To drink or not to drink on a low carb or ketogenic diet? I’m talking about alcoholic low carb drinks here and it’s a question I’ve been asked many times. And while I’d like to tell people- especially if they’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness- to simply stay away from the temptation. But I know that this is probably a very unrealistic thought. Although this post is really not intended to encourage you to drink, I’d like to give you some guidance if you’ve already decided that you have the odd drink but you don’t know what the wisest options are. And don’t get me wrong: certain beverages- like good quality wine- can also have their benefits!
A few ground rules
- Note that your alcohol tolerance tends to be lower on a low carb or ketogenic diet. You might have been able to drink a few pints of Lager without a problem before going keto, followed by a couple of glasses of red wine and topped off with some whiskey (this was one of my “protocols” before I was diagnosed with cancer!). Trust me, this wouldn’t knock you out of ketosis just because of a very high carb count- you would simply not be able to tolerate this any more. My advice is to start with small amounts (about 80ml) of wine or even less of hard spirits if you’re a beginner. More “seasoned” low carbers can increase the amounts with caution but personally, I’ve never had more than 2 small glasses of red wine.
- While alcohol doesn’t turn to sugar in your bloodstream (which many people believe), it can keep your body from burning fat, which we obviously want to avoid. In some people, alcohol can also “kill ketones”.
- Your appetite/food choices will be influenced by alcohol. As you know, going for the fatty (but healthy) choices is okay as long as you stay away from the carbs. If you have to have this cheeseburger because everybody else around you is having one, by all means go ahead (preferably with a grass-fed burger ;)) but stay away from the bun and the chips (French fries).
- Not having alcohol on an empty stomach is a “rule” I think everybody has come across and it particularly applies to ketoers. Have some good fat (ideally also medium chain triglycerides or MCTs) and also some protein before drinking alcohol.
- Use your common sense: If a drink tastes sweet but isn’t sweetened (with artificial sweeteners like aspartame or natural ones like stevia), it probably has quite a lot of sugar in it.
- As always- quality matters! Many commercial, “cheap” (under 10 USD) wines have slightly more residual sugar and some keto dieters have actually confirmed to me that this has an impact on their blood glucose. My tip: Spend a bit more on a good quality bottle because you won’t drink vast quantities anyway.
- Being in ketosis can give false-positive breath-alcohol tests! You better have a good story ready if you have to do use a breathalyzer!
Alcoholic drinks that I’d stay away from
…because they’re too carby and out of the question are the following:
- Shots with fruit juice or other additions like soda because of the carb count. Try and modify by using sparkling water, lemon and some sweetener like Stevia.
- (Fruit) Flavoured wines
- Alcopops (flavoured alcoholic beverages) like Gin and Tonic, Bacardi Breezer, Smirnoff ice, Hooch or Hooper’s. You can check out ideas for making low-carb mixers further down.
- Bailey’s Irish cream (I’m sorry!), Amaretto, Kahula, Midori and all the other super sweet beverages.
I have to admit, I’m a bit of a beer snob… Beer was my absolute favourite alcoholic drink before I went keto and I have many fond memories of cold beers after tough bike rides in the middle of a hot Swiss summer. So yes, when somebody asks what food I miss most on the ketogenic diet, my answer is “liquid bread”!
And I know there are low-carb beers out there that could be a substitute but I just can’t get myself to drink them. I prefer hanging on to my memories and remembering the taste rather than shattering them with some funny-tasting yellow liquid….
BUT for those of you who actually like them, here’s a variety of options if you do have a beer. And, who knows, maybe my taste buds have changed so much on keto for nearly 4 years now that I might give a low-carb beer another chance!
The list below contains all the beers I could find (I’m sure there are more, though, just check local and microbreweries, too!) that have less than 3g of carbs per 12oz bottle. For those who count net carbs- beer doesn’t contain any fibre so total and net carbs are equal.
Bud Select 55: 55 calories, 1.9g carbs
MGD 64: 64 calories, 2.4g carbs
Rolling Rock Green light: 92 calories, 2.4g carbs
Michelob Ultra: 95 calories, 2.6g carbs
Surprisingly, wine is low-carb in nature (although it’s made from grapes, a high-carb food) and the few carbs come from unfermented sugar. When a beverage is going through the fermentation process, yeasts feed on carbohydrates and produce alcohol, heat and CO2 as by-products. A dry wine has very little residual sugar but sweet wine obviously has quite a bit more.
In moderation, wine could quickly become one of your favourite low-carb drinks. Stick to dry wines and check out the calories and carbs in 5oz (approx. 150ml). Note that these are averages and obviously depend on the producer.
Pinot Noir: 122 calories, 3.4g carbs
Merlot: 123 calories, 3.7g carbs
Syrah: 123 calories, 3.8g carbs
Cabernet Sauvignon: 123 calories, 3.8g carbs
Chianti: 124 calories, 4g carbs
Malbec: 124 calories, 4g carbs
Chablis: 96 calories, 2g carbs
Sauvignon Blanc: 121 calories, 3g carbs
Pinot Grigio: 123 calories, 3g carbs
Chardonnay: 114 calories, 3.6g carbs
Zinfandel: 105 calories, 5g carbs
Riesling: 120 calories, 5.4g carbs
For more info on sugar content in wines, please click here.
Champagne and sparkling wine
And let’s talk about champagne and sparkling wines, which both make a very common appearance at most (Christmas) receptions and dinners.
There are various types of champagne and they come with various amounts of carbs. Note that “extra dry” isn’t the driest you can get and actually tastes quite sweet- look for extra brut. Avoid Prosecco and Asti Spumanti because they’re very sweet.
Winefolly does a good overview of what to expect when drinking champagne. You can see that some of them make very suitable low-carb drinks!
You see, it’s impossible to make a statement like “1 glass of champagne contains 3g of carbs”. It really depends on what type of champagne you’re going for. One of my favourite “bubblies” is probably Veuve Cliquot, which has 100 calories and 2g carbs per 5oz.
Generally speaking, spirits like vodka, whiskey, rum, gin, brandy, cognac and armagnac are virtually sugar and carb free. BUT unless you like whiskey “straight” like me (I don’t even want ice in it), you will want to add some sort of mixers. Here are some ideas:
- Fresh lemon/lime juice
- Club soda or Seltzer water
- Liquid flavor enhancers like Stur that comes in 8 different flavours can be fabulous to make mixers. One example is to fill a tall glass with ice with a wedge of lime, add a shot of tequila, then top up with orange sparkling water.
- Stevia in granulated form (I use e.g. Dr Coy’s or Natvia) can be great to make mojitos.
- Sugar-free syrups (e.g. Da Vinci) can also be an option to make the occasional treat. Keto-friendly would be for instance an Irish coffee with some whiskey and heavy cream!
- A nice Christmas recipe for mulled wine is here.