Should alcohol be part of your diet? The truth about the most popular drinks
It feels like alcohol is never out of the news. One week there’s a report about how damaging it is - the next week there’s scientific proof that it’s virtually a super-food. So what’s the truth behind the headlines? Is alcohol a tonic or a poison?
The truth is: it’s both.
Evidence shows that regular, very moderate drinking is good for the heart and circulatory system and probably beneficial against type 2 diabetes and gallstones.
But increase that dose and you’re actually harming your liver and heart and increasing your chances of breast cancer - not to mention the depression, violence and increased accidents that go hand in hand with too much booze.
So how much should you be drinking? And are some types of alcohol better for you than others?
Red wine has long been hailed as a health saviour. Scientists particularly enjoy declaring that the French eat lots of butter and cheese and yet suffer comparatively low rates of heart disease - in fact, they’ve dubbed this mystery the French Paradox.
Some scientists think it’s red wine itself that makes the difference, although others say it doesn’t matter what the alcohol is, moderate drinking has a cardiovascular benefit.
The trouble is, no-one can quite agree what ‘moderate’ means. A University of Sussex study looked at government drinking advice in 57 countries and discovered that guidelines varied wildly.
Some countries advise drinkers to have at least one alcohol-free day a week, while others don’t. They disagree about whether women can safely drink as much as men and eight of the 27 EU member states don’t even have clear guidelines.
Such disagreements muddy the water when it comes to findings that alcohol is beneficial against stroke and other cardiovascular disease, gallstones and type 2 diabetes.
One thing the experts do agree is that saving all your drinks up for the weekend, while not drinking during the week, isn’t good for your health. Little and often is the better option.
When it comes to health, spirits don’t score highly on the antioxidant content of other drinks, but they are low in calories (typically less than 60 calories for a measure). If calories are your main concern, a spirit with a diet mixer is a good choice.
Generally higher in calories than wine, there are some ‘light’ beer options, which typically weigh in at less than 100 calories for a bottle.
Beer also brings the benefit of B vitamins from its yeast content. Unfiltered beer is particularly high in B3 (good for cell repair), B6 (eases PMS) and folic acid (helps prevent colon cancer).
And there are a few other good things lurking inside a beer bottle - the fibre is a natural laxative and there’s some evidence to suggest it may help prevent gallstones and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as keeping bones strong. Beware though - heavy drinking has the opposite effect.
If you think of cocktails as simply spirits and fruit juice, you’re in for a nasty surprise. These tasty mixes can be the most calorific drinks of all.
Usually you’ll have no idea how many calories are packed into the one you’re sipping, so it’s very difficult to control. A pina colada, for example, can include anything up to 600 calories.
A typical mojito will be about 170 calories, which makes it a much more healthy choice, while martinis are usually pretty good when it comes to calories, hovering just under 130 calories, depending on the generosity of your bartender.
Surprisingly, studies have shown that spatial awareness (recognising your surroundings and performing complex tasks and calculations) can be improved after drinking champagne.
Lower in calories than both red and white wine, it also scores health points for being served in smaller portions.
Another piece of good news is that champagne is just as good for your heart as a glass of red - because it’s made from red and white grapes. It also contains polyphenol antioxidants, believed to lower blood pressure.
Red wine beats champagne on one count though - it contains flavonoids, another antioxidant with health benefits. Although if you pop some strawberries into your flute of fizz, they are packed with them. Problem solved.
The good news is that champagne’s more affordable cousins, prosecco and cava, share the same health benefits.
The key lies in the idea of moderation. If you’re at a party, try alternating alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic. Soda water with lime has the look of an elegant gin and tonic but you’ll stay sharp and hydrated while your fellow revellers are working up to a hangover.