Can Alcohol Be Part of a Healthy Diet?

By: Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.

Is it OK to drink alcohol if you're trying to eat a healthier diet? Plus, find out which drinks are best to choose.

mimosas with juice cubes

Can moderate alcohol consumption help your health? When it comes to drinking alcohol, there are a few things to consider for including it as part of a healthy diet. We looked at the research around weight loss and heart health when it comes to alcohol plus give our picks for best drinks and what a serving of alcohol is. 

Weight Loss

If you're watching your weight, you may try to lay off alcoholic drinks to cut calories. Alcohol may boost your appetite and loosen your inhibitions (dietary and otherwise). But despite that reputation, “epidemiologic studies have always noted that people who consume alcohol moderately are leaner than nondrinkers or heavy drinkers,” says R. Curtis Ellison, M.D., an expert on alcohol and health at Boston University.
Nobody really knows why but one reason may be how it is broken down in the body; while alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, “it doesn’t go through the usual pathways that carbohydrates, fats and proteins do,” Ellison explains, so some of those calories appear to be wasted rather than used. And, when enjoyed with a meal, alcohol can slow down eating so that satiety kicks in sooner. What about the proverbial “beer belly”? Whether it’s beer, wine or whiskey, you’re more likely to get the belly bulge with heavy consumption or binge drinking than with daily moderate sipping, says Ellison.

Heart Health

Even though it sounds a little too good to be true, research shows that people who drink in moderation have a lower risk of heart disease than people who don't drink at all. Alcohol may actually raise your good cholesterol and help decrease inflammation. It's not just red wine either, though that does contain the heart-healthy antioxidant, resveratrol. It's not to say that you should start drinking to protect your heart, but if you enjoy a glass in moderation it may help keep your heart healthy.

How Much Alcohol Is Healthy to Drink?

One drink has between 100 and 135 calories, and that's just the alcohol—not anything you mix it with. Experts recommend moderate alcohol consumption, which is no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. And that doesn't mean one extra-large margarita or glass of wine, it means one standard drink. 

A standard drink is: 

12 fluid ounces of beer 

5 fluid ounces of wine

1.5 fluid ounces of spirits 

Lots of beer is now available in 16-ounce cans and bottles, rather than the standard 12. Gigantic wine glasses are also easy to fill way past 5 ounces. You'll want to watch what your drink is mixed with too. Cocktails are often made with simple syrup (aka sugar water) or super-sweet drink mixes.

Bottom Line

When it comes to the best and healthiest drinks, does one alcohol stand out over another? Red wine does have a leg up on other boozy beverages when it comes to heart-healthy antioxidants. And despite what many people think, dark beers, like Guinness, are often lower in calories. Your best bet though? Drink what you want—whether it's a crisp glass of rosé or a whiskey neat—but watch serving size and added sugars in your drink. And remember that moderation really is key when it comes to alcohol being part of a healthy diet. 

Related: 
5 Most-Popular Wines
Healthy Cocktail & Wine Recipes
Some original reporting by Joyce Hendley