Alcohol contains calories so it pays to limit intake if you want to lose weight, writes Susan Edmunds.
It's common knowledge that drinking alcohol doesn't help most people's attempts to lose weight. Weight Watchers' popular points system assigns a glass of wine about two points - the same as eight pieces of sushi - and the Atkins Diet forbids any alcohol for the first two weeks.
Most people should consume about 2000 calories (8000 kilojoules) a day, or a little bit less if they have weight to lose. But Rene Schliebs, senior nutritionist at Mission Nutrition, says she sees a lot of clients who can quite easily consume two days' worth of calories just through their alcohol intake. New Zealand has the kind of drinking culture where it's expected you'll have a drink in hand, whether it's at the pub with friends or out for lunch with workmates.
She says lots of people eat well all week and then, when it comes to Friday's after-work drinks, blow it all on a few beers and some chips and peanuts. She says knowing the options, and what makes a good choice, enables people to incorporate the occasional drink into their diets and stay on track with their weight loss.
The single-biggest diet killer when it comes to alcoholic drinks is a cocktail. "Things like a pina colada or a cosmopolitan are really calorie-dense." One sneaky pina colada delivers 300 calories (1256 kilojoules) in a single hit, which is about the same as two bars of dark chocolate and would require a one-hour walk to burn off. Stay clear of sweet shots, too. Tia Maria and Drambuie pack a 90-120 calorie (377-502 kilojoule) punch.
If you are at a bar, ask for single shots of spirits, rather than the doubles usually served. Have your drinks mixed with a diet mixer, such as a vodka and diet coke, and you will consume about 63 calories (264 kilojoules) per drink, which equates to about a 13-minute walk. If a diet soft drink takes a while for your taste buds to get used to, bear in mind that a non-diet mixer makes the drink about 135 calories (565 kilojoules, about the same as a blueberry muffin) - and doubles the amount of time you have to walk to burn it off.
Try not to always go for the alcoholic option. "When it's your round," suggests Schliebs, "Just buy a soda and lime". Alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks will drastically cut your calorie intake.
If you are trying to cut calories, it's the alcohol content that makes the difference rather than the carbohydrate. Schliebs recommends always going for a low-alcohol beer over a low-carb beer. A beer with 1 per cent alcohol has about 32 calories (134 kilojoules), requiring only a six-minute walk to burn off, while a standard lager has about 120 (502 kilojoules). She says she recommends to beer-drinking men that they have some low-alcohol beers and soda water between full-strength beers to cut their overall alcohol intake.
Wine is a big pitfall of many diets. A standard pub glass of wine offers about 170 calories (711 kilojoules) - a 34-minute walk. If you are out with some friends, Schliebs recommends buying a bottle and pouring it yourselves, adding a bit of soda water to make a spritzer and cut calories.
As anyone who has had a craving for a 3am pie will know, alcohol also encourages eating. It causes a quite rapid drop in blood sugar levels, which prompts an increase in appetite. "And with alcohol in your system you are not so aware of food choices." The biggest danger zone is when it comes to drinking after work when you haven't eaten anything. Schliebs recommends eating starchy, high-protein foods before you start drinking, so you are less likely to make poor food choices.
Government guidelines recommend no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for women and 21 for men. A binge drinking session is defined as more than four units in one go for women and more than six for men.
Schliebs recommends people assess when and why they are drinking and put in stops to avoid excessive alcohol (and calorie) consumption.