A new study finds that women who consume one alcoholic drink a day at mid-life may be healthier when older when compared to those who don’t drink at all. The researchers looked at alcohol intake during middle age in more than 120,000 women. After controlling for other factors like smoking, weight and family history of heart disease, they found that regular, moderate drinking during middle age is tied to “successful aging,” which they define as having no major diseases, like heart disease or diabetes, and no major brain or physical impairments at age 70 and beyond. In this study, women who drank one-third to one drink a day had about a 20 percent greater chance of successful aging compared to non-drinkers. In fact, those who drank five to seven days a week had an almost 50 percent greater chance of successful aging in comparison to teetotalers.
So does this mean you should start enjoying a cocktail with dinner each night? Not necessarily, since even moderate alcohol consumption is tied to an increased risk of breast cancer. One study found that postmenopausal women who consumed an average of less than one drink a day had a 30 percent increased chance of dying from breast cancer compared to those who did not drink. And a recent Kaiser Permanente study found that breast cancer survivors who averaged three to four drinks per week were more than 30 percent more likely to have a recurrence than those who drank less than once a week.
The bottom line? If you don’t drink, don’t start, but if you do, here are the two most important rules for imbibing healthfully:
Stick to the Guidelines
All of the current nutrition and health guidelines recommend a maximum of one drink a day for women and two for men. One drink equals twelve ounces of regular beer (a can or bottle), 1.5 ounces (one shot) of 80-proof distilled spirits or 5 ounces of wine (a little less than the size of a yogurt container) and nope, you shouldn’t “save them up” for the weekend. Another new animal study found that two drinks a day, seven days a week decreased hardening of the arteries in mice, while binge drinking (seven drinks a day, two days a week) triggered the disease.
Mind Your Mixers
A shot of liquor, glass of wine and bottle of beer all have about the same amount of alcohol, so each of these will raise your blood alcohol concentration equally while providing the same number of calories. However, liquor is usually accompanied by a mixer, typically in the form of refined sugar or an artificial sweetener, which are two nutritional no-nos in my book. So if you prefer a cocktail, use club soda or seltzer, which are simply bubbly waters with or without infused flavors. You can also reach for an antioxidant-rich juice, such as pomegranate, black currant, Concord grape, cherry, or a blend of cranberry with blueberry or raspberry (just be sure it’s 100 percent juice). Toss in a healthy garnish like fresh mint, ginger or zest; this combo is far healthier than a frozen margarita laden with sugar and salt!
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.