Like caffeine and sugar, alcohol is best consumed in moderation. For those of you looking to make happy hour a little healthier, that’s where things start to get a little fuzzy. From brands touting low-calorie options to booze marketed with superfood additions, it’s hard to know what’s best. This is especially true since studies abound about the supposed health benefits of drinks like red wine and tequila on the rocks. Here, we break down the myths about drinking alcohol and health, as well as dive into what to avoid and what to choose when you do want to imbibe.
Alcohol consumption isn’t necessarily “healthy” for you. . .
“Here’s the thing—people are looking for ways to drink alcohol without consequence and that’s not realistic,” says Nutritionist Vanessa Rissetto. “There is no benefit to alcohol. Your body sees it as a poison and has to sacrifice all metabolic processes to filter that poison away from your bloodstream. [This means] anything you eat while heavily drinking gets stored as fat.”
Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach Hope Pedraza concurs, noting that your body metabolizes alcohol like sugar, as well. So, drinking too much can lead to the retention of body fat in general. If you’re trying to lose weight or increase fat loss, it is ideal to limit alcohol intake to once a week, she says. Additionally, research suggests that alcohol can also lead to certain types of cancers, with a strong link between drinking and an increased risk of breast cancer.
“When we consume too much alcohol, for example, more than a glass of wine or two a night (which is defined as moderate drinking by the US Department of Health and Human Services), this is when we start to see the negative health effects,” says Dana Monsees, nutritionist and body image coach. “Too much alcohol, and drinking alcohol too often can not only give you killer hangovers and wreck your healthy eating or workout plans the following day, but it can also stall fat loss, prevent muscle gain, and cause cravings for fatty, fried and refined carbohydrates to spike, as well.”
. . . But if you do drink alcohol, moderation is key.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, not exactly, because definitions of what constitutes moderation tend to vary. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, defines moderate alcohol consumption as one drink a day for women and one to two drinks per day for men. The World Health Organization and the American Heart Association make similar recommendations. Still, alcohol intake can technically be part of a healthy diet if you’re careful about the type of alcohol, portion sizes per drink, and frequency.
“I believe in balance. For a lot us, being able to socially enjoy an alcoholic beverage with friends from time to time is part of that balance in life,” says Celebrity Chef and Nutritionist Serena Poon. “With alcohol, there are some health benefits that can be found in red wine, as well as white wine, that are considered heart-healthy. And, even beer has high levels of iron, silicon, and certain B vitamins. But having any alcohol at a ‘healthy level’ boils down to the amount of consumption. Be mindful that sipping on one or two drinks are enough to qualify as a healthy serving. If you’re going to have more than that, know that it crosses the line of healthy!”
Moderation is easier on the body.
Some researchers do support the upsides of drinking alcohol, though. A 2017 study found that people who drink three to four times per week were less likely to develop diabetes than those who never drink. Another study claimed people who drink moderately live longer than people who don’t. Some say that drinkers are less likely to die from heart disease, and moderate drinking can protect against heart attacks, strokes, and chest pain. But, alcohol does not have any nutritional value, says Madalynne Carattini, strength and conditioning specialist and nutritionist at FitnessTrainer.com. That’s why she advises people to stay within the range of one to three drinks per week. One drink means eight ounces of beer or wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
“It is possible to consume alcohol at a healthy level that doesn’t drastically affect your health in a negative way,” says Monsees. “If you make alcohol more of an ‘every once in a while’ rather than an every night thing, it’s going to be much easier on your body. Remember, alcohol is a toxin that the body works hard to get rid of every time you consume it. The more frequent the consumption, the more you’re going to be seeing negative side effects.”
Be wary of brands pushing “healthy” alternatives.
It’s easy to seek out brands or companies who advocate for “healthy” alcoholic alternatives. These include low-calorie mixed drinks from a bottle or sugar-free wine. But, experts warn against falling prey to marketing schemes backed by businesses who are really just trying to meet their bottom line.
“People tend to believe that alcohol is processed the same way as a diet soda and it’s simply about calories and sugar—except that’s only part of the problem,” says Rissetto. “Alcohol has to get broken down into ethanol and then into acetaldehyde (which is basically a poison) by liver enzymes for easier transport out of the bloodstream. Yes, it’s better if you drink spirits per se or no-calorie mixers, so your body doesn’t also have to do the extra job of extracting the alcohol from the sugary substances it’s been mixed with. But there’s no one drink that’s better than the other.”
You should also look out for bottom shelf beverages, especially when it comes to wine, says Monsees. “The same way companies will shortchange you by adding cheap, fake ingredients to processed food so they can produce and sell them for cheaper, a similar process happens with bottom shelf wines, which can contribute to hangovers,” she says. But, if you’re really seeking a “healthier” wine, fitness expert Meghan Takacs prefers FitVine. It is specifically made for athletes, due to lower sugar levels and fewer sulfites, which Monsees also supports.
Limit sugary cocktails, beer, artificial sweeteners, and bottom shelf drinks.
Most blended drinks with cream, high-sugar mixers, and bottom shelf or rail drinks end up being much higher in calories. Think frozen daiquiris and margaritas. Plus, the increased sugar content may cause a heck of a hangover. For example, Carattini says that one margarita can contain 400 calories, on average. Meanwhile, a tequila soda water ranges from 95-110 calories. Drinks with artificial sugars, like diet coke and vodka, can spike sugar cravings, says Poon. This is because artificial sweeteners are sweeter than regular sugar.
Beer is a little more complicated. Lower calorie versions definitely exist, but many types of beer can be calorie-dense, like craft brew styles. Still, one benefit to drinking beer involves portion size. It’s easier to know, for instance, that you’re having two beers in comparison to a glass of wine that seems to magically refill at a party. Plus, choosing a more filling beer may cause you to drink less overall. Some studies tote the benefits of beer. These include the promotion of gut health, reduced risk of heart disease, better bone density, and anti-inflammatory properties. However, Poon says beer can also lead to a host of digestive side effects, depending on one’s tolerance for gluten.
Stick to wine, clear liquors, and “neat” or “on the rocks” drinks.
Wine gets the best reputation as a health-friendly alcoholic choice, even though the reality is a bit more complex. Since grapes are rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant, most people automatically assume that’s a good thing. And it is—minus the fact that you’d need to drink a lot of wine per day to truly reap the benefits. And that goes against the whole point of moderation. But, Carattini does like red wine as an option, because there are at least some antioxidants involve. Plus, it contains a lower amount of sugar than most other drinks.
Watch out for mix-ins.
“There are definitely smarter choices for drinking,” says Pedraza. “Choose a skinny margarita (tequila, agave, and lime juice). Choose soda water over tonic. Watch out for the fruit juices added to mixed drinks. Anything frozen is full of sugar and upwards of 500 calories or more for one drink, so go with drinks over ice. And, limit the wine to less than three times per week if possible, as this stuff is still high in sugar.”
Carattini advises her clients to stick to liquors like tequila, whiskey, rum, and vodka, as well as red wine. “It’s less about the alcohol and more about the mix-ins,” she continues. “Almost all liquor is lower calorie. 1.5 ounces of each of these is anywhere from 65-100 calories, and the higher the quality, the fewer the calories.”
Some studies even show benefits to drinking tequila, such as the prevention of osteoporosis, increased weight loss, and reduced blood sugar. Overall, both Monsees and Poon prefer clear spirits, such as silver tequila or vodka, as the best low-cal options, especially when enjoyed “neat” (the liquor served with nothing added), on the rocks (with ice), or just with water added. “I’m often asked what kind of alcohol is ‘okay for a healthy diet,’ and my advice is always the same. Stick with a high-quality tequila and have it neat, with a little water added, or on the rocks,” adds Poon. “Tequila is distilled from the blue agave plant, so it’s low-cal, completely gluten-free, and more easily digestible. It’s also full of agavina, which is a natural sugar from the agave plant that actually lowers blood sugar levels and increases insulin production.”
Remember, drinking alcohol leads to dehydration.
No matter what you choose to drink, one too many will lead to dehydration. Aside from alternating each alcoholic drink with a glass of water, definitely fill up on H2O the next day to stay hydrated. Another tip: drink Pedialyte before bed as another way to help you replenish, says Takacs.
And that whole “sweat it out” concept for a hangover? It’s true, particularly if you stick to aerobic exercise instead of spring or HIIT-style workouts. “Anaerobic activity can be tough because it requires more of mobilizing the brain and body. And your brain can be a little foggy after a night of drinking,” advises Takacs. “Also, HIIT training requires more abrupt oxygen intake. [This] can be challenging, hence the dehydration. Running out the sweat is way better because one oxygen pathway is involved, with no required abrupt movement or speed work. Just sweat out the tequila.”
Your best bet for adding alcohol to a healthy lifestyle involves—you guessed it—going back to moderation. “If you want to have an alcoholic drink with a friend, by all means, enjoy yourself,” concludes Rissetto. “But, if this is a daily occurrence, it’s taxing on your body and your waistline.”