Bottom’s Up: How to Make Happy Hour Healthier

A nutritionist gives us tips for how to enjoy an after-work drink (or two) without loading up on calories.

We know how it goes: You’re trying your best to workout more, lose some weight and eat healthier. You’ve got your AM running route down pat. Lunch is fine—you pack most days, which means you’re putting lots of fruits, veggies, and lean proteins on the menu. But then 5 p.m. rolls around, and your friends start texting about happy hour at the Continental. Visions of beer, cocktails and hot wings start racing through your head. Should you go, and risk blowing all the good, healthy progress you’ve made? Or should you just skip it altogether?

“I don’t advocate diets at all, and I tell my clients by no means should healthy living inhibit their social lives,” says dietician Kelly Strogen, who offers nutrition counseling at Club La Maison in Wayne. “If they feel like they can’t go out, they’re not going to stick with it.”

So since going to happy hour’s a given, the best strategy is to plan ahead. We asked Strogen for her tips on what to order—and what to avoid—so you can enjoy a drink (or two) without undoing your day.

• Hold the cheese.
The biggest dangers on most bar menus are the ooey, gooey cheese-based dishes—everything from artichoke dip to mozzarella sticks. Strogen says to steer clear of those or, when you can, ask for cheese on the side, like with tacos. “Mexican food can actually be very healthy because of beans and avacados, but it’s a matter of the additives,” she says. “Order these dishes without cheese and you’ll save a couple hundred calories.”

• Avoid Buffalo wings.
The Holy Grail of the bar menu, these hot, messy little guys are also loaded with fat and calories—a single wing could pack 100 calories or more. Think about it: Wings are dark meat, which means they come from the more calorie-heavy part of the chicken; hot wings are usually fried with the skin left on; and the sauce is typically made with heaping helpings of butter. That adds up to one wickedly bad-for-you appetizer.

• Be careful with your mixers.
No matter what kind of alcohol you choose, says Strogen, most have round 100 calories a serving. Where you can really make-or-break a drink is what you mix in: soda, tonic water, juices. Strogen recommends opting for club soda, which is calorie-free. Or if you must sweeten, go for a juice—orange, cranberry—instead of soda. Watch out for tonic: “Tonic water has almost as many calories as a regular soda,” she says. “It has sugar in it.” You’d be better off choosing diet Coke.

• When it comes to beer, go by alcohol-by-volume.
At just 90 to 120 calories each, light beer’s obviously a safe choice. But if Miller Lite just doesn’t do for you, pick a beer with a lower alcohol-by-volume content (that’s the measure of how much alcohol is actually in your drink, written as a percentage). Most light beers, Strogen says, are around 4 percent alcohol; heavier ones might be 6 or 8 percent. “Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, so the higher the alcohol content, the more calories,” she says. While you can sometimes go by color—a light-colored lager usually has fewer calories—it’s not always a good measure. “Guinness Draught is actually quite low in calories,” says Strogen. “At 126 calories, it’s actually the equivalent of a light beer.”

• Alternate water between drinks.
This tried-and-true strategy helps to fill your stomach so you don’t overdo it. Plus, it’ll help slow down your pace. And don’t worry about feeling lame—ask for water with lemon or lime, and people will probably assume you’re drinking a vodka tonic, anyway.

• Be the life of the party.
Listen to this logic: If you’re talking, you’re not eating at the same time—so talk a lot. “If you’re just listening you’re going to keep eating,” says Strogen. “Make it a goal to be the life of the party.”

• When you can, stand.
In the spirit of taking every opportunity to burn a stray calorie or two, Strogen recommends standing at the bar instead of sitting at a table. “When you’re standing, you’re fidgeting and moving around—that’s something,” says Strogen. “Every little bit counts.”