You don't need alcohol to relax and unwind, but the practice is ritualized in our culture as one that helps you "let your hair down.” However, as we all know, "too much of a good thing can be, well, too much," Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., CNS, notes. "The most healthy way to drink is in moderation and alongside plenty of water to counterbalance the diuretic effects," explains nutritionist Serena Poon.
Hardly groundbreaking news, but what exactly does drinking in moderation look like? "This is a tricky question because the line between healthy drinking and unhealthy drinking is really more about total consumption than individual drinks," explains Poon. Gittleman advises, "one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men as moderate alcohol consumption."
Drinking in moderation can also help you avoid some of alcohol's negative physical effects. "If you want to avoid other negative effects like hangovers, weight gain, and sleep disruption, stick to beverages that are lower in sugar, contain clear alcohol, and are lower in calories. Drinking sugary beverages can disrupt your blood sugar and cause problems with sleep and metabolism. Just the alcohol can send your blood sugar levels for a spin on its own, and the combination can create hypoglycemia," which can contribute to that shaky feeling you might experience after a night of drinking.
You also want to regulate when you drink. Poon emphasizes, "The digestion of alcohol can really affect your sleep, and quality sleep is one of the most important factors in overall health. Researchers have found that it’s best to drink at least four hours before bedtime to avoid disrupting sleep." Gittleman concurs, adding that happy hour can be dangerous without the proper precautions. "Blood sugar tends to be the lowest around 5:00 p.m. when you’re feeling tired, hungry, and thirsty. Grabbing that happy hour drink before dinner can set you up for a blood sugar crash later, so be sure to eat a good, solid meal with plenty of blood sugar-stabilizing protein like meat, poultry, or fish when you’re drinking."
Finally, some people should avoid drinking altogether. Poon makes the following recommendation. "Communities who would want to abstain completely would include pregnant women, people who struggle with alcohol abuse, people with certain conditions such as liver disease, and people who are on certain medications," Gittleman adds that because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it's important to check if any medications you’re taking are contraindicated. "This includes over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen," she says, "which can interact with alcohol to cause stomach bleeding and liver damage when taken in large amounts. And if you’re taking an antibiotic, it’s best to avoid alcohol until you’ve finished the treatment, as it can depress your immune system and delay your recovery from infections."
Other populations might want to avoid alcohol to stay committed to a healthy lifestyle. "In my opinion," says Poon, "abstaining from alcohol is helpful for people who are trying to lose weight and people who are training for an endurance event or preparing for a big presentation at work. Also, if you are having troubles with your digestion or with anxiety, you may want to consider abstaining from alcohol to see if it helps."
If, however, you fall outside these populations and choose to imbibe, some alcohol is healthier than others. As a rule of thumb, Poon suggests, "the simpler, the better. When choosing alcoholic beverages, avoid syrups, sweet mixers, sodas, and tonic water. Instead, stick to one or two ingredient drinks, high-quality clear alcohols, and hydrating mixers such as water and soda water." In addition, Gittleman suggests adding herbal garnishes to drinks, like mint, basil, ginger, or rosemary, for flavor.
Ahead, Poon and Gittleman offer 15 of the healthiest alcoholic drinks to choose from the next time you want to imbibe.
Red wine is widely recognized as one of the healthiest alcoholic drinks out there. Poon notes that it's "relatively low in calories and also offers some health benefits." She adds that red wine is rich in antioxidants such as resveratrol and proanthocyanidins and can promote cardiovascular health.
Gittleman concurs, adding that "studies have shown that drinking a moderate amount [of red wine] with an alcohol content of 12% to 15% daily can help prevent heart disease." She advises looking for red wines made from high-fiber Tempranillo grapes, such as Rioja, as these "have been shown to lower bad cholesterol levels." Additionally, she says the "polyphenols in red wines also help to keep blood vessels flexible and may even lower the risk of cancer."
Tequila On the Rocks
While tequila is still technically classified as a depressant, it's well-known as an "upper." This concept is heavily debated, but there is some evidence that suggests tequila may not have as severe of depressive qualities compared to other alcohols. "Oftentimes, people report feeling better after drinking tequila," says Poon. She points out that some "small studies indicate that it is possible that the sugars in tequila do not shift blood sugar levels like other alcohols."
Low in calories and sugar, a vodka soda is widely recognized as one of the healthier cocktail options in the bar. Plus, Poon notes that "soda water is hydrating, so it’s nice to mix a small amount of clear alcohol with a hydrating beverage. Then, add a splash of [citrus] for a bit of vitamin C."
There are additional health benefits to the spirit, according to Gittleman. "Vodka, for example, can improve blood circulation and helps to develop collateral vessels which connect the heart to the lungs," adds Gittleman. In addition, she advises you to opt for a gluten-free variety, like Tito's, Blue Ice, Chopin, or Crystal Head.
Fresh veggies make this cocktail a win-win. "I like Bloody Mary cocktails because they are full of vegetables!" says Poon. "You would want to keep consumption to a minimum, though, as each drink packs in quite a few calories." Also, keep an eye out for garnishes and add-ins packed with sodium.
Mezcal On the Rocks
A smoky flavor makes mezcal memorable on the palate. Sip it slowly to enjoy. Poon notes, "like tequila, mezcal doesn’t seem to spike blood sugar as much as other alcohols," which makes it a healthier choice.
Spritzers are ideal when the temperatures rise. "Though not particularly popular in the United States," says Poon, "I do like the practice of mixing wine with sparkling water. Not only does this cut back on the alcohol and calorie content of each drink, but it also adds a hydrating element."
Sparkling wines and Champagne can be a relatively healthy way to enjoy an indulgent cocktail. The key is to choose a dry variety. "Dry wines indicate a lower level of sugar," says Poon. "If you are worried about sugar consumption, dry champagne is the way to go!"
Mulled wines are popular around the holidays, but you can enjoy them year-round. "Mulled wine pairs the antioxidants of red wine with a blend of healthful spices and herbs that can give your drink a therapeutic boost," explains Poon.
When selecting a wine, Gittleman advises you to opt for an organic variety. "Certified organic wines have less sugar, additives, and preservatives and may prevent headaches the next day," she says.
Margarita with Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
"Skinny" margaritas are hot (especially if you infuse yours with jalapeño) and delicious; plus, you can enjoy the fun of a "mixed drink" without the added sugars. "The key here," explains Poon, "is to ditch the bottled syrup and lime juice and stick with fresh lime, high-quality tequila, ice, and maybe a splash of soda water." Your bartender will most likely know how to fashion one of these popular drinks.
If a slight buzz is what you're after, a hard kombucha might be a refreshing choice. "I like hard kombucha because they are naturally fermented and offer the probiotic benefits," says Poon.
Low Calorie Beer
Do you know low-calorie beer? Think again. Poon points out the latest trend: craft beers that are "sub-100 calories."
Plus, beer packs a pretty healthy punch. "An American Journal of the Medical Sciences study states that “beer contains more protein and B vitamins than wine," notes Gittleman. "The antioxidants and flavonoids in beer are different than those in wine, but they still boast some hefty nutritional benefits along with other ingredients such as B vitamins, phosphorus, folate and niacin and even high levels of calcium and magnesium."
A refreshing option, cider may, notes Poon, contain almost as many antioxidants as a glass of red wine.
Paloma with Fresh Squeezed Grapefruit Juice
Palomas are on-trend—even better, when made with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, soda water, and tequila, they can be refreshingly healthy, or as Poon notes, "healthier," than other mixed drink options.
Specialty Cocktails Made with Fresh-Pressed Vegetable Juice
Poon says, "Depending on where you are, it might be possible to get a cocktail made with fresh-pressed green juices." It's super important that you avoid bottled green juices (often packed with sugar) and stick with a fresh-pressed variety.
Fresh-Made Hot Toddy
Opt for high-quality whiskey in your hot-toddy. Poon suggests mixing in "fresh lemon, fresh ginger, and honey" to add a healthful boost to your cocktail.
Short and sweet: Associations between self-reported sleep duration and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption among adults in the United States. Sleep Health. 2016;2(4):272-276.
Alcohol and hormones - alcohol alert no. 26-1994.