How much does happy hour weigh?

Nov 12, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. ET

If alcoholic drinks are empty calories with no nutritional value whatsoever, how is it your best friend drinks the way she does without gaining a pound — meanwhile, you expand just watching her? Glad you asked!

Woman drinking cocktail at a bar

Here's what you need to know about the effects of alcohol on weight gain.

Our relationship with alcohol is like having an on-again-off-again boyfriend: Every time you think you have the situation figured out, the tables turn. One study says positive things about alcohol consumption and our weight, the next… well, doesn’t. What’s the deal? Is there a balance?

As it turns out, yes! It’s likely not the drinking itself that’s the culprit, but how often you drink and how much you pour. Just check out this calorie count provided by Dr. Carmela Sebastian, MS, author of Sex and Spaghetti Sauce: My Italian Mother’s Recipe for Getting Healthy and Getting Busy in Your 50s and Beyond:

  • One bottle of beer is 110 calories.
  • One shot of hard liquor is 78 calories.
  • One glass of white wine (6 ounces) is 100 calories.
  • One fancy-pants drink (like a pina colada) is 660 calories, which is more than a Big Mac! (Excuse me while I faint.)
It goes without saying that binge drinking (five or more drinks in one outing) will lead to weight gain from the calories alone, but let’s not forget that when we drink, we’re more likely to ignore the consequences of our actions — like devouring fast food while we’re out and that pint of ice cream when we get home.

Add to that the size of drinking glasses today (I once saw a wine glass that was the size of my head), and you can easily turn your body into one hot mess. You might think you’re only having one serving, but if your glass makes a fish bowl look like a shot glass, you’re likely pouring yourself two to three servings at a time.

And here’s why you can let go of your hatred for your scrawny BFF: Sure, it could be genetics calling the shots, but it’s likely more to do with how she moderates her drinks over the long haul. When you drink one or two drinks a day on a regular basis, your body’s metabolism adjusts to the routine — whereas if you drink occasionally or binge, your body doesn’t know what to do with the excess calories and stores them as fat (enter the dreaded spare tire).

So how do you make sure your relationship with alcohol doesn’t betray your thighs?


Eat before you head out with the girls

Drinking on an empty stomach is the worst thing you can do if you want to moderate your alcohol intake. Once the alcohol hits, you’ll be more likely to indulge in either too much alcohol or too much junk food — or both.


Go to places where you know the menu

Eating during your night out is just as important so you don’t binge on fast food on the way home. (My greasy food radar goes up hundreds of notches as the night wears on.) When you’re familiar with the menu, you’ll automatically turn to your favorite healthy options — after all, less decision-making equals more time for gossip and laughs.


Master the art of portion control

"Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to one drink per day for women," says Sebastian. Either stick to a bottle of beer or use an ounce-counter so you always know your calorie intake. Or if you’re out and about, buy a drink you’re not that fond of. The less you like it, the less you’ll drink throughout the night.

More weight management tips

Attitude is the key to managing your weight
Weight-loss obsession can make you fat
Weight loss: Support for keeping the pounds off