You know the drill: A friend invites you out for some after-work drinks at your local trendy gastropub and you happily oblige, hoping to erase memories of the hectic day you just had wringing out TPS report after TPS report at a blistering pace.
When you arrive, the bar’s hopping and there’s a great list of craft beers and unique cocktails along with a mouth-watering menu filled with delicious delights such as grilled burgers with imported cheese, bourbon-glazed pork belly, buttermilk fried chicken tenders, and oyster po’ boys. A couple of IPAs and a mixed drink or two later and your face is buried in a plate full of chili-cheese fries, with an order of habanero hot wings (extra ranch, please!) on the way.
If you don’t exercise great restraint when deciding what to eat and drink when hitting the town on an empty stomach, it’s clear that any gains you’ve made toward hitting your fitness goals can slip away like a briny Wellfleet oyster sliding down your throat. So, when you first belly up to the bar, you need have a clear plan in place to avoid making any mistakes that could cause your progress to stall.
What Alcohol to Order at Happy Hour
First off, remember that alcohol contains seven calories per gram, so those numbers can stack up rather quickly (to get a general idea of how many calories you’ll get from various drinks, check out these cool calculators from the National Institutes of Health). The calories from alcohol are also considered empty, as they offer little in the way of nutrients.
“To make matters worse,” says Lisa Stollman, R.D.N., C.D.E., C.D.N., author of The Trim Traveler: How to Eat Healthy and Stay Fit While Traveling Abroad, “[excess] alcohol can lower your blood glucose, which may make you hungry. And, quite often, without boundaries set in place, one drink can lead to another, which lowers blood glucose and enhances hunger, which is the main reason for those late night diner binges!”
Stollman suggests setting boundaries before you hit the town. “Limit your drinks to two,” she says, “and start the night off with a glass of seltzer with a lemon or lime. Have a glass of water along with your [alcoholic] beverage to slow down your alcohol intake.”
Scan the specials for beers that have a lower alcohol content, as that’s an easy and quick way to tell how many calories a beer generally packs. Another way to estimate calorie content: It’s about 150 calories per 12-ounce serving of five percent alcohol by volume (ABV) beer. Or, think of it as around 2.5 calories per ABV of beer, per ounce. Most gastropubs and bars will advertise the ABV of beers on tap, or you can simply ask the barkeep. Strive to keep calories down by sticking to beers with an ABV below five percent.
If your idea of happy hour doesn’t involve any frothy brews, dry reds (merlot, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon) and whites (pinot grigio, pinot gris, and sauvignon blanc) are the wines you want to focus on, says Stollman. “Four ounces of wine is approximately 100 calories, but avoid sweet wines, as they contain more sugar.”
And wine spritzers — wine mixed with club soda or seltzer — are a fine way to keep calories low while still imbibing. “If you are going to enjoy a mixed drink,” she says, “choose a zero-calorie mixer such as seltzer or a stevia-sweetened beverage.” Classic “diet” drinks include tequila or vodka mixed with seltzer and a lime or lemon or fresh herbs — simple and refreshing. Just stay away from any sugary, higher-calorie concoctions that the resident mixologist tries to tempt you with.
What to Eat at Happy Hour
Try not to go out drinking without tucking into a meal or snack beforehand, says Stollman. A full stomach will help slow down the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream, as well as keep you from overdoing it on bar snacks, which are usually made from refined grains, lack fiber, and are not nutrient-dense.
If you are going to the bar right after work or before you get a chance to eat dinner or a snack, you can still make smart choices once you get there. Thankfully, most bars that serve food now have some healthy choices mixed in with all of the gut-busting cheats.
While enjoying your initial seltzer to start the night, “Look for snacks that contain fiber,” says Stollman. “They are usually nutrient-dense and slow down the absorption of alcohol. Good choices include popcorn, and hummus with raw vegetables.”
When ordering up something more substantial, try to find savory salads (go easy on the cheese, try to stick to mostly veggie or bean toppings, and ask for olive oil and vinegar), unfried veggie sides, and lean meats. You can always stick with the tried-and-true grilled chicken choice, but you can also choose leaner meats or seafood that’s grilled, roasted, or cooked in a pan with minimal fat.
“Other good choices are grilled vegetable sandwiches and veggie burgers,” says Stollman, “just ask for whole grain toast instead of the white bun.”
Follow these suggestions the next time your workmates tempt you with an offer of a few drinks at the local bar. Stick to a few smart strategies whenever you go out, it’ll keep you on track with your weight loss and fitness objectives without having to turn happy hour into a downer at the end of the day.