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Is Alcohol OK on a Low-Carb Diet?

With all the parties of the season come a festive flood of adult beverages. Can we indulge? Yes, but with caution.

I have often seen the assertion that “alcohol turns to sugar” in the body. This is not so, but alcohol does behave like a carb in one important way: your body burns it preferentially. Just as eating carbohydrate shuts down fat burning, so does drinking alcohol. Or as a medical journal article I read donkey’s years ago phrased it, “Alcohol profoundly inhibits lipolysis.”

Too, some breath alcohol analyzers read acetone – the ketone excreted in the breath – as alcohol, just as a Ketonix breath ketone meter will mistake alcohol for acetone. This raised the question of whether those of us in nutritional ketosis would do better to call a cab to go partying, because of the risk of blowing a false positive on an alcohol test. For more information, I called my local police department, who referred me to the Indiana Department of Toxicology.

The nice man at the Indiana Department of Toxicology told me that the new generation of breath analyzers – infrared instruments called “Intox EC (Electro Chemical)/IR II” – do not register acetone, eliminating the risk that those in nutritional ketosis will blow a false positive. All police departments in Indiana, he said, are using the Intox EC/IR II. However, he cautioned, not all states have updated their breath analysis equipment. He suggested that you call your local police department non-emergency number and ask if they are using breath analyzers that react to acetone. If they are, you’re at risk of blowing a false positive if stopped. If they have updated to infrared instruments, any positive you blow will be because you’ve been having too good a time.

Another potential pitfall: Alcohol may lower inhibitions enough that you’ll eat stuff you shouldn’t. Only you know if you’re prone to this sort of behavior. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself.

Now, to the nitty-gritty about specific beverages:

* Dry wines run 1-4 grams of carb per 5 ounce glass. Dry wines include, but are not limited to:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Bordeaux
  • Burgundy
  • Merlot
  • Shiraz
  • Chianti
  • Malbec
  • Pinot Noir
  • Pinot Grigio
  • Rhine
  • Chablis
  • Chardonnay
  • Sauvignon Blanc

All of these should have in the neighborhood of 1-3 grams of carb per 6 ounce glass. Sweet wines, I am sorry to say, are off-plan.

* Oddly enough, “dry” champagne is fairly sweet. The driest champagne is “extra brut,” at about 1.5 grams per 5 ounce glass.

* If you’re a beer drinker, Michelob Ultra and Miller Lite are both low enough in carbs that you can afford one.

* Liqueurs like Kahlua and Irish Cream are sugary. For a good simulacrum of Irish Cream, mix a shot of Irish whisky, a shot of DaVinci’s Sugar Free Irish Cream Syrup, and a shot of heavy cream. Check out these low-carb drink recipes, by yours truly: Mockahlua and Mudslides.

* Alcopops – hard lemonade, “Twisted Tea,” coolers, and the like — are sugary. Hard cider is, too.

* Basic hard liquors – vodka, whiskey, gin, Scotch, tequila – are all carb-free, though of course not calorie-free. And remember, all the trendy sweetened liquors – Fireball, Jack Daniels Honey, flavored schnapps, etc, etc – are sugary. Flavored vodkas are a mixed bag. If you like them, look up your favorites online. I called Smirnoff, and learned that while most of their flavored vodkas contain sugar, the Citrus Vodka and Lime Vodka do not. (Oddly, the Lemon Vodka does.)

* Be careful about mixers. Many are sugary, including soda and juice, but also sweet-and-sour mix, margarita mix, and tonic water. At home, you can mix with diet soda, diet tonic water, flavored sparkling water, and even Crystal Lite or other sugar-free fruit-flavored beverages. At bars – or, for that matter, other people’s homes – you may well be limited to diet cola and club soda for your mixers. Rose’s Lime Juice, commonly used in bars, has added sugar. Ask for fresh lime, instead.

* Baja Bob’s puts out a full line of sugar-free mixers, including:

* Dave Asprey, the Bulletproof Executive(tm) has popularized what he calls a “NorCal Margarita” – basically vodka and club soda with a wedge of lime. I prefer tequila, and would probably add a few drops of orange-flavored liquid stevia – I’ve been known to carry this in my purse. (You could also bring liquid sucralose).

* Real martinis – gin and dry vermouth or vodka and dry vermouth, with an olive or a twist – are low carb. The multitude of sweet drinks served in vee-shaped glasses that go by names ending in “tini” – appletini, chocotini, carameltini, etc – are not. If you’re at a martini bar, drink a real martini.

* The rule of thumb is “If it tastes sweet but isn’t artificially sweetened — or sweetened with stevia or the like — it has sugar in it.”

*The nice customer service rep at Smirnoff recommended the website if you’d like more information about your favorite tipple.

One more thing:

Remember that your liver can only clear about one drink per hour. If you drink more than a couple over the space of a 3 or 4 hour party, do everyone a favor and call a cab or a ride service.

Drink – and eat – responsibly. And have fun!!

This article first appeared on on Dec. 21, 2016


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  1. Avatar

    Concerning this part of your article:
    “* Dry wines run 1-4 grams of carb per 5 ounce glass” and “* Oddly enough, “dry” champagne is fairly sweet. The driest champagne is “extra brut,” at about 1.5 grams per 5 ounce glass.”

    My question is: is this a typo or does “dry” champagne really have less carbs per 5 ounce glass? and does this also apply to Proseco and Italian champagne?


    • Dana Carpender

      Dana here —

      “Dry” champagne is actually sweet; steer clear. It’s the extra brut champagne that is super low carb. says Prosecco is 2 grams. As for Italian champagne, again, look for the word “brut,” or preferably “extra brut,” on the label.

      The drier the wine tastes, the lower carb it probably is.


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