Don't worry, I'm not here to tell you to step away from the wine bottle. My wife, Lisa, and I regularly have a glass with dinner, and after particularly busy days, I enjoy unwinding on our porch with some good tequila. Still, with so much conflicting health info floating around, it's hard to know whether every sip is doing your body good or putting your life at risk. Many studies have found that drinking wine, beer, or liquor in moderate amounts can protect against heart disease, in part by boosting good cholesterol. Other findings, however, may make you want to abstain entirely, like a 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health that found that people who consume up to one and a half drinks daily account for, on average, nearly 6,000 cancer deaths annually. Too many high-calorie cocktails can also lead to weight gain.
Want to imbibe worry-free? Just follow my rules...
Do: Pour wisely.
The first directive most doctors will give you about drinking is to do it in moderation. Research shows that women should consume no more than one drink per day--any more could increase the risk of liver damage and some types of cancer. (A 2011 study found that regularly consuming three to six drinks per week upped a woman's risk of developing breast cancer by 15 percent.) But what qualifies as one drink depends on what you're drinking--it's 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces (one shot glass) of liquor. And steer clear of tumblers: A study in BMJ found that most people tended to overpour when using short, wide glasses; they gave themselves 20 to 30 percent less alcohol when using taller glasses.
Don't: Save up for the weekend.
Skipping after-work happy hours during the week doesn't give you a free pass to down six drinks on Saturday night. Binge drinking--defined for women as four or more drinks in roughly two hours--is on the rise among American women, with one in eight drinking to excess three times per month, according to a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the consequences can be serious: One study found that people who engaged in binge drinking (regardless of whether they drank less at other times) were 85 percent more likely than non-bingers to suffer a stroke later in life, in part because excessive drinking can raise blood pressure very quickly.
Do: Abstain during pregnancy.
Despite a recent British study reporting that light drinking during pregnancy may not affect the behavioral or cognitive development of the baby, avoiding alcohol is the safest choice. The research is too inconsistent to warrant the risk. Take, for example, a 2012 study that found that even at levels considered moderate, in utero exposure to alcohol was associated with deficits in a child's intelligence: Eight-year-old children whose mothers had one to six drinks per week while pregnant had lower IQs than children of teetotaling moms.
Do: Keep it light.
If you plan to have more than a cocktail or two, limit yourself to clear liquor like vodka and gin. Consuming large amounts of darker pours like whiskey and brandy can increase the severity of hangovers. Here's why: Dark drinks have higher concentrations of congeners, toxic compounds formed when alcohol is fermented. One study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that bourbon drinkers experienced significantly worse hangovers than those who reached the same blood alcohol level consuming vodka (bourbon has 37 times as many congeners as vodka does).
Don't: Have a nightcap.
If a glass of Pinot is your antidote to insomnia, you might want to reconsider. While your favorite drink can help you nod off faster (its sedative effects depress your central nervous system, triggering sleep), it won't help you snooze better. In fact, a 2013 analysis of more than 30 studies found that consuming two or more drinks less than two hours before bed decreased the amount of REM sleep. As the alcohol wears off during the course of the night, you're more likely to wake, disrupting your sleep cycle and leaving you groggier come morning. A drink with dinner is fine, but be sure to cut yourself off well before bedtime.
A Better Buzz
Sip these under-200-calorie cocktails created by Marissa Lippert, nutritionist and owner of Nourish Kitchen + Table in New York City.
Instead of a: Cosmopolitan (210 calories)
Try an: Aperol Spritz (163 calories). Pour 3 ounces prosecco, 1 ounce Aperol, and a splash of club soda into a glass filled with ice and garnish with an orange slice.
Instead of a: Mai tai (230 calories)
Try a: Raspberry-Mint Mojito (145 calories). In a cocktail shaker, muddle 2 tsp. extrafine sugar, 4 fresh mint sprigs, and 4 fresh raspberries. Add 1 1/2 ounces light rum and 1 1/2 ounces fresh lime juice. Shake well. Top with a splash of club soda.
Instead of a: Frozen margarita (250 to 500 calories)
Try a: Lite-But-Sweet Margarita (184 calories). In a cocktail shaker, combine 1 1/2 ounces tequila (reposado or blanco, preferably), 1/2 ounce Cointreau or triple sec, 1 ounce fresh lime juice, and 1 tsp. agave nectar. Shake, then strain into an ice-filled glass.