Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Nutrition Debate #198: Carbohydrates and Alcoholic Beverages

I drink – moderately, I’d say. Maybe 2 or 3 times a week in Florida, where we spend the winter. Probably less “at home” since I don’t drink at home unless we have company, which isn’t often, and we only go out to eat once a week or so. So, I write about it more, from a nutritional standpoint, when we are in Florida. My point: I am not a bibulous imbiber.

The subject of alcohol, in terms of alcoholic beverages, doesn’t get much notice in nutritional circles either. The reason is that most alcoholic beverages have very little or no nutritional value. Remember that the three “macronutrients” are fat, protein and carbohydrates. No mention of alcohol because it is not a “nutrient,” but alcohol does contain calories, about 7 calories/gram, actually. Fat, you recall, has about 9kcal/g, and protein and carbohydrate are about 4kcal/g each.

Among alcoholic beverages, only spirits are true alcohol, ethyl alcohol, actually. Spirits include gin, vodka, tequila, rye, scotch, bourbon, rum, etc. They are all ethyl alcohol, and they are all 7kcal/g. The “fortified” spirits, such port, cognac, and the sweetened liqueurs and specialty bottles like Triple Sec, have lots of added sugars. In addition, almost all popular drinks are made with mixers containing sugar or sugar syrup that the bartender mixes and shakes.

Even vermouth is not just ethyl alcohol. It’s “wine,” but whereas wine is generally 9 to 14% ABV (alcohol), vermouth is 16 to 18%. Careful though: Although dry vermouth is rarely more than 4% sugar, red vermouth is made by adding sugar syrup (and caramel color) and can be 10-15% sugar. Accordingly, I don’t use much vermouth in my Perfect Rob Roy.

Wine and beer are basically combinations of ethyl alcohol and carbohydrate. In The Nutrition Debate #2, here, I wrote:

The 97 calories in a 1½ ounce jigger of spirits (vodka, gin, scotch, etc.) are 100% ethyl alcohol. These are indeed “empty calories,” whereas the 119 calories in a 5 oz. glass of white wine are about 90% alcohol and 10% carbs (red wine: 122c./ 88%/12%). The 146 calories in a 12 ounce regular Budweiser are 67% alcohol, 29% carbs and 4% protein, while the 96 calories in a 12 ounce Michelob Ultra are 85% alcohol, 11% carbs and 3% protein. So drink beer and wine, for energy!”

Of course, nobody drinks a 5oz glass of wine. Most pours are 6 or 7 or even 8oz (if it’s a cheap pour), and who has just one? The same goes for beer (which I’ve given up this winter – more on that later). And strong drink (spirits) can be limited to one if it’s a good pour, but in some establishments you have to drink 2 in order for it to have the effect of one “good” one. So, the calories add can add up fast. And it’s pretty common to snack on something while you imbibe, so it’s very easy to get in trouble, calorie wise, if that is something that concerns you. Personally, I guide myself to have one good drink or two glasses of wine with a restaurant meal. Of course, there have been exceptions…

As a reminder, though, you (I) pay a price every time we (I) have a drink. A “good” Perfect Rob Roy, such as I make at home, is a full 400 calories (325 kcal in the scotch and 75 in the vermouths). That’s a meal for me – a meal without any nutrition! And about 5 carbohydrate grams (almost all in the sweet vermouth)! Maybe I’ll have to switch back to Dry Rob Roys (+/- 1 carb). Of course 2-6oz glasses of wine would be about 240 calories (dry white: 5 carbs and red: 10 carbs).

So, from a Very Low Carb perspective, there isn’t much room in the diet for alcoholic beverages, except occasionally. I guess it’s a good thing that I am not a bibulous imbiber.

PS: My favorite “drink” at home, by the way, is a big mug or two of straight diet tonic. I usually pour myself one around 5 o’clock when I sit down to watch TV. I sometimes take it with a probiotic and sometimes with a dozen or so radishes, on which I now just put a little salt. I used to add a schmear of ghee, but if I don’t need the added fat to make the dinner meal ketogenic, I’d just as soon pass. I’d rather get the calories by adding them to veggies, e.g. cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, or asparagus tossed in olive oil and roasted, or green beans tossed with butter. So long as the meat course is fatty (and small), and well seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs, I’ll be in a very happy camper, sans alcohol.
PPS: Beer is made from barley malt (grain turned to sugar). Wheat, barley and rye are the most common of the gluten grains. I have experimented a little recently with comparing how I feel in the 12 hours or so after consuming a few beers versus a few glasses of wine. I have concluded that I feel better (comparatively) after drinking wine. Maybe I have a bit of gluten sensitivity. Anyway, I’ve sworn off beer this winter. I may change my mind, poolside, this summer. We’ll see.


  1. if white wine didn't contain any carbs would it consult less in calories?

    1. I assume you meant to say "count" instead of "consult." The answer is, "Maybe, if that would be possible, which it is not." Theoretically, as an abstract question, it would be a matter of 1) what the carbs would be replace by (alcohol, for instance, contains 7 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram for carbs; and 2) if carbs were somehow removed, it would not be wine, a product of natural fermentation in which some but not all of the sugars (sucrose) are broken down to glucose and fructose and converted to ethyl alcohol. The residual sugars, that is those that are not converted to alcohol, remain as carbs. Still wines are generally 9% to 14% ABV (alcohol by volume). The remaining calories are the unfermented natural sugars (carbs).