Luther burgers, monstrous milkshakes and 4 a.m. pizza binges may seem like the quickest ways to ruin your diet, but cocktails can bust your waistline too if you’re not careful. While there are low-cal options, there are plenty of yins to these yangs. You might think that chocolate-laden dessert cocktails are the only offenders, but unhealthy drinks are lurking behind every bar.
In a 2009 study published in the journal Alcohol & Alcoholism, researchers Jennifer Tujague and William Kerr examined 750 participants as they mixed and sipped their preference of beer, wine and spirits. The study found that the average mixed drink came in at a little over 200 calories—about 65 of which come from non-alcohol ingredients—which is more than most servings of beer or wine.
While there are a lot of lessons to draw from the data, perhaps the most useful are the types of drinks to avoid if you want to stay slim. Here, Dr. Kerr, who is now the senior scientist and director of the NIAAA Alcohol Research Center, reveals the worst types of cocktails to sip if you’re on a diet.
Sugar, Cream and Liqueurs
“Sugary drinks like Piña Coladas, or drinks with cream or liqueurs in them, obviously are going to have a lot of calories,“ says Kerr. While you’d expect a lot of sugar in drinks like Chocolate Martinis, sugar is also used to fix lots of poorly made, unbalanced drinks. “When you’re balancing the strength of a drink with a lot of sugar, that’s always going to add up to a lot of calories,” he says.
To avoid sugar-laden gut bombs, Kerr recommends sticking to spirits simply mixed with soda, like a nice spritz, or a bit of water if you’re drinking whiskey. Bitter drinks are often lower in calories making them good options as well.
Sugary, calorie-laden mixers aren’t the only problem. The sheer size of some cocktails can quickly amp up the calorie count as well. Gargantuan, blended drinks served in Hurricane glasses are the biggest offenders. The secret recipes and mysterious custom mixers in tiki culture, also make it difficult for drinkers to know exactly what’t they’re consuming—though, thankfully, that culture has changed significantly with a new wave of tiki-tenders more interested in discussion than secrecy. But, Kerr points out, it’s not always the drinks you would suspect: “Even something like a Martini that doesn’t have much else in it [beyond alcohol] is going to have a lot more calories [than the standard, measured shot of a spirit].”
In light of that and in consideration of those who are driving home after cocktail hour, many modern bars now offer half-sized cocktails or smaller pours of spirits. Even tiki bars are getting in on the mini-drinks. For example, New York’s Mother of Pearl serves a Baby Zombie. Low-ABV sippers are also a great way to drink leisurely without worrying about quadruple shots lurking beneath a drink’s sweet exterior.
Lots of Cocktails Over Long Periods of Time
“Alcoholic drinks that are drunk during mealtimes have less of an impact on caloric intake than those drunk outside of mealtimes, when you might be having a lot of drinks on a Friday night,” Kerr says.
If you have multiple cocktails over the course of a night, the calories in the alcohol alone are going to add up—no matter what you’re drinking. If you do plan to have several rounds, remember that you don’t have to finish every drink, and definitely pace with water to extend the night of fun without running up your caloric tab.
At the end of the day, Kerr admits that high-calorie drinks aren’t problems in themselves. The main issue is consumer awareness. “It’s that variability that is of concern,” he says. “If drinkers are fully aware of [what they’re drinking] and planned it, it’s not that big of a deal. But they often aren’t.” So, to avoid receiving more than you bargained for, ask your bartender about what exactly is going in your drink, and when you’re mixing drinks at home be sure to measure accurately—proper proportions will make for a better drink anyway.