What is the problem with alcohol?

Wine, beer and spirits contain a type of alcohol called ethanol. Drinking more than the recommended daily intake comes with an increased risk of more than 50 diseases, including heart disease and stroke. Regular drinking can also increase anxiety levels and help pile on the pounds.

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That said, some alcoholic drinks may be better than others. That’s because they disrupt blood sugar less, are less likely to aggravate the symptoms of a hangover and are lower in empty calories. In fact, some alcoholic drinks when consumed in moderation – that’s no more than one glass for women and two for men per day – may even offer some health benefits.

Which alcoholic drinks are best for you?

1. Red wine
2. Mulled wine
3. White wine
4. Wine spritzer
5. Champagne
6. Buck’s fizz
7. Craft cider
8. Craft beer
9. Stout
10. Low-alcohol beer
11. Vodka/gin
12. Vodka soda
13. Bloody Mary
14. Dry martini
15. Kombucha

Discover our full range of health benefit guides, including how many calories are in alcoholic drinks. For the day after, check out our hangover cures: fact or fiction and our guide on how to cure a hangover.

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A nutritionist’s top healthiest alcoholic drinks

Glass of red wine

1. Red wine

The touted benefits of this popular drink are thanks to the skins and seeds of the grape which are fermented with the juice. The result is a drink loaded with plant compounds – including resveratrol, quercetin and anthocyanins – these all have protective properties. Amounts will vary depending on the grape, climate and production methods used.

Studies suggest these natural compounds may have a mild yet beneficial effect on the heart, insulin resistance as well as acting as a fuel source for the good bacteria in our gut. These bacteria convert the plant compounds into active chemicals that help our immune system as well as our heart to function well. With much of the sugar converted to alcohol, red wine makes a lower sugar option.

However, it’s worth remembering that many wines, both red and white, use sulphites as a preservative. If you’re sensitive to sulphites, wine may not be the best choice for you.

Best for: gluten-free, antioxidant-rich, good for gut health, low sugar, caffeine-free.

2. Mulled wine

Usually served warm, mulled wine combines the benefits of red wine with vitamin C-rich fruit and antioxidant-packed spices, including cinnamon, cloves and ginger.

Best for: gluten-free, antioxidant-rich, good for gut health, vitamins and minerals, caffeine-free

3. White wine

The skin of the grape is typically not involved in the fermentation of white wine so one glass contains fewer plant compounds than red. However, the type of grape and production process used may still result in the retention of some beneficial plant compounds.

White wine generally has a lower alcohol content than an equivalent glass of red, and a dry rather than a medium or sweet white wine will be lower in sugar.

Some people develop a headache soon after drinking red wine, but not if they drink white wine (or vodka). Why this is the case is not fully understood, although it’s thought to involve the release of histamine.

Best for: gluten-free, low sugar, caffeine-free

Glass of wine spritzer with ice and lemon peel

4. Wine spritzer

Combining wine with sparkling water lowers the alcohol, sugar and calorie content, while the sparkling water adds a hydrating element.

Avoid lemonade because this will increase the sugar and calories.

Best for: gluten-free, low sugar, low calorie, low carb, caffeine-free

5. Champagne

Containing similar plant compounds to white wine but with an even lower sugar content, ‘brut’ champagne is a dry sparkling wine that’s low in calories.

Its plant compounds may be of benefit to heart health but have less nutritional value than those in red wine.

Be aware that the bubbles will speed alcohol absorption, so go easy on that second or third glass.

Best for: gluten-free, low sugar, low calorie, low carb, caffeine-free

6. Buck’s fizz

This popular combo of champagne and orange juice enjoys a lower alcohol content, but beware the sugar and calories. If possible, opt for a ‘brut’ or ‘extra brut’ champagne for its lower sugar levels and a fresh 100 per cent orange juice, rich in vitamin C.

Best for: gluten-free, low alcohol, vitamins and minerals, caffeine-free

Glasses of cider of varying shades

7. Craft* cider

Made from apple juice, craft cider has a lower alcohol content than wine while being similarly rich in antioxidant plant compounds. As well as contributing much to the flavour and colour of the drink, these compounds may help lower the risk of heart disease.

Best for: gluten-free, antioxidant-rich, good for gut health, caffeine-free

8. Craft* beer

Like wine, a moderate intake of beer, either as an ale or lager, may be associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. While the antioxidant content of beer may be equivalent to that of wine, the compounds differ thanks to the barley and hops as opposed to grapes.

Having more protein and B vitamins than wine, beer may be a better nutritional choice. Factors such as the type of yeast, brewing temperature and time all impact the finished product, influencing not only the taste, colour and alcohol content of your pint but the levels of good-for-you plant compounds, too.

Best for: antioxidant-rich, good for gut health, vitamins and minerals, caffeine-free

9. Stout

Made from roasted barley, dark ales contain antioxidant plant compounds, including prebiotics that fuel our beneficial gut bacteria.

One glass provides B vitamins, including folate, and the minerals silicon (useful for healthy hair, nails and bones) and iron (supports the blood). The drink’s plant compounds may also help with oestrogen balance.

Best for: antioxidant-rich, good for gut health, vitamins and minerals, caffeine-free

Bottles of low alcohol beer

10. Low-alcohol beer

The benefits associated with moderate beer drinking may also be enjoyed with low- or alcohol-free beers. This includes the protective effect of the natural plant compounds as seen in a study that evaluated a wheat beer (ABV 0.5%) on the post-exercise effects experienced by marathon runners. The benefits included reduced post-exercise inflammation and an ‘isotonic’ effect supporting hydration.

Hops, one of the key ingredients in beer, are a rich source of plant oestrogens, a moderate intake of which may be beneficial to menopausal women.

Best for: antioxidant-rich, good for gut health, low alcohol, vitamins and minerals, caffeine-free

11. Vodka or gin

With a higher concentration of alcohol and a lower level of healthy plant compounds than wine, beer or craft* cider, alcoholic spirits appear to offer less in the way of health benefits. However, owing to their high alcohol content, spirits appear to slow gastric emptying and therefore may take longer to absorb into the bloodstream.

Choose a clear spirit over dark spirits, such as whisky, which contain congeners. These chemicals contribute to the drink’s taste, colour and aroma, but may aggravate the symptoms of a hangover.

Spirits are generally lower in calories and sugar than wine or beer, but if you add a sugary mixer you’ll be ramping up both. Instead, enjoy your spirit of choice ‘on the rocks’ (just with ice).

Best for: gluten-free, low sugar, low calorie, low carb, vegan, caffeine-free

12. Vodka soda

This clear spirit combined with a low-sugar mixer offers a low-calorie, low-sugar option without the congeners that make a hangover worse. Add a squeeze of lime for a refreshing zest. Or, try our gin fizz – you can adapt the recipe to your taste and keep sugar levels to a minimum.

Best for: gluten-free, low sugar, low calorie, low carb, vegan, caffeine-free

13. Bloody Mary

Adding tomato and lemon juice to vodka with Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce packs a beneficial health punch. The juices contribute potassium, sodium and vitamin C as well as the heart-friendly antioxidant, lycopene.
Although a virgin bloody Mary would be your best option, clear spirits are less likely to aggravate a hangover.

Best for: gluten-free, vitamins and minerals, caffeine-free

Two vodka martini's with lemon peel

14. Dry martini

Although this classic cocktail offers no nutritive value, it’s a low-calorie, low-sugar choice. The clear spirits are free of hangover-aggravating congeners, but watch the number of shots used – some mixologists use three or more per cocktail.

Best for: gluten-free, low sugar, low calorie, low carb, vegan, caffeine-free

15. Kombucha

While not brewed to be intoxicating, kombucha may contain some alcohol as a result of its natural fermentation. A fermented, sugary tea, this beverage offers a useful source of plant compounds, although the active components will vary depending on the type of tea and the starter culture used as well as the temperature and time of fermentation.

Studies appear promising, although to date, virtually all of them have been conducted on animals. Benefits may include improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol.

With its natural fizz, kombucha makes a great alternative to carbonated soft drinks and can be used as a mixer for spirits, such as vodka. However, sugar contents vary, with commercially available products containing higher levels.

Best for: gluten-free, antioxidant-rich, low alcohol, vitamins and minerals, (potentially) good for gut health, vegan, caffeine-free

Craft* – the term ‘craft’ refers to a beer or cider made using traditional methods and ingredients.

What we looked for:

• Low alcohol – no more than 1.2% ABV
• Low calorie – less than 100 calories per small glass
• Low carb – 3g or less per small glass
• Low sugar – less than 2.5g / 100ml

Last thoughts

Whichever drink you choose, enjoy it in moderation. Any benefits are quickly outweighed by the risks associated with drinking more than the recommended amount or by binge drinking.

Furthermore, if you’re pregnant, have a history of alcohol misuse or a liver condition, or are taking certain medication, you may be best advised to avoid alcohol altogether. Women in their reproductive years who are mid-cycle or pre-menstrual should be aware that alcohol is absorbed more quickly at these times.

Found this useful? Now read...

Despite our best intentions, many of us get carried away with the booze every now and then. If you’re feeling a little worse for wear, read our guide on easing the effects of alcohol the morning after as well as these useful features:

How to drink responsibly
Hangover cures: Fact or fiction?
How many units are in alcoholic drinks?
Is wine good for you?
Is low-alcohol beer healthy?


Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years, she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications, including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_

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All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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