Alcohol can be a confusing topic when it comes to counting calories and carbohydrates. On a low-carb diet you want to keep your carbohydrates low. On a ketogenic diet it is even more important to track your carbs because a low amount is required to stay in ketosis.
If you are having a night out where you know you'll be consuming alcohol, you'll want to be fully informed beforehand on how alcohol will affect your ketosis. Even more so, you'll want to know what drinks you can consume worry-free.
How Alcohol Behaves in the Body
Alcohol as a Carbohydrate
When strictly speaking of alcohol in it's pure form (not mixed drinks or flavored liquors), the good news is that alcohol does not count as a carbohydrate on a ketogenic diet. It is not metabolized the same way as carbohydrates, and does not raise blood glucose levels.[i] However, alcohol still contains calories. These calories should be counted toward your total calorie allotment per day.
Alcohol and Macros
If you are doing strict macro counting on keto, you may want to know which macro to count your alcohol calories towards. Scientifically speaking, the metabolism of alcohol in the body depends on a lot of factors. There have even been some studies that show alcohol will lower blood glucose levels in some situations.[ii]
Because of the complexity of alcohol metabolism, we recommend keeping your macros on the safe side for a ketogenic diet. That means counting your alcohol calories towards either carbohydrates or protein when on keto. Definitely don't take them out of your fat. Remember, the most important thing after having a night of drinking is that you remain in ketosis - which will require a high amount of fat.
Carbohydrates in Alcoholic Drinks
The main problem with alcohol is that many alcoholic drinks contain carbohydrates that DO count toward your net carbs. These drinks may not taste sweet, but the carbs are in there. Alcoholic beverages like beer, wine and flavored spirits contain residual or added sugar that was not fermented to alcohol, and these additional sugars count toward your net carbohydrates.
If we divide types of alcohol into three major categories of liquor and spirits, beer and wine, then we can talk about the average amount of carbohydrates in each type of alcohol.
Low Carb Liquor and Spirits
Most liquor is safe to drink and very low carb. The problem comes in when you drink flavored liquor, schnapps, or combine the liquor with a sugary mixer. Stay away from schnapps and flavored liquor - some flavored liquor may be flavored with artificial, non-caloric flavorings, but it can't be guaranteed.
If you are going to drink liquor, use straight liquor with mixers like club soda or diet beverages. Club soda is simply carbonated water. Combine it with a slice of lime and it goes surprisingly great with a lot of liquors. (Don't confuse club soda with soda water - soda water has a lot of sugar). You can also mix with diet soda, but make sure to not become reliant on diet soft drinks on a daily basis. The artificial sweeteners in diet sodas can have other effects on your diet.
Low Carb Beer
Most beers contain additional carbohydrates that will count toward your net carbohydrates on the keto diet. Light beers will have fewer total calories than heavy beers, but they should not all be considered low carb. For example, Miller Lite has only 3.2 grams of net carbs per 12 oz bottle; however, Bud Light has around 8 grams of net carbs per 12 oz bottle. You can have almost 3 bottles of Miller Lite to every bottle of Bud Light on the keto diet. Then of course there's Michelob Ultra coming in at 2.8 grams net carbs per bottle.
Don't be fooled by websites telling you craft beers have on average 5 grams of net carbs. This is not a safe assumption to make when on keto. All craft beers will be made differently, and only 5 net carbs per bottle is a very risky assumption to make when Bud Light has 8 grams net carbs. Stick with the Miller Lite or Michelob Ultra when on a ketogenic diet.
Low Carb Wine
Wine has a high alcohol percentage which means it has converted a lot of sugars to alcohol leaving very few net carbs. Sometimes wine makers add sugar after fermentation however, to sweeten the wine even more. You can't count all wines as low-carb. Some wine makers list the residual sugar amount on their website; however, if you don't have time to look this up, always choose a dry wine.
Dry wines come in both red and white types. Choose a cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir or merlot for a dry red wine. For a dry white wine try chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.
You can also drink brut champagnes and be even more on the safe side. Again, as the case with wine, not all champagnes are brut and low carb. A lot of champagnes have added sugar and are high in sugar, so make sure to choose a brut.
Fruity wines or wine coolers are going to be way over the amount of net carbs you should have to stay in ketosis. Avoid these as much as possible.
Other Problems with Alcohol on a Low Carb Diet
There are a few other problems with alcohol when dieting.
- Alcohol is considered a toxin, so your body processes it like a toxin. It effects a lot of parts of the body and how they work. When you're trying to eat healthy and improve your body, alcohol should be used only sparingly.
- Alcohol causes increased release of serotonin.[iii] This lowers inhibitions so that you may consume more calories, or worse, high carb foods after drinking.
- If consumed regularly while on a ketogenic diet, alcoholic beverages may be consumed in the place of important nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, causing a shortage of important nutrients.
[i] "Impact of Alcohol on Glycemic Control and Insulin Action." Jennifer L. Steiner, Kristen T. Crowell and Charles H. Lan
[ii] "Impact of Alcohol on Glycemic Control and Insulin Action." Jennifer L. Steiner, Kristen T. Crowell and Charles H. Lan
[iii] "Beyond Hangovers understanding alcohol’s impact on your health" National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse