gain weight whether they drink beer, wine, or spirits.
• But if you drink a lot and the alcohol replaces food and other beverages, you may lose weight, as some alcoholics do.
• People in studies are prone to under-report how much they drink, rendering many findings unreliable.
The mysteries of alcohol and carbs
Still, sensibly enough, the first thing nearly all weight-loss plans require is that you stop drinking. (Not the notorious “Drinking Man’s Diet” of yore, a prehistoric ancestor of Atkins, which consisted of martinis, steak, bacon, and eggs.) This is because alcoholic beverages give you calories without nutrition, and they also may loosen your resolve to lose weight and make you eat without thinking. Beer goes with peanuts, wine with cheese. Also, alcohol itself is high in calories—7 calories per gram, almost as much as fat (9 calories per gram) and more than carbs or protein (about 4 per gram). Here are some things you should know about alcohol and nutrition—facts that run counter to what many people believe:
• Alcoholic beverages all contain calories, and most of the calories come from the alcohol. (We are speaking about straight spirits, wine, or beer—not mixed drinks made with added ingredients, which can bring calories to, well, staggering levels.)
• Alcohol is not a carbohydrate.
• Your body processes alcohol first, before fat, protein, or carbs. Thus drinking slows down the burning of fat. This could account for the weight gain seen in some studies
• Hard liquor is distilled and thus contains no carbohydrates. The current “Zero Carb” campaign for vodka and whiskey is baloney and may encourage mindless consumption. It’s like bragging that a candy bar is “cholesterol-free.”
• When grapes are made into wine, most of the fruit sugars (carbs) convert to alcohol, but a few carbs remain. A 5-ounce glass of wine typically contains 110 calories, 5 grams of carbohydrates, and about 13 grams of alcohol (which accounts for 91 of the calories). A 5-ounce glass of wine supplies roughly the same amount of alcohol and number of calories as a 12-ounce light beer or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
• Beer, too, contains carbohydrates. The new low-carb beers are not new at all, though this type of beer does indeed have fewer carbs. Low-carb beers are simply the old light beers with a new label and ad campaign. The old Miller Lite has 96 calories and 3.2 grams of carbs in 12 ounces. The “low-carb” Michelob Ultra has 96 calories and 2.6 grams of carbs. Coors Lite has 102 calories and 5 grams of carbs. The differences are tiny—hardly worth mentioning. In contrast, a regular beer has 13 grams of carbs and 150 calories.
What it all boils down to
In spite of the strong implication that “low-carb” somehow means low-calorie, and that low-carb foods in general can help you lose weight—or, indeed, that they are “health foods”—there’s no evidence this is so, and particularly not when it comes to beer, wine, and liquor. Alcoholic beverages have calories because alcohol has a lot of calories—not because of carbs. The implication that low-carb beers and wine or carb-free spirits are a boon on a weight-loss program is simply deceptive advertising.
Issue: August 2004
More: Wellness Letters
More . . .
- Arsenic and Old Rice
- Cold Supplements, from Airborne to Zinc
- Are You Ready for Flu Season?
- Chocolate on the Brain
- ORAC: Over-Rated Antioxidant Claims
- Basmati Rice, Chickpeas & Toasted Almonds
- Roasted White & Yellow Turnips
- Toasted Oatmeal Cookies with Cranberries
- Sautéed Greens: Recipe Creator
- Quinoa Pilaf with Cherries & Pecans
- Calcium in the Spotlight
- Folate: a Nutritional Chameleon
- Astaxanthin: Pretty in Pink?
- Zinc: the Cold War Isn’t Over
- Niacin for Cholesterol: an Update