America loves a good drinking trend. And of our latest collective obsessions, one that’s sunk its teeth deep into the drinks world is wellness culture.
Under this health halo lie drinkers’ desires to find beverages that won’t up their daily calorie intakes. Whether it’s Keto-friendly cocktails, athletic beers, or, worse, “clean” wine (we have thoughts), our calorie budgets are having an increasing impact on our drink choices.
Of course, the healthiest cocktail is no cocktail at all — but that doesn’t mean a healthy lifestyle is out of reach from your home bar. Some drink choices are better than others for those trying to shed or maintain their weight, or simply to fit moderate drinking into their low-cal lifestyles.
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To figure out which cocktails are best for health-conscious imbibers, VinePair talked to registered dietitians about the dos and don’ts of choosing and making low-calorie cocktails.
Does Living Healthfully Mean Refraining From Drinking?
Registered dietitian Cynthia Sass says not necessarily. “There are more options now than ever for alcoholic beverages that aren’t loaded up with sugar, excess carbohydrates, and unwanted chemicals,” says Sass. As the healthy-living trend has migrated over to the drinks world, it’s not uncommon to find cocktails and hard seltzers touting their natural or organic ingredients — and home bartenders can use fresh fruits, juices, and herbs to create their concoctions.
Maryann Walsh, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, agrees that cocktails can be a part of a healthy lifestyle, but reminds those with weight-loss or maintenance goals “that alcohol contributes calories, and to factor that into [their] calories for the day.”
The Art of Choosing Low-Cal Cocktail Ingredients
Joy Bauer, health and nutrition expert for NBC’s “Today” show and best-selling author of “Joy Bauer’s Superfood!” says that “there are always ways to trim and lighten up your favorite cocktails.”
The key for weight-conscious home bartenders is choosing fresh, low-calorie ingredients, Bauer says. She recommends making drinks with simple recipes and natural ingredients, such as Margaritas with fresh fruits, rather than with “sugary mixes and syrups.”
In a bind, Walsh suggests checking the sugar content of pre-made mixes before buying, as those can contribute significantly to calorie content. When you don’t have time to make a Marg from scratch, she recommends trying “bottled skinny Margarita, such as Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl Margarita available at most liquor and wine retailers.”
Another surprising caloric ingredient? Tonic water. Though many consumers “assume that tonic water and soda water are the same thing,” Sass explains that tonic water contains added sweeteners, making a 12-ounce can amount to 120 calories and over 30 grams of sugar.
When choosing mixers, Walsh says, pick sugar-free options like soda water, fresh citrus fruit, or diet soda. But if you don’t have time to make your drinks from scratch, she says, “there are some great mixers out there by companies like Swoon; these are made with monk fruit, which is a non-nutritive sweetener that doesn’t contribute to calories.”
Walsh also explains that extra-boozy drinks are often high in calories, as alcohol itself can be quite caloric. A “vodka Martini with 3 ounces of vodka would clock in at around 210 calories or higher,” Walsh says, while a typical Negroni contains 195 calories.
Bauer points out that “sweeter and creamier varieties” of alcohol, such as Baileys Irish Cream, schnapps, and crème de menthe, can be especially caloric.
Drink Mindfully, Not Guiltily
Counting calories doesn’t mean you can only drink vodka soda. Sass says her “go-to is a Margarita made with high-quality tequila mixed with fresh-squeezed organic lime juice, and a half a shot of orange liqueur, in a glass rimmed with pink Himalayan sea salt and garnished with fresh lime.”
Simple Bloody Marys, spritzes made with wine and sparkling water, and mixed drinks made with 100 percent fruit juice are other tasty, low-calorie options approved by these professionals.
There are some drinks that calorie-conscious drinkers should avoid, however. Sass encourages steering clear of cocktails made with dairy products, such as cream, including the White Russian and the Mudslide (though we at VinePair think these delicious drinks make for ideal treats every now and again).
Frozen drinks, like Piña Coladas, Daiquiris, Mai Tais, and Margaritas, can be “total sugar bombs,” Walsh adds. These drinks can contain up to 500 calories a pop, so she urges drinkers to “enjoy them sparingly.”
In the end, fresh is best. If you use real fruit to sweeten your frozen cocktails — such as Bauer’s healthified Piña Colada and frosé recipes on her website, which are made without any added sugar — there’s room for these drinks in a balanced diet.