I've had clients give up alcohol and drop weight like a hot potato. But then a holiday or special occasion comes along, they celebrate with a drink or two, and when alcohol creeps back into the picture, so do their lost pounds and inches.
Like any habit that impacts weight, consistency is the true key to getting — and keeping — results. So if you don't want to be a teetotaler for life, use these techniques to create a workable balance.
Know what one drink is.
Research shows that both men and women who drink in moderation are less likely than non-drinkers to be obese. But on the flip side, more than moderate drinking is linked to a greater risk of being overweight or obese. So what's moderation? For a woman, it's no more than one "standard drink" a day, or two for a man. One standard drink is either a 1.5-ounce shot of 80 proof distilled spirits, 5 ounces of wine (a little less than a yogurt container) or a 12-ounce beer (a bottle or can). Each contains about the same amount of alcohol, and will therefore raise your blood alcohol concentration fairly equally. And nope, they don't roll over, so abstaining during the week and downing 7–14 drinks over the weekend doesn't count as moderate drinking.
Tip: On a given day, 36 percent of men and 21 percent of women consume alcohol, and most don't exceed the recommended limits. If you're not sure if you're overdoing it, track your intake for a week or two. I've had clients say they think they are light drinkers, only to find out that they're well above what's considered moderate after logging their habits.
Watch your portions.
One recent study found that the average amount of wine and liquor served at restaurants was about 40 percent more than a standard drink. Also, ordering a pint of beer rather than a bottle means an extra 4 ounces. Then there are the mixed drinks the size of smoothies, like a frozen margarita in a mug, which can pack nearly 500 calories, as much or more than an entire meal should provide.
Tip: When you're out, watch the bartender make or pour your drink, try to eyeball the amount, and adjust your estimation accordingly. In other words, the one drink you paid for may actually contain one and a half, or two. At home, grab a jigger to measure liquor, and use retro (meaning smaller) wine and cocktail ware — liquid served in a smaller fuller glass really does feel like more than the same amount served in a larger emptier one.
Be carb smart.
Vodka sodas have become the customary skinny cocktail because both vodka and club soda (note: not tonic) are carb-free. Twelve ounces of ultra low-carb beer and five ounces of dry wine contain a little more, about 3–4 grams respectively, but a regular beer packs at least 10 grams, about as much as a quarter cup of brown rice. Just 4 ounces of cola contains about 12 grams, and the same amount of sour mix will cost you a whopping 25 grams of carbs.
Tip: If you're drinking with a meal or appetizer that contains carbs, scaling back in your drink isn't a bad idea. One regular beer three nights a week snowballs into over 1,500 surplus carb grams a year, or as much as 100 slices of bread.
Mind your mixers.
A 100-calorie shot of tequila turns into a 500-calorie margarita once it's swirled into a sugary mixer. But you can whip up healthier, slimmed down versions of slushy umbrella drink cocktails. Eight ounces of pina colada mixer contains 250 calories. For a third of the calories and a lot more nutrients, blend a handful of ice with one-quarter cup each 100 percent pineapple juice, coconut milk (the kind in the dairy case) and sliced banana.
Tip: Use watered down, frozen, unsweetened fruit to create a cocktail base, spruced up with antioxidant rich add-ins like fresh grated ginger. One of my favorite combos is strawberries with sprigs of fresh mint. Or if on the rocks is more up your alley, check out my Grapefruit, Green Tea and Basil Margarita recipe.
Thwart the alcohol-induced munchies.
Alcohol can act as an appetite stimulant and lower inhibitions — a double whammy recipe for overeating. (Have you ever gobbled foods while tipsy that you wouldn't touch when stone sober?) In addition to everything I've written above, this is the key reason most weight loss plans nix alcohol.
Tip: To prevent post-drinking noshing you'll regret the next day, prep some healthy, low-cal options before you go out. If they're ready to eat and right in front of you when you get home, you'll be less likely to reach for chips or cookies. Good options include pre-popped popcorn, raw veggies with hummus, or cut fresh fruit.
Curb your intake.
If you think you're knocking back too many drinks each week, mix things up. Plan social activities that don't revolve around drinking, seek out Meet Up groups that are specifically alcohol-free, or volunteer to be designated driver and sip a club soda with lime while out with friends.
Tip: If you'd rather cut back than cut out alcohol, order drinks that will help you take in less alcohol per volume, like a wine spritzer instead of a glass of wine.