There’s zero shame in enjoying yourself while at a party, out to brunch, or simply hanging at home with your partner. And it’s definitely OK to imbibe a little. Research links red wine and beer to some health advantages, after all. The catch is that you don’t want to totally overdo it—on both the drinking and the foods you eat pre-, during, or post-party. To help you make smarter choices so you keep your health on track, we asked registered dietitians for their best advice on what to eat while drinking. Here’s what they had to say.
Get your nutrients starting early.
Eating plenty of protein in the morning will help stabilize your energy level. Plus, nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and veggies will give your body the fuel it needs to process alcohol, says Jessica Cording, R.D., a dietitian based in New York City. She suggests a smoothie as a pre-party mini meal, featuring frozen fruits (think strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, or mango), plain Greek yogurt or milk (or nondairy, if you prefer), and a scoop of protein powder.
Lindsey Pine, R.D.N., founder of Tasty Balanced Nutrition, agrees, citing fats and protein as your best bet to slow down the absorption of alcohol. If you go with a salad before your soiree, opt for chicken or fish on top, plus olive oil, almonds, or avocado for healthy fats. “Even if you can’t have a full meal, snacks with a combination of fat and protein, such as whole almonds, can help,” she says.
Don’t go on empty.
“A common mistake I see is people starving themselves earlier in the day to account for alcohol calories,” Cording says. “This ends up backfiring when they end up drinking on an empty stomach and struggle to make clear-headed choices around food and drinks. Or they just end up having an awful night because they get drunk quickly and don’t feel well.” Avoid all negative scenarios by making sure you put something in your system before you start sipping. People often say they want bread to soak up the alcohol. While that’s not really true, any food will keep you from getting too drunk too fast.
Skip the salt.
You likely get that hangover headache the day after drinking due to dehydration. Eating high-sodium foods can make the effect even worse, Cording says. “Salty foods can make you more thirsty, causing you to drink more [alcohol]. This can also make you more bloated,” she says. “Additionally, alcohol can irritate the throat and stomach or worsen symptoms of acid reflux. [So], some people may find that spicy, oily, or very acidic foods cause further discomfort when consumed with alcohol.” In other words, keep it light on the super-pungent fare. Instead, Pine suggests going for the crudités plate.
Deciding before you go out how much you’ll drink and what you’ll have is a good way to watch your intake, Cording advises. “Decide which drinks would be most worth it to you,” she says. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that women stick to one drink per day and men cap it at two—so choose wisely.
Watch what you eat at the after-party.
Is late-night pizza your jam? You may want to reconsider. “Alcohol itself doesn’t magically turn food into fat. But the body chooses to metabolize alcohol first over every other macronutrient,” Pine explains. “Once you go over your body’s daily energy needs, the food you eat will likely be stored as fat. Alcohol has seven calories per gram rather than four calories per gram of protein or carbohydrates. So the calories in those drinks can add up quickly. Plus, when alcohol is in your system, the body’s ability to burn fat slows down.” If you’re watching your weight, this is important to keep in mind. Even when you’re feeling tipsy, try not to go for the midnight food run.
What makes skipping food after drinking more difficult, though? “Alcohol may affect neurons that play a role in regulating hunger,” Pine says. So you may be mentally driven to the fridge post-party, but try to resist or at least watch your portions. “Alcohol can definitely fit into your life if you are trying to lose or maintain weight. But be smart about it by keeping your portion sizes in check and avoiding sugary mixers.” Try to stick to five-ounce servings of wine and 12 ounces for beer. That’s way smaller than those big glasses you get for both! And of course, have some water between bar runs.