Drinking Alcohol On a Low Carb Diet: a Good or Bad Idea?

A Nearly Full Glass of Red Wine.For anyone who has recently started a low carb diet, alcohol may be a confusing point.

Can drinking alcohol fit in with a low carb diet or should we refrain from it?

There are many different alcohol options out there, but not all of them are low carb-friendly.

Therefore, this article will first present a list of low carb alcohol options.

After this, we will look at how lower carbohydrate diets affect alcohol tolerance and the pros and cons of including alcohol in our diet.

Low Carb Alcohol Options

The table below provides a carb count for popular alcoholic drinks.

For the lowest carb options, try to stick to the top of the table. As we reach the bottom of the table, it becomes high-carb territory.

All data is sourced from Nutrition Data and the USDA Food Database.

Type of Alcohol Carb Count (per 100 g)
Brandy 0 g
Gin 0 g
Vodka 0 g
Whiskey 0 g
Absinthe 0 g
Rum 0 g
Red Wine 2.6 g
White Wine 2.6 g
Rose Wine 2.6 g
Light Beer (Bud Light) 1.6 g
Regular Beer (Bud) 3.5 g
Malibu 22 g
Bailey’s Liqueur 25 g
Jagermeister 36.7 g

As shown in the above table, the lowest carb options are distilled spirits and wine.

The carbohydrate content of wine will vary somewhat depending on the grape variety and the wine’s level of sweetness. Therefore, it is better to go with a dry red or white.

Light beer can be relatively low in carbohydrate too, but the carbs in regular beer quickly add up.

See this guide here to find out some of the best low carb beer options.

As we can see from the liqueurs at the bottom end of the table, it is better to avoid sweet drinks like cocktails, liqueurs, and sugar-infused options.

Key Point: Distilled spirits and wine are the best choices of alcohol for a low carb diet.

How Do Low Carb Diets Affect Alcohol Tolerance?

Picture of a Drunk Man Holding an Alcoholic Drink.Importantly, low carb diets can dramatically impact our tolerance levels to alcohol.

Many people notice that drinking has a much more significant when they are on a low-carb diet, and it becomes easier to get intoxicated by even smaller amounts of alcohol.

This tolerance tends to be unusually low on very low carb diets such as keto.

No real studies have looked at exactly why this is, so we can only speculate on the cause. Of course, there are many theories, but it is better not to state theory as fact.

Do Carbs Increase Alcohol Tolerance?

Carbs are good at soaking things up, and a stomach full of carbohydrate may serve as a buffer to slow the digestion of alcohol.

Science supports this idea too; one study featuring 51 volunteers found that a high-carbohydrate meal (85% of energy) significantly reduces blood alcohol level compared to a high-protein (94% of energy) meal (1).

That said, research demonstrates that carbohydrate and fat equally reduce the absorption of alcohol, so this may not be the reason (2).

One other possibility is the total amount of food.

Many people report that a ketogenic diet improves their levels of satiety, which may naturally result in lower food intake.

Additionally, many people adopt a low carb diet to lose weight, and these people may be purposefully eating less than the average person.

Overall, we know that alcohol tolerance often lowers, but there is no clear research explaining why.

Key Point: We can’t accurately say why, but low carb and ketogenic diets seem to lower alcohol tolerance.

Drink Carefully On a Low Carb or Keto Diet

We should always try to drink sensibly, but even more so when alcohol has more of an impact.

Alcohol can hit the body fast, so it is easy to overdo it and not realize until it is too late.

Most people know the potential pitfalls of being drunk; poor decision-making, higher risk of accidents, and being less adverse to danger.

If someone enjoys drinking and wants to have a drink or two on a low-carb diet, there are no problems with that. It is just important to do so safely.

It is also worth noting that there is a higher potential for nasty hangovers on low carb.

Next, we will look at some reasons for and against drinking on a low-carb diet.

Key Point: Low carb diets adversely affect alcohol tolerance; people tend to get drunk quicker and easier.

Reasons To Support Drinking On a Low Carb Diet

There are several ways that drinking (in moderation) can have benefits for us.

1) The Social Aspect

Drinking and social occasions often go hand in hand.

As a result, staying at home to avoid a drink or two can disrupt social relationships.

There are two choices;

  • The first option is to go out with friends/family and stick to water or other non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Secondly, if not comfortable sticking with water, then it is not worth worrying about a sensible amount of alcohol. An occasional glass or two of red wine will not adversely affect a low-carb diet.

Spending time with close friends and family is enjoyable, and it has many benefits for our overall health.

In fact, studies show that people with strong social relationships enjoy better health, lower levels of inflammation, and increased longevity (3, 4).

2) Do Moderate Drinkers Live Longer?

Cartoon Showing Three Young Men Drinking Beer.

Interestingly, various studies show that moderate drinkers live longer than heavy drinkers or people who abstain from alcohol.

While this association may be tied to other confounders such as social relationships, studies that claim to account for these confounding factors also show a link to increased lifespan in moderate drinkers (5, 6).

A factor that may support this idea is that alcohol suppresses the mTOR pathway, which could theoretically slow down the aging of our cells.

Studies in this area demonstrate that moderate doses of ethanol downregulate mTOR activity (7).

For a more in-depth look at alcohol and longevity, see this article here.

3) Alcohol Can Have Some Benefits

While many of us assume alcohol can only be bad for us, it can also have some beneficial effects on our body.

The first of these is the fact that moderate alcohol consumption raises HDL levels (overly simplistically known as “good cholesterol”.)

Since moderate consumption appears to lead to higher levels of HDL, reverse cholesterol transportation may increase too (8, 9, 10).

Additionally, some types of alcohol like red and white wines contain significant amounts of polyphenols. Several studies show that these compounds can have health benefits.

In one recent randomized clinical trial, daily red wine consumption for four weeks decreased insulin resistance in 67 men at high cardiovascular risk.

This study used dealcoholized red wine to differentiate the effects of the polyphenol content of red wine from alcohol. (11).

Although red wine mostly gets the media coverage, even beer may have some benefits, though it is not very low-carb.

Key Point: Sensible and moderate alcohol consumption can fit into a healthy lifestyle.

Reasons To Avoid Alcohol On a Low-Carb Diet

A Glass Bottle of Michelob Ultra Low-Carb Beer.

In contrast to the potential benefits of alcohol, drinking can also have detrimental effects.

1) Alcohol Can Be Addictive For Some People

Alcohol addiction is a significant social problem that is the third biggest preventable cause of death, and excessive alcohol intake is responsible for 88,000 premature deaths each year (1213).

Anyone with any dependency on alcohol should not try to drink moderately or socially and should seek support if struggling in any way.

Also, while alcohol does have some potential benefits, these are not big enough reasons to start drinking.

2) Alcohol Stalls Weight Loss Efforts

Even if certain drinks like wine and light beers are low in carbs, they still contain calories.

In fact, there are seven calories in one gram of alcohol, which is almost double the number of calories in carbohydrate and protein (14).

However, our body metabolizes calories from alcohol in a different manner to regular food calories.

Firstly, we do not store the calories from alcohol as we do with other foods, so alcohol calories do not “matter” in the traditional sense.

That said, when we do drink alcohol, our body prioritizes its metabolization above all else since alcohol is a toxin (15).

As a result, our body shifts away from burning food or body fat until it eliminates alcohol.

Anyone experiencing a stall in weight loss may, therefore, want to restrict their drinking (or limit alcohol consumption to 1-2 drinks per week).

3. Liver Problems

Alcohol is toxic to our liver.

While our liver is well-equipped to deal with low to moderate amounts of alcohol, it can be overwhelmed by excessive drinking.

Heavy drinkers often develop inflammation of the liver, which can eventually lead to a potentially fatal condition called alcoholic liver disease (16).

For these reasons, it is important to drink in moderation.

Also, it goes without saying that anyone with liver problems should refrain from drinking.

4. Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is a common health and social problem.

Perhaps surprisingly, binge drinking affects 1 in 6 US adults, with 17.1% of adults engaging in binge drinking at least once a month (17).

Interestingly, those earning more than $75,000 per year have the highest prevalence of binge drinking (20.2%.) This stat clearly shows that binge drinking is not an issue that depends on social class or poverty, and it affects all people.

Binge drinking is separate from alcohol addiction, and most people who binge drink do not have an addiction.

However, excessive amounts of alcohol still increase the risk of mortality both short and long-term, and binge drinking increases the risk for injuries and health problems such as liver disease and cancer (18).

For these reasons, people with a tendency to drink excessively may want to avoid alcohol or seek support for developing better self-control.

Key Point: Alcohol can slow and stall weight loss in a dose-dependent manner. It can also be addictive, and excessive drinking is a major cause of liver disease.

The Best Low Carb Drinks To Order

A Glass of Sparkling White Wine.

For those who do wish to drink, here are some of the lowest carb options to order in a bar or restaurant;

  • Dry red wine
  • Dry white wine
  • Light beer
  • Rum and diet cola
  • Vodka and diet cola
  • Whiskey on the rocks

Per serving, we can count the carbs in all of these drinks on one hand.

Key Point:  Light beers, spirits and (diet) mixers, and dry wines are the best low carb-friendly drinks to order.

Final Thoughts

A moderate amount of alcohol from time to time can form part of an enjoyable social life, and it is nothing to overly worry about.

However, it is worth remembering that “less is more” when it comes to alcohol.

Regular, heavy consumption can lead to health problems.

Drinking alcohol can also be compatible with low-carb (and even keto) diets, providing that people opt for lower carb options in moderation.

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Michael Joseph, MSc

Michael works as a nutrition educator in a community setting and holds a Master's Degree in Clinical Nutrition. He believes in providing reliable and objective nutritional information to allow informed decisions.

2 thoughts on “Drinking Alcohol On a Low Carb Diet: a Good or Bad Idea?”

  1. Alcohol can be a slippery slope for nearly everyone in my opinion. Taking breaks from it, limiting to the weekend, must be a good idea.

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