I've never been tempted to sacrifice the quality of a cocktail to save a few calories, but the popularity of "skinny" drinks suggests that there are those who seek out lower-calorie alcoholic beverages. Take, for example, a new line of Skinny Prosecco and Champagne in the United Kingdom by Thompson & Scott that's popular across the pond, and there's speculation these lower-calorie sparkling wines will make their way to the U.S., too.
There's also the Skinnygirl brand of cocktails, which have been available for a while. Since Skinnygirl doesn't reveal the ingredients in its drinks, it's hard to know exactly what's in them. (In 2011, Whole Foods pulled Skinny Girl Margaritas from its shelves because of undisclosed preservatives, but the brand has since been sold to a new owner so the formulas may have changed.)
But these brands aren't the only options for calorie-conscious drinkers, especially during the holidays when most of us tend to eat and drink more than we do the rest of the year. Should we be switching from our favorite drinks to "skinny" ones, in hopes that we'll still be able to button our pants on Jan. 1?
Making it 'skinny'
I spoke with Jessica H. Green, who teaches Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) classes in New York City about how the "skinny" gets into cocktails. These drinks, she told me, contain less residual sugar and less alcohol than many of their counterparts.
"I looked into the Skinny Prosecco," said Green, "and it's really just a marketing position. That wine is not distinguishable from other proseccos except that it has seven grams of sugar per liter. It's less than the most popular styles, but more than many sparkling wines and almost all still wines."
There's nothing magical about a skinny sparkling wine, and in fact there are many sparkling wines as low in calories as the Thompson & Scott brand. They simply choose not to focus on the calories in the wine. Pick any bubbly — champagne, prosecco, cava or other — and look for the word "brut" on the bottle. The grams of sugar in it will be close to that of Skinny Prosecco. Pick an "extra brut" sparkling wine, and there's a good chance the calories in it may be even lower than a skinny bubbly, if the alcohol is also comparable. It's the amount of sugar and the amount of alcohol in a beverage that determine its calories.
A brut sparkling wine can contain 0-12 grams of residual sugar per liter. An extra brut can contain only 0-6 grams of residual sugar per liter. You don't have to purchase a "skinny" brand to get the skinny benefits. Just make sure you're drinking nothing sweeter than a brut.
When it comes to spirits, calories are lowered by reducing the amount of alcohol. Lower calorie Skinnygirl vodka is 60 proof. Most vodkas are 80 proof. Add lower-calorie mixers like agave instead of sugar and no-sugar-added juices to the lower-calorie spirits, and you get skinny cocktails.
Know thy wine
"When I teach wine classes, people are very concerned about calories," said Green. "They're also curious about whether red wine or white wine has fewer calories."
The color of the wine has little to do with the calories. It's the amount of alcohol and sugar that determine calories. "A rich California chardonnay can have more calories than a Beaujolais Nouveau," Green said.
The Casal Garcia Vinho Verde that I love to drink in the summer has 10 percent alcohol and only 91 calories for a 5 oz. serving compared to 100 calories for each 5 oz. serving of a Skinnygirl wine.
The more you know about what you're drinking, the more choices you'll have if you're trying to cut back on calories.
The savings may not add up
How much do the 10 to 15 calories you're saving per drink really matter? Will skinny drinks make you skinny? Probably not. Unless you're counting all the calories you're consuming and sticking to an overall limit, heading home at the end of an evening having had three skinny drinks and saving yourself 45 calories won't do much for your waist line.
Many people, myself included, eat more when they're drinking. The 45 calories saved in your drinks won't do enough to cancel out the hundreds of calories in the spinach artichoke dip you ordered. The knowledge that the drink in your hand is low-calorie might make it even more tempting to eat more.
How to shave calories from your drinks
Even if you realize imbibing in skinny-labeled drinks won't make you skinny, you may want to shave calories from your cocktails anyway. Here are five ways to do that:
1. Research wines you like and find out how many calories they have. Then choose the lowest-calorie wine and make it the one you drink through the holidays.
2. Skip the flavored "tini" drinks. Those are full of sugar; instead, order a traditional gin or vodka martini that has no added sugars.
3. Opt for agave instead of sugar. It has fewer calories, and you usually need a smaller amount to sweeten your drink. You also can look for tonic water sweetened with agave instead of sugar. Just stay away from diet tonic that has artificial sweeteners.
4. For beer, look at the ABV. This is especially important if you want to stay away from watery, tasteless light beers. The lower the ABV, the lower the number of calories. Stick with something 5.5 ABV or lower, and you'll be generally be shaving calories off your drink. Fortunately, many beer menus now include the ABV so it's easy to figure out which beers you have to choose from.
5. Drink a glass of water in between each alcoholic beverage. You'll drink fewer drinks throughout the evening and stay hydrated.