Keto can take away your carbs and sugar—but it can't take away your booze.
Photo: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock
For anyone on a diet that requires watching carb and sugar count—like the keto diet—drinking alcohol is typically a no-go. It's not so much about the carbs in the alcohol, but rather the effect of alcohol on how your body finds fuel.
"Even more important than the carbs is the way alcohol affects the metabolism of other nutrients," says Kristen Mancinelli, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Ketogenic Diet: A Scientifically Proven Approach to Fast, Healthy Weight Loss. "Once you ingest alcohol, your liver will preferentially metabolize the alcohol for energy." That can reduce fatty acid oxidation—the process of breaking down fats for energy whereby ketones are made—by as much as 80 percent, she says.
So instead of using your body fat for energy (which is the purpose of going into ketosis and the main goal of the keto diet), you start using the calories from the drink you consumed, and you won't go back to using fats in any great amount until you've used all the alcohol calories, she says. While it's not the end of the world, it's not the best way to shed pounds or benefit from the keto lifestyle.
If you're still craving a happy hour beverage, don't worry: You can make your own keto-friendly, low-carb cocktails by choosing the right type of booze and mixers and drinking in moderation. (That's what Jen Widerstrom did on the keto diet!) Here, a guide to drinking alcohol when you're on the keto diet—because even people in ketosis deserve a little buzz too.
1. Reconsider Wine and Beer
Go for spirits over wine, champagne, or beer. "Spirits contain no carbs at all," says Mancinelli. And the type doesn't matter as much as the proof (80 is the most common). "Spirits with the same proof—whether they are made from sugar (like rum), potatoes (like vodka), or corn (like bourbon)—have the exact same amount of calories per serving, all coming from alcohol, and none from carbs," she says. There are 7 calories per gram of spirit. (Here's more on the nutritional info for popular alcoholic drinks.)
"Wine isn't super high in carbohydrates, so depending on the amount of carbs you're consuming in the rest of your diet, it may be okay to drink on a ketogenic diet in small amounts," adds Ginger Hultin, M.S., R.D.N., a Seattle-based dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If you've consumed all your carbs for the day, drink spirits like vodka, whiskey, gin, rum, etc. Depending on what you've eaten prior, you might be able to squeeze in a glass of wine—white or red, of which a 5-ounce pour has about five to seven grams of carbs, says Mancinelli.
Sorry, beer drinkers—your go-to brew really isn't keto-friendly. "A typical 12-ounce beer has about 12 to 15 grams of carbs and is not on the menu if you're doing keto," says Mancinelli. "There are low-carb beers that have as few as 2 grams of carbs per 12-ounce serving, so if you're a beer lover you can still have a beer every once in a while," though it's not recommended if you're trying to stay in ketosis, she adds.
2. Drink Spirits Straight
It's no secret that it's easier to down a sweet-like-candy drink versus straight liquor. Going for straight spirits will make it harder to drink a lot, so you're naturally able to slow down. This is especially important, "as some people report feeling the effects of alcohol more quickly when following a ketogenic diet," says Hultin. (More reason to drink in moderation: Binge drinking is bad news for your brain health.)
Luckily, "since you're on keto, your taste buds are probably more attuned to the sweet notes in foods and beverages that aren't overly sweet," Mancinelli says, so the bitter taste of straight liquor may not be a hard adjustment.
And, in case you're wondering, flavored spirits are a toss-up. Every brand and bottle will be different, so it's worth doing your research beforehand. (For example: Some flavored vodkas are sweetened with real fruit juice—with calories and sugar—while others are flavored in a way that doesn't add anything nutritionally to the spirit.)
To be safe, try a nice tequila or whiskey. Chances are you can order one to sip throughout the night, and you won't interfere too much with the fat metabolism going on in your body, explains Mancinelli. One serving of a spirit is 1.5 ounces and contains 97 calories and 0 grams of carbs.
"If you can't drink it straight, add water to your drink, or mix it with seltzer or soda water—NOT tonic. Tonic water is a sugary beverage just like 7UP or Coke, and should not be consumed at all," she says.
3. Be Cautious of Craft Cocktails
You're better off ditching the cocktail menu and ordering your own drink.
"Almost every cocktail will contain some sweetener, so be mindful of things on the menu that are boozy but have a sweet element. It's really tough to tell how many grams of carbs these drinks contain without knowing the precise recipe," says Mancinelli. "Any juice, sugar, or syrup added to the drink will tack on additional calories in the form of carbohydrates," says Mancinelli. Not what you want when you've been hard at work steering clear of those to keep your body in ketosis. (BTW, if you're on the keto diet, you should probably know what carb cycling is too.)
For example, an old-fashioned usually contains a cube of sugar—so if you're keto, you should avoid those. The Manhattan (which is a similar drink), contains no sugar but has sweet vermouth. While the latter might seem like a better choice, "a sugar cube has 4 grams of carbs and an ounce of sweet vermouth also has 4 grams of carbs—so one is no better than the other," she explains.
Other mixers may be low-carb, but still add calories to your cocktail: "Drinks made with egg white will also have protein calories and those made with cream will also have fat calories—and these will be in addition to the calories in the spirit itself," says Mancinelli.
Unless you're a bartender, stay away from craft cocktails or put in some time to research the best ones to choose based on carb and/or calorie count, so you know exactly what you're sipping on.
Keto-Friendly Alcoholic Drink Ideas
Here are a few suggestions from Hultin, so you can be prepared when ordering at the bar or making yourself a drink at a party. (Also consider using these low-carb keto drinks as mixers.)
- 2 ounces vodka with 4 ounces soda water, a lime twist and cucumber, on the rocks.
- 2 ounces rum with 4 ounces coconut LaCroix or another flavored sparkling water.
- 2 ounces vodka, muddled with fresh mint and lime, sweetened lightly with stevia, and topped with 6 ounces of soda water, over ice (think: a mojito).
- 3 ounces of chilled dry white wine with 2 ounces soda water and a dash of bitters, if desired (think: a white wine spritzer).