Trying to understand scientific research on alcohol and drinking too much alcohol have one thing in common: they can both make your head spin.
One day you hear that moderate consumption of red wine supports heart health and the next day your news feed says any amount of alcohol is linked to increased disease risk. While it’s clear that drinking alcohol in excess can lead to negative health consequences, the final verdict on the hard stuff in moderation is still very much out. Despite the lack of clarity on alcohol’s health benefits, if any, many people still imbibe.
Not all alcohol is created equal, though, so if you do drink, knowing how different types and amounts of booze can affect you will help you drink smarter. In this guide, we’ll go through the worst to the healthiest alcohol so that you’re equipped with making the best choice at your next happy hour.
Beer tops the list of worst-for-you alcohol. Because beer is made from water, grain, hops, and yeast, it contains simple carbohydrates and empty calories that supply you with little nutritional benefit. Beyond that, some brewers add sugars and unmalted grains to enhance the beer’s flavor which can up the overall carb load and calorie count.
An average 12-ounce beer contains around 150 calories, about 10 grams of carbohydrate and approximately 5% alcohol by volume (ABV). ABV is the most important factor to look for when selecting your brew, because beers with higher ABVs are typically higher in calories and will increase your total alcohol consumption. Typically, darker beers have a higher ABV, so it’s best to avoid dark red, amber, or brown beers like stouts, craft beers and lagers and stick to lighter varieties of beers like pilsners.
Carbs and calories aside, many beers are made specifically from wheat or barley grains which contain gluten and can be problematic for those with celiac disease, non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergies. Those with problems digesting gluten and wanting to sip on a brew, should stick to beers that are certified gluten-free and made from gluten-free grains such as corn or rice.
While there are a few select studies pointing to some positive impacts of beer drinking, most studies confirm that beer consumption is directly linked with both an increase in waist circumference and body weight and in excess, poses a risk to overall health and longevity.
Wine contains carbohydrates and sugars similar to beer, but it’s also packed with beneficial bioactive compounds that give it a leg up on ale. The two most studied include resveratrol and quercetin. These antioxidants are most concentrated in red wines, about 10 times more abundant than in any other alcoholic drink, because reds ferment longer with the skin, seeds, and sediment of the grape in tact. White wines, rosé, champagne, and prosecco contain less concentrated amounts of antioxidants, but they tend to be lower in calories, averaging about 110 to 120 calories per 5 ounce glass in comparison to 130 to 150 calories for most reds.
Scientifically, the benefits of wine have been well studied but the results are somewhat conflicting. There are multiple studies that have tied resveratrol in wine to lowering blood pressure, improving lipid balance and fighting against cognitive decline and general aging; but other studies failed to find any effects on resveratrol in humans. Recent reports even suggest resveratrol might inhibit certain positive effects of exercise.
Quercetin, the other antioxidant in wine, has been found to independently help reduce inflammation, improve neurological function, regulate blood pressure and relieve allergy symptoms but associations with these benefits from drinking wine is not as clearly defined. However, studies have confirmed that red wine can promote the absorption of quercetin which suggests that some of its benefits can be reaped through vino.
Despite these potential antioxidant benefits, it’s worth noting that wine is the most advantageous to health only if it is consumed in moderation. For example, while individuals who drink about 1 serving of red wine daily have about 32% lower risk for heart disease, intake above this threshold dramatically increased the likelihood of cardiovascular events, exceeding that of non-drinkers.
Quality is also an important consideration with wine. The quality of wine refers to the conditions in which the grapes were cultivated, fermented and processed. Conventionally grown wine grapes are one of the crops most extensively treated with pesticides. However, organic, biodynamic, and natural wines diverge from these mass-market practices to create wines without pesticides and of higher quality and nutritional value.
Wines also contain sulfites that naturally occur during the wine-making process. Often times, additional sulfites are added to conventional wines as preservatives. Many people are unaware of their sensitivity to sulfites—about 1 in 100 people have a reaction according to the FDA. Reactions can include dizziness, flushing, trouble swallowing, hives, and upset stomach. Some research has also linked sulfites to hangovers but findings have been inconclusive.
Your best bet is likely a dry, preferably red, organic, biodynamic and/or natural variety. Great companies such as Dry Farm Wines are a great place to look into for a wine that checks all the boxes!
Liquor is often vilified for its high percentage of alcohol or for being consumed in conjunction with sugary mixers, but on its own, liquor actually comes in number one on our healthiest alcohol countdown. Distilled liquors contain zero grams of carbohydrates and zero grams of sugar which inherently means they’re the least likely to impact your blood sugar and metabolism. Don’t be fooled by flavored liquors or liqueurs though, which may contain added sugars, flavorings, and even cream and pack a much higher carbohydrate load than their purely distilled cousins.
Because liquors are much higher in alcohol content than beer or wine, quantity is one of the biggest factors in making it a healthier choice. A single serving of hard liquor is just 1.5 ounces which is equivalent to the alcohol content in 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer. With such a little amount per serving, make sure to steer clear of sugary cocktails or sweetened mixers if hoping to make the healthiest choice. Instead, enjoy your booze on the rocks or add soda water and a wedge of your favorite citrus fruit for a flavor boost without the added sugar.
The biggest differences amongst varying types of liquors are what they’re distilled from and how they’re aged. These affect not only the color of the liquor but the nutritional quality. Darker liquors like whiskey, scotch, and bourbon contain congeners, a substance which is made during the fermentation process. Congeners refer to a number of compounds including acetone and tannins that are produced during fermentation and aging.
Some studies show that congeners may worsen hangovers leading to slower detoxification from the liver and greater dehydration. Other studies, however, have found little ill effects of congeners at all, so it remains unclear whether this differentiation can truly rule out darker liquors as the less healthy choice. Keep in mind that some clear liquors, dark beers, and red wines contain congeners too!
In the whiskey family, which includes booze like bourbon and scotch, alcohol is distilled from grain mash consisting of barley, rye, or wheat. Some studies have shown that moderate amounts of whiskey can slow cognitive decline, promote heart health, and reduce blood clot formation, because it contains ellagic acid, a natural antioxidant which helps to fight free radicals in the body.
Despite these benefits, ellagic acid can be found in healthier food choices including berries, pomegranates, and grapes if you’re looking to reap the benefits without the buzz. Those that are sensitive to gluten should also avoid liquors in the whiskey family as they’re primarily distilled from gluten-containing grains and might cause a reaction for those that are sensitive.
Rum is primarily made today in Latin America and the Caribbean islands and distilled from the byproducts of sugarcane, including sugarcane juice or molasses.
Research on rum is limited and split. Some studies have tied the spirit to a decreased incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease while other findings have found no improvements in inflammation or health markers in rum drinkers at all.
Because rum is distilled from sugarcane, most varieties are gluten-free and safe for those with Celiac and gluten sensitivities to consume.
Vodka and Gin
Most vodkas and gins are made from potatoes or fermented grains such as corn, sorghum, rice, rye or wheat.
Gin is also distilled with juniper berries and other botanicals, which give it a nutritional edge. Juniper extract and essential oil have been shown to help fight infection, improve cholesterol levels, and fight against kidney and liver disease. Studies have shown that the antioxidant properties of juniper berries are present in the finalized gin product and thus, might have similar beneficial effects when consumed in moderate amounts.
Moderate vodka consumption has also been found to have positive effects on increasing blood flow and circulation in the body which accounts for its studied benefits in helping to reduce stress and improve heart health.
Those with wheat or gluten allergies or sensitivities should opt for gin and vodka distilled from potatoes or gluten-free grains, such as Tito’s, Chopin, or Hendrick’s.
Tequila and mezcal are distilled from the agave plant but tequila must be specifically distilled from blue agave while mezcal can be made from more than 30 different varieties of aloe-like succulents.
According to the Tequila Regulatory Council, some tequila may include fillers such as corn while mezcal, by law, must be distilled from 100 percent agave— making it the cleaner choice of the two.
Recent research has shown that tequila contains compounds called agavins from the blue agave plant which have shown can help to lower blood sugar levels, curb appetite, and improve bone density. To date, there has been little scientific research that has looked into the specific benefits of mezcal for human health. However, because all tequila is technically a type of mezcal, many of tequila’s benefits may hold true for tequila’s smoky cousin.
For those who have Celiac disease or a known sensitivity to gluten, tequila and mezcal rank among the safest spirits you can drink.
Final thoughts on healthy alcoholic drinks
Excess alcohol consumption can increase your risk of a variety of diseases in addition to accidents, violence, crime, and addiction. When thinking about alcohol, we need to treat its inclusion in our lifestyle as a recreational treat. If you don’t drink alcohol, we don’t recommend starting and if you do drink alcohol, we suggest you limit consumption to one serving a few times per week at a max. These guidelines can help you drink smartly:
- Opt for purely distilled alcohol in 1.5 ounce servings paired with club soda and a twist of citrus or enjoyed on the rocks. Know what your liquor is distilled from and if any fillers are added to ensure the highest quality.
- If you want wine, choose an organic, natural, or biodynamic 5 ounce glass of dry red
- If you really want a beer, stick to 12 ounces of a light, low carb and calorie variety with an ABV of ~5%.
- As a refresher, one drink equates to 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol, or 12 ounces of beer.