Wine, Carbs, and Alcohol: Minimizing the Dietary Damage

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Wine – in moderation – might have positive effects on our bodies. However, it also comes with many side effects: poor quality sleep, rough hangovers, risk of addiction, and – especially for white wine – a possible link with skin cancer.

On top of that, you need to consider wine’s impact on your diet.

Wine has carbs and alcohol – two ingredients that add to your daily calorie total. It also often pairs with other calorie-dense or starchy food.

In this post, let’s talk about wine and it’s impact on your dietary plans.

Nutritional Overview of Wine 

As you know, reducing your carbohydrates is one of the most effective ways to diet – even more effective than lowering your fat intake.

One of the key ingredients in wine is sugar.

Sugar is the input to the fermentation process: yeast converts natural sugar in grapes and added sugars into alcohol, but the process isn’t 100% efficient. All wines will have some percentage of residual sugars left behind even after the fermentation process. In some wines (notably, dessert wines), winemakers shorten fermentation time to leave residual sugar as a characteristic of the finished wine.

Now, some wines – in particular, dry wines – have very few residual sugars. But wine, in general, has other sources of calories.

Other Calories in Wine

First, alcohol is a distinct macronutrient. Unlike carbs, proteins, and fats, it provides around seven calories per gram of energy. In a standard glass of wine – 5 ounces – there are around 14 grams of alcohol or 98 calories from alcohol alone. Generally, your body will burn alcohol calories before other calories you ingest.

Second, technically, the acids in wine – malic, tartaric, lactic, and citric, among others – also do contribute (minor amounts of) energy as well.

When you add it all up, alcoholic drinks in general – and wine in particular – do contribute a fair amount of calories. But, if you’re going to drink, wine is a better pick than, say, beer… what with its grains contributing additional carbs.

(And let’s not get started with mixed drinks – especially dairy-based ones.)

All Wines Are Not Created Equally… 

As I hinted with the dry wine example, every brand and type of wine will vary in its caloric makeup. It will also vary in the ingredients and additives manufacturers, farmers, and winemakers add to their wine.

Currently, there are 76 different types of additives approved by the FDA for use in winemaking. Some of those additives include:

  • Sugar – As mentioned, used to boost the alcohol percentage by providing more fuel for yeast to create alcohol.
  • Sulfur Dioxide – Acts as an antioxidant and antibacterial agent that preserves the grapes. Sulfur dioxide is closely related to sulfites.
  • Grape Juice Concentrate – Used to boost the color and add smoothness.
  • Flavors – Oak, leather, roasted marshmallow, cinnamon, and cloves are added (and later filtered out) to add flavor to some wines. Other tastes come from the addition of oak or wood chips, or the barrel the wine is fermented inside.
  • Tannins – Found in skins, stems, and seeds of grapes, tannins add complexity to red wine. They help to add bitterness or increase balance – and they’re responsible for astringent or dry mouth feels in many reds. Tannins are found in all plant products, so wood chips or oak barrels add them as well – even to whites.
  • Yeast – Yeast is the key ingredient that separates wine from an ordinary cup of juice. Its job is to convert the sugars into alcohol. Some winemakers will add yeast, and others rely on natural environmental yeast.
  • Other Materials – Other additives include fish bladders, egg whites, mammal proteins, and plastics. These ingredients are considered refining agents and are filtered out before the wine is bottled.

Since none of this information is on the back of the wine bottle, you (unfortunately) need to research additives upfront. Luckily though, it’s a bit easier to reason about the calories and carbohydrates in wine – let’s look at those next.

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Calorie and Carbohydrate Content of Selected Wines

Unless you’re solely drinking dessert wines, wine doesn’t tend to have very many carbs. That’s especially true if you stick to the dry varieties.

We used a calorie counter to give you an idea of the amount of carbs and calories in some of your favorite wine selections. Of course, the exact nutritional breakdown will depend on the brand, vintage, and even how it was stored – but here’s an overview for some types:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon: 4 carbs, 120 calories
  • Merlot: 2 carbs, 130 calories
  • Pinot Noir: 3 carbs, 125 calories
  • Zinfandel: 4 carbs, 125 calories
  • Chardonnay: 3 carbs, 116 calories
  • Riesling: 6 carbs, 120 calories
  • Sauvignon Blanc: 0 carbs, 121 calories

Alcohol and Dietary Effects

Though wines are lower in calories and carbohydrates than other alcoholic drinks, don’t take that as advice to go wild. Wine will still have a detrimental effect on your diet – especially when you move beyond moderation.

Toxicity and Order of Metabolism

Alcohol is effectively a toxin that also happens to have caloric value. As I mentioned earlier, this means your body will work to metabolize the wine before it works on any other macronutrients.

The fat, carbs, and protein will have to wait.

Alcohol Results in Overeating

While a glass of wine might not destroy your diet, often what you eat while drinking will. Wine tends to be paired with calorie-dense food, and alcohol also lowers your inhibitions.

A study performed on 40 women suggested that drinking alcohol triggers endorphin release, causing us to enjoy activities like eating fatty foods much more than we usually would. It’s hard to stick to a diet when you let your guard down and don’t care as much!

Wine Hurts Your Sleep

Drinking alcohol can cause you to miss vital hours of restorative sleep.

Alcohol increases the risk of sleep apnea –insufficient oxygen intake during the night – by 25% or more. High histamine concentration in some (usually red) wines can make it worse – side effects of histamines in wine include nasal congestion and other impacts on breathing.

It also affects our sleep cycle in ways where we don’t yet understand all the consequences. Alcohol suppresses slow-wave sleep and dreaming, increasing the proportion of light sleep you experience.

We don’t know all the mechanisms, but poor sleep is associated with terrible diet adherence, weight gain, and obesity.

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Minimizing Diet Damage from Drinking

But don’t despair – there are ways that we can minimize the adverse effects of alcohol and keep our waistlines in check.

1. Plan Before You Drink

When you decide to partake in happy hour, do your research first. Google the location you plan on visiting and peruse their menu to see what wines they have available. Research the wine brands you are interested in trying.

With a little research, you can discover if a wine is organic, low-alcohol (and lower in calories), or sugar-free. Eat a healthy, filling meal beforehand, and choose lower-carb options such as dry wines when you get there.

2. Know Your Limit: Drink in Moderation

Once you’ve selected the wine you feel is least damaging to your health, decide how much is too much. Will you limit yourself to one glass or two? And what constitutes a glass?

In most cases, 5-6 ounces is considered a full glass of wine. However, restaurants might pour you even more – and if you’re drinking with a friend, well, all bets are off.

Make sure you know how much you’re planning to drink in a night, then stick to the plan.

3. Avoid Snacking

Remember: drinking clouds your judgment and lowers your inhibitions, which may cause you to overindulge in unhealthy foods.

If you have to eat, do your best to make sure your snacks are healthy and won’t set your weight loss goals back. And if you eat a healthy meal before going out, you might not feel the need to snack.

Do what it takes to avoid that 2 AM nacho plate.

4. Drink Water

The old advice is still accurate: stay hydrated while drinking. The commonly quoted rule of thumb of one glass of water for every alcoholic drink is a great one to follow.

Staying hydrated will help stave off headaches and hangovers, but it will also keep you full and help you avoid the snacks.

Drinking Wine While Maintaining Your Diet

So, can you lose weight without giving up wine? Well, it would be ideal to eliminate alcohol, especially when trying to shed pounds.

But, if you do choose to drink, do it responsibly. Wine bottles don’t come with nutrition or ingredient labels, but now you have the data to approach your next night out with a little science.

If you aren’t going to drop the alcohol, drink in moderation, avoid snacking, sleep well – and keep your happy hour.

Gerard Paul writes about food & drink at ManyEats. He likes wine with bubbles – those tend to come in on the lower end of the calorie scale. (Let’s toast to that.)