‘Tis The Season ... To Add a Beer Belly?

Wonder why you pack on extra pounds during the holidays? Alcohol may be to blame

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No doubt about it—the holidays can be a fattening time. From cookie exchanges to company parties, there are countless opportunities for extra calories to creep into our lives. While indulgent desserts and heavy dinners may be partially to blame for the higher scale numbers come January, few people chalk up that extra padding to the adult beverages they enjoyed throughout the season. According to a recent report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol is one of the top contributors of empty calories in the American diet, with most of us averaging about 100 calories a day from alcohol. That's enough to lead to a pound of weight gained over one month.

Melinda Johnson
Melinda Johnson

The federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that if a person consumes alcohol, they do so in moderation—up to one standard drink a day for women, and up to two a day for men. Unfortunately, the recommendation doesn't include saving up for the weekend and having your seven to 14 allotted weekly drinks on Saturday night. Trying to abide by this recommendation is one way to keep your alcohol calories in check. A standard drink is typically considered: a 12-ounce bottle of beer (150 calories), a 5-ounce glass of wine (120 calories), or a 1.5 ounce "shot" of distilled liquor (100 calories).

Of course, we begin to add on calories as we inflate our portion sizes (no self-respecting host pours a 5-ounce glass of wine, after all), when we order "one more round," and when we add mixers to our drinks. The trick to keeping alcohol calories in check is aiming for lower-calorie choices, savoring the beverage, and planning to include low-calorie mocktail options. Here's why each of these works:

Aim for lower-calorie choices. Beer can vary in calories, from as low as 70 calories for the ultra-light versions, to 300 calories or more for the high-alcohol versions. The same concept applies to wine—in general, the higher the alcohol content, the higher the calories. This means that "sweet" wine can sometimes be lower in calories than "dry" wine. A 6-ounce glass of dry red wine with 15 percent alcohol content contains around 175 calories, compared to 120 calories for a glass of white zinfandel. Try a wine spritzer, which allows you to spread those six ounces of wine out among several drinks—2 ounces of wine with 4 ounces of club soda—with the same amount of calories as one glass of wine.

Mixed drinks' calorie content varies tremendously. A cup of spiked eggnog can deliver about 400 calories, while a 6-ounce Mudslide packs in about 550 calories. Switch these out for a cup of sangria or a mimosa (both about 130 calories).

Strive to savor the beverage. If you're concerned about overdoing the calories, your days of doing shots ought to be over. A shot of liquor delivers a fast dose of calories, leaving you with empty hands and reaching for another beverage. Instead, opt for "tall" beverages that mix the liquor with a higher volume of a low-calorie beverage, such as sparkling water or diet soda, and sip it slowly.

Plan for alternative low-calorie mocktails. Part of the allure of cocktails is that they add to the festivities, so consider adding "mocktails" to your rotation. You can swap these in for higher-calorie beverages throughout the night, or simply make them the only option. Club soda is a natural festive mixer, because it adds bubbles with no calories. Try adding it to a few ounces of cranberry juice or fresh lime juice, along with mint and a teaspoon of simple syrup (about 50 calories for either option).

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

Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.