Alcohol’s purported health benefits have given way to a more sobering reality in recent years.
No level of alcohol consumption is safe for health, the World Health Organization warns, noting alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer.
To reduce the harm, the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend skipping alcohol altogether or drinking it in moderation, defined as two drinks maximum a day for men, one drink or less a day for women. Women’s drinking has been of particular concern.
People who don’t drink now shouldn’t start. In 2023, Canada began recommending people have no more than two drinks per week.
Still, if people choose to drink alcohol in moderation, there are some preferred go-to options, experts say.
“This is a fun indulgence, so choose wisely for taste, serving size and calories,” says NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., certified nutrition specialist.
“If you’re going to drink, there are better choices than others,” adds Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist who once worked as a bartender.
Is any alcohol healthy?
There’s not enough documented health benefit from any type of alcohol to impact short- or long-term health, even red wine, Fernstrom says. The small amount of mixer, such as kombucha, orange juice or tomato juice, people add to some drinks is also not enough to justify a “health benefit,” she adds.
So within the limits of moderation, choose the alcohol you enjoy, but keep in mind the calories in drinks, Fernstrom notes. For example, a bottle of beer can have up to 350 calories; a pina colada has more than 500.
“They go into your body like any other calories and get processed as such,” Hultin, author of “Meal Prep for Weight Loss 101,” tells TODAY.com.
Top healthiest alcoholic drinks
Given all the warnings about alcohol, think of this category as the least unhealthy alcoholic drinks:
A glass of champagne or sparking white wine
A glass of sparkling white wine has about 100 calories. You can even add a splash of orange juice for a refreshing mimosa, Fernstrom says.
“Wine is a go-to for many people, but not of particular health benefit,” she notes. “A ‘spritzer’ is always a good choice — club soda and wine. The bubbles slow down your pace of drinking and cut the calories in half. So you can enjoy another glass for the same alcohol serving size.”
The standard serving size for wine is 5 ounces.
Dry red or white wines, or dry sparkling wine, also don’t have added sugar like a lot of other drinks, Hultin adds.
Specifically, beer with lower alcohol by volume, such as Guinness. A standard 12-ounce serving of the smooth dark beer has almost same alcohol content as many light beers, “but (is) very satisfying,” Fernstrom says. “And fermented, which supports gut health.”
Pilsners and lagers also tend to be lower in alcohol and are less calorically dense, Hultin says.
This includes tequila, rum or vodka, “which are pretty pure,” Hultin notes. “On their own or mixed with soda water, those can actually be a good choice in the right portion.”
The problem comes when people pour too much or add a sugary mixer. The standard size for spirits is 1.5 ounces. It’s under 100 calories, and you can keep it there with a club soda mixer, low-calorie tonic water or low-calorie soda, Fernstrom advises.
She suggests drinks such as vodka and club soda with a twist of lemon or orange; rum and diet cola, gin and low-sugar tonic, or a small martini.
Canned hard seltzer or hard kombucha
It contains about 100 calories and the can offers good portion control — just make sure to choose a product without added sugar, Fernstrom says.
Which alcohol is least damaging to the liver?
They all have the same impact because the liver has to process alcohol no matter what form it comes in, “so that’s a volume situation,” Hultin says.
What is the healthiest alcohol for your heart?
The answer appears to be none.
Although past studies indicated moderate drinking has protective health benefits, more recent research shows this may not be true, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes.
Drinking any amount of alcohol is associated with increased risk of heart disease, a 2022 study found.
What is the lowest calorie alcohol?
Light beer has about 100 calories per a 12-ounce bottle, according to the National Library of Medicine.
A 1.5 ounce serving of gin, rum, vodka and whiskey also contains about 100 calories.
For mixed drinks, stick with a Bloody Mary at 120 calories, a rum and Diet Coke at 100 calories, or a Mojito at 143 calories.
Tips for healthier drinking
Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Alcohol is unique in that it gets absorbed right through the stomach, which can hit people faster, Hultin says. “I really recommend that people drink alcohol while eating food, because it’s going to slow the absorption of alcohol and how fast it gets into your bloodstream,” she notes.
Alcohol is dehydrating, so it’s always a good idea to have a glass of water to sip on hand, especially in hot weather, Fernstrom adds.
Skip fruit juice mixers. They’re loaded with extra sugar. That includes drinks like Long Island iced tea made with multiple types of spirits and juices, which can contain 500 calories or more, Fernstrom says.
Be careful with tropical drinks. They’re also full of calories and can contain saturated fat if coconut cream is added in, Hultin notes. The alcohol in fruity, sweet tropical drinks is well masked and goes down so easily that people can drink them too quickly and overdo it, Fernstrom adds.