Ask LH: Which Alcoholic Drinks Are 'Healthiest'?

Dear Lifehacker, I like to drink socially. I also like being healthy. Yes, I know these two things are not 100 per cent aligned, but that's between me and my god. What I want to know is this: When I'm ordering my next drink, which drinks are the "healthiest" options, from a caloric perspective?

Signed, Healthier Highball

Hi Highball,

I get where you're coming from, and, hey, as you've no doubt heard before, moderate drinking has some possible health benefits (though even that line of thinking may be a sham). One thing we know for sure is that regularly drinking in excess is very unhealthy -- whether for your liver or your waistline. So, like you said, rather than delve into hand-wringing over the health aspects of the alcohol itself, let's simply focus on the question: What drinks are healthiest from a caloric perspective?

I'll try to make this quick.

Wine Is Better than Beer, Beer Is Better than Mixed Drinks: Sometimes True Except When It Isn't

There are no hard-and-fast rules across alcohol categories; the total calorie count can vary considerably depending on what goes into your drink of choice. Let's say you're just having one drink. Generally speaking, a serving of wine has fewer calories than a serving of beer, which in turn has fewer calories than a serving of many mixed drinks. Naturally, that's far too easy, and as such, is not always true.

Let's break it down by type:

Note: For brevity, I'm focusing on calories and skipping talk about carbs. As everyone knows, beer has a lot of carbs. Most wines and liquors are low-carb affairs.

The Easiest Choices: Wine or Liquor

If you want to make the choice as simple as possible, go with wine or liquor. Note that I said liquor, not mixed drinks. As WebMD points out:

"It's the mixers, syrups, and sodas that really get people into calorie trouble, because most drinks start with 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits that only have around 96 calories, but mixologists can easily turn that into a drink with hundreds of calories," says Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD, co-author of The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous.

If calories are a concern, and you're a lover of the liquor on its own, consider ordering it neat or on the rocks and skipping the mixer altogether. According to this website's measures, a 45mL serving of vodka, gin, whiskey, rum or tequila packs a roughly 100-calorie punch. Not bad.

A 150mL serving of wine (red, white, cab, grigio) will likewise pack in about 100 calories.

Beer: It Can Cost You

So then there's beer. Again, these numbers will vary depending on the beer your order (and the size of the glass). Website Beer100's fairly comprehensive calorie chart lists "light" beers ranging 90-100 calories per 350mL serving, while topping out at around 300 calories.

Generally speaking, "light" beer has fewer calories than a traditional lager, which has fewer calories than an ale. For most beer lovers, that basically means flavour is directly proportional to calories. Want more flavour? Prepare for a higher-calorie drink.

Mixed Drinks: Know Your Ingredients

Mixed drinks have the highest potential for going calorically astronomical. As discussed above, you're normally starting with a base of about 100 calories for your liquor. Once you start adding mixers, you've got to add your mixer to the count -- and most mixers add up fast. According to WebMD, a 180mL pina colada is about 380 calories (more than pretty much any serving of beer, wine or straight liquor). An 230mL mojito is 214 calories (more calories than a serving of wine, more than some beers, less than a 45mL serving of your favourite liquor).

Drink Like This

You don't want pull out your calorie calculator next time you saddle up to the bar, so with all that out of the way, you'd probably still like some more specific directions. So let's talk brass tacks:

  • Drink wine. It's low in calories.
  • Drink liquor. By itself. It's low in calories.
  • If you can't do without your mixed drinks, consider diet tonic, soft drinks or juices. WebMD offers this list of low-calorie mixers.
  • If diet mixers aren't an option, most martinis are low on calories (apart from the obvious, like chocolate martinis)
  • Gin and tonic is not bad (around 200 calories), but the tonic can add up fast.
  • Light beer is healthier than your favourite pale ale. Shocker!
  • If you want to face off your favourite drinks, head over to website Get Drunk Not Fat.

As a casual drinker myself, I get that there's a tradeoff for many of you. For a lot of these options, you're trading fewer calories for less flavour. (The big exception: liquor. You get more flavour than most can handle for a low caloric price tag.) Sure, I like the tingly, inhibition-lowering aspects of drinking, but I actually really like the taste of my alcohols of choice. If you want to avoid the waistline bulge but you also want to drink what you like, it works like this:

  • Once you have more than two drinks, you're already in "unhealthy" territory. If it's a simple social gathering and not a wild night out, the healthiest thing will be to cut yourself off after a couple.
  • Try switching between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks throughout the night. Sparkling water with a squeeze of citrus can be refreshing, and it has the added benefit of not looking like a buzz kill.

Obviously this isn't a silver bullet situation. Find what works for you and go with it. If self-control is a problem, and you have a hard time cutting yourself off, then you want to aim in the vicinity of the low-calorie but often less-flavourful drinks. If you're good at cutting yourself off, I recommend the indulgence... at least short of the 400-calorie flaming mixed drinks.

Cheers Lifehacker

PS Got a favourite, go-to "healthy" drink? Share it in the comments, complete with ingredients and calorie-count.

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Comments

    Vodka, lemon, lime and soda - usually a squeeze of lemon& lime cordial mixed with soda water, and vodka of course. Apparently very low on the calories

      Or take it one step further and ditch the cordial. Vodka, fresh-squeezed lime and soda may not satisfy the sweet tooth, but it's refreshing, keeps your electrolytes up and you properly hydrated. Importantly, it's also relatively kind to you the next morning.

    While we're at it, I like to be healthy while stuffing my face with deep fried chocolate. What is the healthiest chocolate to deep fry before consuming?

      This comment.

      Dark chocolate, the 70%-80% stuff. Also try to use something like canola oil for the frying; it's better than many oils but still has a high smoke point (which you want). After frying, lay the chocolate out on paper towels to absorb excess oil and cool.

      Enjoy your healthy, guilt-free deep-fried chocolate!

        Guilt-Free my ass!

    Single malt scotch. With ice and a litttle water. Flavour, aroma and alcohol without big calories.

    Vodka, Lime (either squeeze of fresh lime or a bit of cordial, sometimes both) and water does it for me, I love it and have always woken up a bit lighter than the night before, even when I grab something to eat after.

    Wild turkey American honey + vanilla coke,Best drink ever IMO

    Healthy does not simply mean low calories though – what about nutrients? If we ignore the negatives of alcohol (which must be assumed in this discussion), then consider a Bloody Mary:
    30 Vodka (64 cal) – one standard drink
    200 ml tomato juice (44 cal – BUT watch out for salt – 436 mg of sodium)
    Teaspoon Worcestershire (4 cal)
    Tabasco, lemon juice, salt, pepper (to taste – negligible calories)
    Celery stick stalk (5 calories)

    Total Cal 117.

    A 285ml glass of beer (standard drink) – average of 103.

    BUT a beer has none of the purported benefits of tomato juice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomato_juice - specifically lycopene - but the potential for other vitamins etc), nor the filling effect of the juice (I can have 9 or 10 beers a night, but couldn’t do the same volume of tomato juice), and eating the celery should also keep the beer nuts and chips at bay).

      Bloody Mary is also my healthy drink. I've never been sure if it really is much more healthy, I just figure its good for me cos its got veges in it.

    Healthiest Alcoholic drink..... As far as your liver is concerned - Who cares!!! lol

    Gimlet, James Bonds other drink...

    We use kJ in Australia, not calories.

    You should have been clearer that some of the sugar free, caffeine free 'diet' drinks are only around 8kJ per serve, which means they will add only 1.9 calories to each drink you mix (so 101.9 calories for a mixed vodka drink). Sure, you'll be drinking a chemical cocktail that will probably give you cancer, but at least you'll get fat slower.

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