During the holiday season, alcohol is omnipresent. But what drinks will have the least deleterious effect on your overall health and fitness levels?
Liquor and mixed drinks
Fancy cocktails may be your worst option for holiday drinking. Not only do these have the potency of the alcohol, but the mixers carry with them loads of sugar and frequently chemical additives. Jamie Saal VanEaton, author of the Boulder-based blog Your Lighter Side, says “Sugar in mixed drinks not only adds to the depressive function of alcohol, it causes a blood sugar drop, which either is generally assuaged with more alcohol or more food–neither of which is optimal for holiday health”.
Even the more natural mixers like 100% orange juice carry a significant load of sugar, while many so-called “juice drinks” used in cocktails, like cranberry and lime, are sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
The alcoholic beverage itself ranges in additive levels from vodka (ethanol and water – as pure as you can get) to less-pure distilled liquors like whiskey that have no added calories but have impurities from the original ingredients or from aging that can lead to hangovers (and a bad workout the next day), to liqueurs and cordials that have large amounts of added flavors and sugar.
While beer is the go-to drink for many party goers, the grain-based carbohydrates may cause problems for some drinkers – in many cases making them feel worse than the alcohol itself. The primary culprit is gluten, a protein found in most grains (including wheat and barley), but even gluten-free grains such as rice have similar proteins that can cause low-level problems for anyone with sensitivities, and major problems for those with celiac disease! And of course, the high carbohydrate level means big problems for insulin resistance.
In most festive occasions in our culture, wine is sure to be present. Researchers have praised the health benefits of red wine recently, and there really does appear to be some modest health benefit to moderate wine consumption (on the order of 1-2 glasses, a few days each week). Like all alcoholic drinks, however, wine presents its problems for the healthy lifestyle, even if it does have some health benefits.
The final word
Despite research showing some health benefits from polyphenols in red wine, and even some benefits from beer, and from alcohol in general, it cannot reasonably be considered a “health food”. Alcohol is, at its root, a toxin that needs to be flushed out of the system. Your liver, critical in fat burning, will always be utilized to metabolize what your body regards as a poison before taking care of less critical tasks like helping you lose the love handles. So what is the best way to minimize the damage from alcohol during the festive holiday season?
- Know what components of your beverages have the worst effects on you. If you have sensitivities to grains, stay away from beer. If tannins give you headaches, avoid aged liquors and red wine. As Jamie mentioned above, sugar amplifies the negative effects of alcohol along with being toxic in its own right. In general, you should keep off the mixed drinks.
- Drink plenty of water. A tall glass of water between each drink not only helps prevent the ravages of dehydration (one of the primary causes of hangovers), but can also significantly slow down your drinking.
- Even the most serious proponents of alcohol-for-health emphasize moderate amounts – 1-2 drinks per day is the upper limit you’ll ever see recommended for health benefits. More commonly is a maximum of one drink for women, two for men, not more than 3-4 days per week.
- Most importantly is the role of planning and decision-making. Remember that you don’t have to imbibe every time drinks are offered. As with all holiday “treats” (Santa cookies, anyone?) opportunities to wreck your diet abound. Choose what events – and what drinks – will provide the most enjoyment for you and stick with those.
It has been said that “everything you do, every decision you make, either takes you a step closer or a step further away from your goal”. While alcohol may have some minor antioxidant benefits, in general every drink – whether a sugary-sweet margarita or an ultra-light low-carb beer – take you further from your health and fitness goals. Go into each drinking occasion with this in mind, and you’ll find yourself making better choices, and probably enjoying each sip a little more.