How does alcohol consumption jive with low-carb diets?
For many, a night out means good conversation, perhaps some good music and maybe even a few drinks. But with the sudden surge in popularity of low-carbohydrate weight loss plans like the South Beach diet and the Atkins diet, more people are finding themselves juggling New Year’s weight loss resolutions with the lure of penny pitcher night at local bars. “I don’t like to go out and not be drinking,” said Sam Phomsavanh, a Ball State University student struggling with balancing her active social life with the alcohol restrictions of the South Beach diet. “Everyone else will have a drink. I know I’ll be tempted, so I’ll keep temptation out of it and not even go there.” Like Phomsavanh, some low-carb dieters find themselves staying home on the weekends in an effort to remain on the weight-loss fast track. Scarce, incomplete nutrition labeling on alcohol and generalized carb-counting charts can make it difficult for Atkins and South Beach dieters to find accurate information on the carb contents of their favorite drinks. “I see commercials for low-carb beer on TV, but I don’t like beer much,” Phomsavanh said. “If I knew a drink that was low-carb I’d go out and get it.” Both the Atkins and South Beach diets restrict alcohol consumption, especially in the first few weeks, because the body burns calories from alcohol before it begins to burn fat. The Atkins diet works by forcing the body to burn fat and use proteins effectively by eliminating carbohydrates. The body usually uses carbohydrates for fuel first, but any excess is turned into fat. Without enough new carbs, the body turns to stored fat for fuel. After a few weeks on the diet both plans do allow for moderate drinking. In fact, recent studies have shown that drinking alcohol with a meal can lessen the effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels, actually helping achieve diet goals. In his bestselling book Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, the late Dr. Atkins cautioned dieters about including alcohol in their diet. “Here’s the problem with all alcoholic beverages,” Atkins said. “Alcohol, whenever taken in, is the first fuel to burn. While that’s going on, your body will not burn fat. This does not stop the weight loss, it simply postpones it.” For some, however, drinking is an important part of their weekend social routine and worth making allowances for. Yet with new dieters afraid to venture far from bottled water or low-carb specialty beers, some bars and restaurants find themselves catering to these special-needs drinkers. Even the Rathskeller, a restaurant which prides itself on authentic, often high-carb German food and a wide selection of imported beers, is doing its best to become diet-friendly by offering specialty low-carb beers and introducing dieters to some already low-carb and low-calorie German beers. The restaurant also offers a variety of diet-friendly food items. Dan McMichael, who runs the Rathskeller, says that while bar sales are suffering right now, he doesn’t blame any diet fad. “I think people will go out and enjoy themselves regardless of diets,” McMichael said. “They might be more selective in what they order, but why lose the weight if you don’t want to be out and seen?” Billy Hannan, manager of the Broad Ripple Brew Pub, doesn’t fear the low-carb diet craze either. “Sales are down a little for desserts, but we haven’t sold less beer,” Hannan said. “I think people do [the diet] for a while and then get off again. We aren’t going to lose any customers.” For new dieters, the selection of beers, wines and spirits at many bars and restaurants can be intimidating, and many charts for determining grams of carbs in food lump all alcohol into generic categories rather than differentiating by brand. The Atkins carb-counting chart lists a 12 ounce serving of beer as 13.2 carbs and 126 calories. In reality, beers vary from 2.6 to nearly 26 carbs per bottle and can have anywhere from 70 to 300 calories. The high carb beers aren’t always obvious, either. Many dieters assume they should avoid the thick, extra stout Guinness Draught. Yet it only has about 10 grams of carbs, compared to the lighter and less-intimidating Michelob Light, which has nearly 12 carbs per serving. In fact, ounce for ounce, Guinness has fewer carbs than Budweiser, Coors or Corona. Anheiser-Busch took the lead in marketing beer to dieters with the release of the low-carb — and low alcohol — Michelob Ultra. The America-based company hoped to sell a million barrels worldwide this year. They sold three times that amount, sending other beer and liquor producers flying to their PR departments hoping to cash in on the new lo-carb fad. Miller Lite, after years of declining sales, is once again challenging Bud Light and Coors Light by touting just over 3 grams of carbs in a 12 ounce can, just half a gram more than Michelob Ultra. In response, Coors is releasing a new super-premium low-carb beer called Aspen Edge, which will be available across the United States by the end of the year. Liquor makers are also rushing to publicize the facts about their own products; most spirits, including gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whisky, contain no carbs. Minneapolis-based Phillips Distilling and Diageo, makers of UV and Smirnoff vodkas, respectively, have launched advertising campaigns touting vodka as a no-carb alternative to wine or beer. Trendy, flavored malt beverages like Skyy Blue and Smirnoff Ice, while associated with vodka brands, aren’t made with vodka and should be avoided by dieters. A single 12 ounce serving of Smirnoff Ice contains 32 grams of carbs and 228 calories, roughly equivalent to a large yeast doughnut. For that many carbs you’d have to drink nearly 12 Michelob Ultras. Some consumer advocacy groups, however, want to take the power out of the hands of the alcohol manufacturers and give consumers all the facts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Consumers League are petitioning Congress to extend FDA requirements for labeling liquor to include information on alcohol content, serving sizes, calories and ingredients. These standards are not required by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which currently regulates the labeling of alcohol. This newer, diet-friendly trend in alcohol, while making it easier to drink, will not necessarily make it any healthier. As with any drinking, if not done in moderation, it can lead to health consequences like liver cancer, hepatitis, cirrhosis and other liver diseases. Another hazard of drinking while dieting is bar food. According to the Atkins carb chart, a handful of peanuts — roughly three tablespoons — has 4.6 carbs, about as many as a Coors Light. About 10 potato chips would equal a Guinness. Just 10 pretzels have as many carbs as over 18 Michelob Ultras. After just a little snacking it’s possible to do more diet damage than with a night of drinking. In the end, the fear of beer, bar food and balancing carbs won’t keep dieters like Phomsavanh away from the bars for long. Once she reaches the maintenance stage of her diet, Phomsavanh plans to resume her party lifestyle at her favorite Ball State and Broad Ripple bars. This time, however, she plans to be more careful. “I’m going to be more careful and find out what they have for low-carb drinks,” Phomsavanh said with a grin. “I just wish I had a recipe for low-carb pizza.” For a chart with carb counts of several brands of drinks and low-carb drink recipies, pick up a paper copy of NUVO.