April is Alcohol Awareness Month, which helps to spotlight the health and social problems that can result from excessive alcohol consumption. While alcohol in moderation─especially red wine─does have health benefits, excessive drinking is a dangerous, unhealthy practice. This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control focuses on the risks to women’s health from binge drinking, the most common type of excessive alcohol consumption by adults.

Along with more serious health consequences, alcohol can potentially wreck havoc on your waistline, even in the context of an otherwise healthy lifestyle. For starters, alcohol packs a whopping 7 calories/gram, as opposed to 4 calories/gram for both protein or carbs, and only slightly less than fat at 9 calories/gram. This high calorie content is compounded by the fact that since alcohol can’t be used directly by the muscles, it travels instead to your bloodstream, where it must be metabolized before your body can burn calories consumed along with it.

Research from several metabolic studies indicates that alcohol suppresses “lipid oxidation,” meaning that since your body is less able to burn calories when you’re drinking, they’re typically stored as fat instead. And guess where this “non-oxidized” fat tends to be deposited? That’s right, your belly.1 This certainly helps explain the infamous beer (or wine or cocktail) gut.

Alcohol is also a potent appetizer. When you combine that with the relaxed inhibitions that result from a few drinks, the stage is clearly set for “situational” food choices that can effectively sabotage your lean eating plan. If this becomes a regular pattern, you can see how counterproductive that can be to your healthy lifestyle goals over time.

Maybe we can take a few tips from the French. In the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, author Mireille Guiliano compares aspects of the French and American cultures. She notes that binge drinking is far less common for the average Frenchwomen, who tends to enjoy a glass of wine with a meal as a general practice rather than downing Happy Hour daiquiris with a plate of buffalo wings.

If you do consume alcohol─while also placing a premium on remaining slim and healthy─make an effort to track your consumption. This is one area where portion control is crucial. As far as your libation choices, keep these approximate calorie counts (per serving) in mind:

• Vodka shot = 60 calories
• Rum and Diet Coke = 70 calories
• White Wine = 95 calories
• Champagne = 100 calories
• Light beer = 105 calories
• Gin and tonic = 110 calories
• Red Wine = 119 calories
• Pilsner-style beers = 135 calories
• Cosmopolitan = 150 calories
• IPA-style (heavier) beers = 230 calories/bottle
• Smirnoff Black = 230 calories
• Vodka Mudshake = 285 calories
• Piña Colada = 290 calories

Other tips include alternating a glass of water between each drink, going heavy on the ice, and avoiding high-calorie mixers as well as sweet dessert drinks. As always, moderation is key, but you will be rewarded with greater health and longevity─not to mention a slimmer waistline─by keeping alcohol consumption within safe bounds. Cheers!

1Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2005;42(3):197-227