If you're trying to lose or maintain your weight, must you give up your favorite alcoholic drink? At first glance, it might seem so. The average American gets 400 calories a day from beverages, according to obesity researcher Barry Popkin, and some findings suggest our bodies may not get the "I'm full" signal from liquids as we do from the same number of calories in solid form. So you'd think that alcohol, with 7 calories per gram (more than carbs and protein, less than fat), would place high on the list of things to cast aside in pursuit of a leaner body.
But it's not so simple. No one is suggesting that teetotalers start drinking, but if you already do drink moderately, you may be getting some health benefits. And there may be strategies you can adopt that can fend off a beer belly (or a beer behind, depending on where your extra fat tends to land). First, you do need to acknowledge the calories. They count, says Lona Sandon, a nutritionist at the University of Texas Southwestern School of Health Professions and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Check out this calculator from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) to figure out how many calories are in your chosen poison.
Your gender may play a role in how you deal with alcohol's calories, says Kenneth Mukamal, an internist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. It appears that men who drink more have a higher overall caloric intake-that is, they don't compensate for the alcohol calories by eating less. Women who drink, however, tend to simply replace food calories with alcohol—maybe skipping their usual dessert, for example, to make up for a predinner drink. The Nurses' Health Study II (which followed only women) found that moderate drinking—up to two drinks a day—wasn't associated with weight gain. More than that, and women put on extra pounds, says Mukamal.
Yes, two drinks a day equals 14 a week, but you can't save up and have that all at once. A study published in 2005 in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that men and women who had one drink per day, three to seven days a week, had the lowest body mass indexes (BMI). People who infrequently drank the greatest quantity (think of the bachelor party binge-drinker, who has 10 drinks at once a few times a year) had the highest BMIs, says Rosalind Breslow, an epidemiologist at the NIAAA and first author of the study.
She warns, however, that studies about alcohol and weight have not all pointed in the same direction and that it's very tough to tease out cause-and-effect relationships. Smoking, for example, is associated with heavy drinking, and smokers tend to be thinner. And people who drink moderately also do other things—like eat more fruits and veggies or exercise more—that could account for their lower BMIs.
Still, there is evidence suggesting other health benefits, including cardiovascular protection, from the same moderate drinking that has been linked to lower BMIs. (That's not true across the board. People at heightened risk of breast or colon cancer should talk to their doctor about whether alcohol use is for them.) So if you do drink moderately—that means stopping at one drink a day for women, two a day for men—think simple to save on calories. That means a glass of wine, at 100 calories, rather than a 450-calorie piña colada. And be aware of your surroundings; if you're out at a restaurant (especially if you're a man) realize you may be less inhibited about eating more—and more caloric—food than is good for your waistline.
[See whether 1 big meal can be hazardous to your health.]
Corrected on 07/20/09: An earlier version of this article misspelled Lona Sandon's name.