Have Your Cocktail, and Drink it, too—Without Weight Gain

On a diet? There’s no need to give up your favorite cocktail, if you stick to these guidelines.

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Many of us, though not all, enjoy our cocktails. I will admit I'm a lover of a vodka (Kettle One to be exact) martini—hold the vermouth, with olives. And it never ceases to amaze me when my patients think that in order to lose weight they must forego all alcoholic beverages.

Keri Gans
Keri Gans
Yes, too much alcohol equals too many calories and weight gain, along with a long list of health risks. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, if you choose to drink alcohol, you should do so only in moderation: up to one drink a day for women, and two drinks a day for men. Moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to a possible decrease in heart disease and stroke.

Examples of one drink include:

• Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)

• Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)

• Distilled spirits (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)

How can you enjoy a cocktail and not gain weight?

1. Have a snack before you grab a drink. First and foremost, if you're going out for cocktails, do not—I repeat, do not—go out on an empty stomach. If you don't eat something first, chances are the alcohol will go straight to your head and you'll be more likely to either have more drinks or overeat. Let's be honest; alcohol can lower inhibitions, and for many of us that means overindulging in foods that we may otherwise try to limit, like bread, French fries, or pizza.

2. Make sure to eat something while drinking. Just as that pre-drink snack is important , you should also eat something while you're drinking, especially if you're at a party or event. So many of my patients feel that if they're drinking, they should forgo the food because of the calories. Guess what … that never ends well. Either they wind up at the diner or drive-thru late at night, craving greasy foods, or they wake up in the morning with a fierce hangover craving the same.

3. Choose your drink wisely. Not all cocktails are created equal when it comes to calories. Drinks made with juice, soda, or any added sugars are likely going to have more calories than those served on the rocks, with club soda or seltzer, a splash of juice, or a twist or piece of fruit. Frozen drinks, like pina coladas and strawberry daiquiris, sometimes have enough calories to count as a meal. Save the fancy drinks for a once-a-year vacation ... but don't be surprised if you come home weighing more than when you left.

4. Exercise portion control. Not sure you ever noticed, but stemware today—especially martini glasses—has gotten a lot bigger than it used to be. The bigger the glass, the bigger the pour, and the more calories you'll consume. For those really interested in watching their weight, believe it or not, I recommend a bottle of beer. You always know exactly how much you're getting and how many calories are in one 12-ounce bottle. The other tip I give to watch portions: Drink something you don't love. Many of my patients love wine; hence, they drink multiple glasses. But give them a scotch on the rocks and they will sip one all night.

5. Don't give into peer pressure. No matter how old we get, sometimes we feel like we need to go along with the gang. But honestly, folks, it should not matter anymore, especially when it comes to your health. If you're out with friends or colleagues after work at happy hour or on the weekend, stick to your guns and have only one drink. Sip club soda with lime the rest of the night and nobody but yourself will know that it isn't a gin and tonic in your hands. Bar food can be very tempting, and unfortunately it's just another vehicle for calories. Remember to stick to tip No. 1, and have a snack before you go. It really does help make the food a lot less tempting when you aren't starved.

Bottom line: Cocktails should not cause weight gain—unless you drink like a fish, choose those highest in calories, and overeat while you're drinking. As with anything health- and weight-related, moderation is key. So please, think before you order and remember to still eat plenty of fruits and veggies. Cheers!

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.