Your Healthy Happy-Hour Survival Guide
You’ve been eating well all week. You’re trying really hard to stick within your SmartPoints® budget by making healthful choices and you’re feeling great. And then your co-workers invite you out to Friday happy hour. You can’t (and frankly don’t want to) say no, but you also don’t want to blow your weekly points.
“Happy hour falls at a time when hunger is high and inhibitions are low,” explains Torey Armul, RD, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Many people haven't eaten since lunch, so they’re drinking on an empty stomach or making hungry food choices and filling up on bar food. Add to that the social pressures of happy hour — to keep up with drinks, order food as a group, and keep your hands occupied — and the calories can easily add up.”
Here’s how you can limit the mental calculations in your head and enjoy yourself. This is your happy-hour survival guide to drinking responsibly.
1. Order a healthier drink option.
Staying away from alcohol altogether is the healthiest plan, but it’s also OK to enjoy an adult beverage after a long week. But what you order matters. “Vodka soda, a light beer, or red wine are three healthier choices,” explain Jennifer McDaniel, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Club soda has no calories and can act as a hydrator to the dehydrating alcohol, while a beer is light in calories and may take longer to drink than a 5-ounce cocktail. Red wine is moderate in calories but is also a source of resveratrol, a polyphenol thought to promote heart health by protecting blood vessel linings and lowering levels of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol.” Arm yourself knowing that a vodka soda has 4 SmartPoints, a light beer has 3 SmartPoints, and a 5-ounce glass of red wine has 4 SmartPoints.
2. Avoid calorie-laden cocktails.
While a mai tai might sound yummy and refreshing, you can bet your bottom that it will eat up much of your daily SmartPoints. “Mai tais have cream de almond, triple sec, syrup, and juice in them. A small glass comes to about 300 calories,” explains Armul. That’s 11 SmartPoints for each 3.5-ounce serving. “Long Island iced teas are also a poor choice as they’re usually the highest-calorie drinks because of the high-calorie ingredients, namely triple sec. A standard 12-ounce drink can be upwards of 700 calories.” (And 18 SmartPoints — whew!) Armul warns to beware of the large tourist-style portions, which have even more calories. Also, stay away from white Russians, piña coladas, margaritas, and strawberry daiquiris, too.
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3. Liquor and stimulants aren’t a good combo.
You might be a little tired after a long workweek, but don’t use an alcoholic beverage as a pick-me-up. Alcohol is a depressant and caffeine is a stimulant, so the stimulant effect of caffeine can trick you into thinking you’re not inebriated and may lead you to actually drink more. So leave the vodka Red Bull orders to someone else.
4. Pay attention to portions.
Don’t just order a drink and look away—watch to see what you’re actually getting. “Some bartenders are generous with their pour, in a mixed drink or a glass of wine,” warns Leslie Bonci, RD, owner of Active Eating Advice . “All alcohol has calories, so the more in your glass, the more that ends up on your ass.” Instead, Bonci recommends requesting a 5- or 9-ounce pour of wine (go with 5!), or one measured shot instead of a free pour in your mixed drink.
5. Don’t use happy hour as a stress reliever.
It’s fine—you had a hectic week, so you’re just going to have a drink or two to help relax. Or at least that’s what you tell yourself. “Chances are that once you start decompressing at the bar, and the drinks begin flowing before you know it, you’ll be way more than two drinks deep,” says Bonci. “Alcohol makes us less inhibited and also less likely to prohibit. We aren’t as good at restraint and may end up consuming more than we should.”
6. Don’t go to happy hour on an empty stomach.
It might seem silly to eat before going out since you can order food at the bar, but get something in your stomach. “Alcohol can increase appetite, so not only are there calories in the alcohol, but also, most bars don’t put out baby carrots as nibbles,” says Bonci. “If you eat beforehand, the alcohol won’t go as quickly to your brain, so you won’t be as hungry at the bar and won’t indulge in greasy, fried-food options.”
7. If you need a snack, find one with protein and fiber.
We’re talking hummus, shrimp cocktail, salad, or even fruit and cheese platters. “The combination of fiber and protein will fill you up faster and you’ll feel fuller longer,” explains Armul. “Stay away from the fried foods, which are high in saturated fat. High-fat foods have also been shown to increase alcohol absorption. Limit the simple carbs, like chips, soft pretzels, and white bread, since they don’t provide much nutritional value or help fill you up.”