Alcohol isn't exactly a health food, but it can be hard to pass up a drink (or two) even when you're trying to eat well. How can you make sure you're not ruining your health too badly with a night out? Here's what you need to know.
Decide how much you care
Is alcohol good or bad for you? Like most things in life, it's sort of both. The good: occasional drinks of alcohol, and specifically red wine, may have a small benefit for your heart health. (This benefit is probably overstated, though.) The bad: almost everything else.
Not to mention all the obvious effects you know about: Alcohol can impair your judgement, make you more likely to get into car accidents or drown or get injured, give you a raging hangover the next day, and destroy your liver if you drink heavily for years on end.
So, on balance, it's still pretty bad for you. But like with anything else, we balance risks and benefits. And plenty of the benefits aren't health-related at all: alcoholic drinks can taste good, for example, or help us relax at the end of a long work week.
I drive a car even though I know there's a small risk I could get into an accident, and by the same logic I drink alcohol even though I know it poses a small risk to my health. You have to decide where you, personally, want to draw the line.
Know which drinks are high in calories
There's no such thing as a zero-calorie alcoholic drink, because alcohol itself has calories. Some drinks have calories from other ingredients as well, typically sugar:
Any standard-sized drink has about 98 calories from alcohol. You can't make a drink with any fewer calories than that, unless you want it to be less alcoholic.
The lowest —calorie drinks are hard liquor with zero-calorie mixers, like a rum and diet coke, gin with diet tonic water, or scotch and soda. They'll all be around that 98-calorie benchmark.
Beers are 120 to 150 calories and up. The calories come mostly from alcohol, plus a little bit from carbs. Light beers are low in alcohol, thus low in calories. High ABV beers can be higher calorie, with plenty of brands over 200.
Wines are 110 to 140, depending on the alcohol content and the amount of sugar. (A standard drink of wine, comparable to a 40mL shot of hard liquor, is 140mL at 12 per cent ABV). Lower-alcohol wines are fewer calories, of course, and dry wines are lower calorie than sweet.
Anything super sweet is hundreds of calories, whether that's a fishbowl margarita, a spiked shake, or a mixed drink with large amounts of fruit juice, Coke, or syrup.
Calorie counts will vary with serving size as well, of course. While alcoholic drinks don't have to label their calories, you can find calorie counts online from many manufacturers, and estimated calorie counts for popular cocktail recipes. If you have a favourite order, look it up now, so you don't have to think about it when you're at the bar.
You can't detox your way out of a hangover
Getting intravenous vitamins the next morning won't kill your hangover. Neither will a charcoal drink, either before or after your night out. There is no special recipe, no food or drink that will negate alcohol's effect on your body, either long or short term.
Once you feel buzzed, the alcohol has hit your bloodstream and it's being metabolised. You can't reverse that process to make it like you never drank.
You can slow it down, slightly: If you eat food with alcohol, the alcohol will enter your bloodstream more slowly than if you were to drink on an empty stomach. You can get the same effect by nursing a drink over the course of an hour or two.
After the fact, some people swear by Gatorade to help a hangover. It certainly doesn't hurt to hydrate, but don't expect miracles (and do read the labels — Gatorade is more sugary than you might realise). But in the end, if you want to escape the downsides of drinking, the only way to do that is to drink less or not at all.