Every diet has a Boogeyman.
The Atkins Diet Boogeyman is carbohydrates in any form. According to Atkins, carbohydrates are to be avoided or minimized regardless of their source. During the weight-loss phase, a dieter’s overall carbohydrate intake is so restricted that it effectively forbids all high-carbohydrate foods, including breads and pastas, beans, peas and fresh fruit. And, of course, alcohol. Alcohol is to be avoided during the initial phase and minimized thereafter. To be fair, Dr. Atkins animosity towards alcohol was based solely on the carbohydrate count. When Dr. Atkins looked at a pint of Guinness Stout, he saw 20 net carbs. To put that in Atkins Diet perspective, you can eat a full pound of foie gras and consume fewer carbs than you would in a single pint of Guinness.
Weight Watchers warns constantly about the danger of over eating; large portions are, without a doubt, their Boogeyman. Weight Watchers allows dieter to eat anything they want as long as they don’t eat very much of it. The problem is that the typical serving size we have come to expect is two to three times larger than the portion Weight Watchers demands. As a result, Weight Watchers spends in inordinate amount of time warning members of the danger of eating large portions. To Weight Watchers, the whole world is conspiring to keep you over-served. They would almost have you believe in the existence of a shadow organization, like the Illuminati, which will not rest until every single person on the planet shops at the Big & Tall Store.
South Beach targets sugar; they use the term “high-glycemic index foods,” but what they mean is that their Bogeyman is sugar. Some people get confused because they view starchy foods as different from sweet foods. According to South Beach, they are one and the same. For the record, we agree completely with this basic philosophy. However, South Beach’s definition of sugar includes alcohol. South Beach forbids all drinking in the first two weeks of the diet and greatly restricts drinking thereafter. The prohibition of alcohol forces us to give it a veto.
Jenny Craig’s Boogeyman is any food not frozen, packaged into a cardboard box and sold by them directly. The kindest interpretation is that by supplying dieters with nearly all of their calories, Ms. Craig is able to control their caloric intake and thus their weight loss. It is equally possible that Ms. Craig is operating in conspiracy with the packaging and microwave industries, or that she simply did the math and realized that selling people every morsel of food that passes their lips is a very profitable business model. Whatever the truth turns out to be, Jenny Craig has made it clear that her Boogeyman is any food that does not bear her logo and cannot be neatly stacked into a tower like children’s wooden blocks.
Drink Your Carbs is no exception. Our Boogeyman is Mixers.
Take The Pledge: No More Mixers.
When people first hear about Drink Your Carbs, they tend to get very excited. The idea that it is possible to diet without eliminating alcohol is so revolutionary that it can inspire a temporary insanity. This is particularly true when starting out on the diet. We’ve seen perfectly well-adjusted people happily turn away the breadbasket, swap out the side of potatoes for steamed veggies, and simultaneously undo all that good work by gulping down 500 calories of banana daiquiri.
Before you kick back and celebrate your new diet with a mudslide and/or a couple of Margaritas, there is some bad news. As a devotee to Drink Your Carbs, there are some drinks you can simply no longer drink. The even worse news is that it’s not a small list. Most of the drinks on the “Specialty Drinks” list at your local Applebee’s clone are off limits. As are most liqueurs, flavored malt beverages and sweet wines. The reason comes back to, once again, calories in and calories out.
Fact: All alcohol is NOT created equal.
Mixers can turn a 69-calorie shot of Patron Silver tequila into a 380-calorie frozen strawberry margarita.
Without mixers, the 500-calorie pina colada or 550-calorie mudslide would not be possible. You would have to drink a pint glass filled with rum to come close to those caloric numbers.
Transforming a glass of red wine into Sangria adds between 50 to 100 calories in juice and sweet brandy.
Two tablespoons of simple syrup mixed into to your drink increases your calorie intake by roughly the same amount as if you were to dump six packets of white, granulated sugar directly onto your dinner.
Note: If you research the calories in mixed drinks you are likely to find numbers to be roughly half of the numbers we cite. The reason is that most mixed drink recipes are calculated to a serving size of four to 4.5 ounces. Unless you deliberately insult the bartender, you will never be served a drink this small. Most bars deliver fruity drinks that average six to 12 ounces. Some bars use pint glasses that clock in at 16 ounces. Trader Vic’s, a West Coast Tiki Bar made famous by Warren Zevon, serves some of their fruitiest drinks in a “Tiki Bowl” which is the size of a fishbowl and likely contains more calories than a large man should consume in a day.
Pre-bottled, syrupy-sweet cocktail mixers, such as Grenadine, Rosie’s Lime and Dyed-Green Margarita mix should be avoided as a matter of course. If it has been dyed a primary color or has a pirate on the label, you probably don’t want to drink it and it certainly won’t adhere to Drink Your Carbs. Mixers that advertise themselves as “lower calories” are no better. Even small amounts of added sugars should be avoided. They may seem insignificant in a single drink, but as a habit they add up to an enormous calories load over the course of weeks and months. Ten extra calories a day translates to over 3,500 additional calories in a year. According to some experts, 3,500 calories is the magic number that will add a pound of fat to the average person’s frame. Whether or not this turns out to be true—diet advice from the PhD crowd changes hourly—it is a good idea to avoid adding calories where none are needed. It takes some time for your palate to adjust, but you will learn to enjoy savory cocktails or, better yet, your drinks straight-up.
Tonic water is less obvious, but equally problematic. A can of tonic water adds around 125 calories to your drink. A can of pre-made Bloody Mary mix rings in at around 80 calories even though it purports to be all vegetables. Both of these choices are superior to a rum and Coke, but neither is a good choice for the drinker who is trying to cut enough calories to lose weight. Remember, there is no magic formula to Drink Your Carbs. The goal is to cut calories without eliminating alcohol. Eliminating mixers is the easiest and fastest way.
As far as we are concerned, sweet wines and sweet liquors are mixers. The flavor in sweet liquor invariably comes from added sugar. Sometimes sugar is added in the form of fruit juice instead of simple syrup, but calorically these are the same thing. Whether liquor is sweetened with sucrose, glucose or fructose makes no difference. They are all sugar. Never forget that high-fructose corn syrup, as the name suggests, is very high in fructose. If fructose were better for you than other sugars, every packaged snack food would be advertised as “now with twice the high-fructose corn syrup.”
This categorization is not entirely fair to sweet wines. The sugar in sweet wine is naturally occurring. It is the product of an incomplete fermentation. Wine makers simply kill off the yeast before the fermentation is complete and the result is a wine with residual sugar. Unfortunately for dessert wines, this process also leaves them 30 percent to 50 percent higher in calories than a glass of traditional dry red or white wine. If you insist on an after dinner drink, you are far better off ordering a glass of Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, or any other dry wine off the dinner menu.
There is a new trend in upscale bars to create specialty drinks that are equal part unique and pretentious. These new drinks purport to quite literally brim with health. They are organic, natural, local, filled with anti-oxidants, vitamin enhanced, sustainably harvested, hand picked, shade grown, pre-prohibition and fair trade. Foraged herbs and rare fruits sourced from remote jungles are used to create flavors that did not exist only six months ago. Perhaps our palates are not refined enough to distinguish the subtleties, but without guidance from the “mixologist” we might never know that we were supposed to taste black pepper, persimmons or bergamot rose. These lists can be tempting. After all, when will you have another opportunity to taste a Martini made with apricot, elderflower and spicy Indonesian curry? As an adherent to Drink Your Carbs, you must learn to resist.
Specialty cocktails are almost always sweetened, even if only slightly, with simple syrup and/or other juices. It is very rare that one of these drinks will be completely without added sweeteners. The bitterness of exotic ingredients like jalapenos, muddled basil and watermelon rind can only be cut by adding sugar. In our experience, even when sugar is not listed among the ingredients, it somehow sneaks into the final blend. We recently ordered a chili and cucumber martini, after being assured that it was completely free of added sweeteners. The resulting drink tasted like Mountain Dew. There is little doubt the bartender was lying when she insisted that we were, “just tasting the natural sweetness of the cucumber.” Specialty drinks are best avoided. The only time you should venture in is if have a favorite bartender who understands your aversion to mixers and will not lie to you about ingredients, or when your favorite bar adds designated Drink Your Carbs cocktails to the Specialty Bar Menu.
Acceptable alcoholic beverages on Drink Your Carbs:
Wine: The simple rule for wine is: no residual sugar.
Dry red and white wines are both allowed and encouraged. Rosé is a good choice as well. Avoid sweet wine. Avoid dessert wine. Wine coolers are equally forbidden. As drinkers, we are as disgusted by wine coolers as vegans are by blood sausage.
Champagne is also allowed with one major caveat. Last year we received a note from a Sommelier in Chicago very nicely informing us that we knew nothing when it came to bubbly. These wines, it turns out, are often quite high in residual sugar even though they taste very dry. “There is actually only one category of Champagne,” she wrote, “that contains 0 grams of sugar: Ultra Brut, sometimes called Non-Dosage.” The best advice we can offer is: if you don’t like bone-dry bubbly, keep your consumption limited.
Sweet wine is never allowed on Drink Your Carbs. This does not mean wine can’t have fruit flavors. Varietals such as Riesling and Viognier can be so fruity as to taste sweet without containing any sugar. Even the occasional Syrah can seem sweet while technically being dry. As a rule of thumb, if the alcohol level is below 10 percent, the wine probably has residual sugar.
Beer: Beer is both allowed and encouraged.
The only caveat is that you should avoid sweet beers altogether and try to stick to lower calorie beers overall.
We wish that we could share a few easy rules-of-thumb that would allow you to easily navigate a list of beer and identify the lower calorie options. Unfortunately, as hard as we have tried, we have been unable to correlate brewery, style, color, flavor or even the alcohol content to the number of calories. A 12-ounce pour ranges from around 100 calories to over 300 calories. Fruit flavored beers are reliably at the high end of the calorie scale. Thicker, sweeter beers, such as Scotch ales and Belgian lambics also tend to pack a lot of calories. Light beers are reliably low in calories. The problem is that we have yet to find a light beer with a taste we can tolerate.
Fact: Lance Armstrong claims to prefer Michelob Ultra, but we think the steroids might still be messing with his taste buds.
Until the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decides to require nutritional labeling on beer, it will continue to be difficult to identify better beer choices for Drink Your Carbs. For now, the best option we have found is a poorly named book by Bob Skilnik, Does my Butt Look Big in the Beer? The book lists the calories, carbs and Weight Watchers points for more than 2,000 beers from around the world. Bob spent easily a hundred hours sifting through websites and emailing breweries so that we don’t have to. It is the perfect resource for beer lover on Drink Your Carbs. Order it through your local bookstore, or it is available on Amazon for $10.
Hard alcohol: Hard alcohol is allowed and encouraged.
Avoid sweet liquors, even those that claim to be “naturally sweetened.” The best rule is: if is tastes sweet don’t drink it. Clear, distilled beverages are always safe. So is tequila. [Author’s Note: By “safe” we me safe for Drink Your Carbs, not safe in any quantity.]
Avoid alcohols that have been dyed unnatural colors. We can’t think of a single example of a neon blue or fire-engine red liquor that is not sweetened.
Avoid all mixers. We cannot say it often enough. Mixers are the Boogeyman. Liqueurs are also out. As far as we are concerned, St. Germain, Hard Tea, etc., are just fancy mixers. Stay away from “diet” mixers as well. Artificial sweeteners are not allowed on Drink Your Carbs, although not for the reasons you might think.
If you want to add something to your drink, try muddled fruit, pickled vegetables and/or fresh herbs and spices. If you do use muddled fruit, use the whole fruit. Do not accept a pre-sweetened mash. The best methodology for Drink Your Carbs is to crush whole fruit at the bottom of the drink. Spooning mashed fruit from a jar just increases the juice-to-fruit ratio. You can also try floating cut fruit or fresh berries in your drink. Blueberries or strawberries bobbing up and down in a martini glass allows you to pretend that you are drinking something tropical without actually blowing your diet.
When drinking such a cocktail, try to make an effort to eat the fruit itself. The goal is not to syphon off the juice. The goal is to eat fresh fruit while enjoying your drink.
Before you get too excited, remember that Drink Your Carbs also requires exercise. If you can’t get out of bed in the morning and fully commit to your workout, it is time to dial your drinking way back.
On Drink Your Carbs, exercise serves as barometer for reasonableness. The moment we skip a workout, we either stop drinking for a short time or reduce our drinking to a trickle. The exercise requirement is not optional. Exercise is necessary for both overall health and weight loss. Equally important is the fact that required exercise turns Drink Your Carbs into self-correcting system.