Healthy and Unhealthy Summer Drinks

Which alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks are the healthiest for summertime drinking? Experts give their advice.

By Star Lawrence
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Summertime -- when you're hot and thirsty -- is drinking time, whether your taste runs to alcoholic or nonalcoholic libations. Which drinks are the worst in terms of sugar, salt, alcohol content, or empty calories -- and which can actually enhance your fun without ruining you diet or health?

And no, this does not limit you to water.

First, a Word About Alcohol

Alcoholic beverages contain different percentages of alcohol. According to the National Institutes of Health, a standard drink of beer contains about 5% alcohol; wine contains 12%, and spirits has 40%. Distilled alcohol is classified by "proof." For example, 100-proof alcohol contains 50% alcohol; 80-proof contains 40% alcohol, etc.

A standard drink is considered to be:

  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of wine cooler
  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled liquor

Many studies have been done that seem to suggest that alcohol in moderation -- especially wine -- can have health benefits, although perhaps not enough for people to start drinking if they don't care to do so.

Doctors recommend men limit alcohol consumption to two drinks; women should drink no more than one drink a day.

You also need to be of drinking age in your state to consume alcohol -- and to assume the responsibilities not only for your health but also the safety of others in terms of driving and other behaviors that could occur under the influence of alcohol.

You want to enjoy your summer, not forget it.

"Cocktails were invented by the British Navy in the 1800s to keep sailors from drinking their rum rations in one go, thus getting too drunk to work," Anthony Dias Blue tells WebMD.

Blue is the wine and spirits editor of Bon Appetit magazine, and also author of the Complete Book of Mixed Drinks: More Than 1,000 Alcoholic and Non-Alcoholic Cocktails. He says summer drinks should be "long" (meaning tall), should have fruit, and should refresh rather than bog one down in the heat. No cream drinks, he says.

The worst he can think of? "Eggnog," he says immediately. Followed by Irish coffee.

Other summer favorites go down easy but contain a lot of sugar, sometimes too much sodium, and calories galore. "I saw a billboard for [a famous rum]," says Audrey T. Cross, PhD, nutrition professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, "that said, 'Drink this with Diet Coke -- zero carbs.'

"Well, it might have been zero carbs, but it was not zero calories," Cross says. "Don't forget, alcohol gets digested; it doesn't stay in your bloodstream."

As a rule of thumb, distilled alcohol is about 100 calories an ounce.

"Make the margarita lighter," Blue advises. "Less tequila, more ice."

Cross and Blue both say gin and tonic is the "perfect" summer alcohol drink. "This is the healthiest drink on earth," jokes Blue. "The gin is a diuretic, the tonic keeps away malaria. I never get malaria!"

Cross uses diet tonic and a whole lime for plenty of vitamin C. "On the second one," she whispers, "I leave out the gin. You can't taste the difference."

Cross also professes a fondness for mint juleps. Use only fresh mint, she says, and don't crush it into the sugar in the glass; use a mortar and pestle. "You can get the mint oils out with less sugar that way," she says, crediting her mother for this advice.

Blue also says a Tom Collins (lemon juice, gin, sugar, club soda, and a cherry), is a fine summer drink.

Spritzers are also fairly healthful. You cut the wine with club soda. "You can use white Zinfandel, white wine, red wine -- anything you have," Blue says. To make it sangria, dump in cut fruit.

Commercial wine coolers, though, tend to contain a lot of calories and chemicals.

What about the summer favorite -- beer? Beer contains a number of nutrients, Cross acknowledges, and has been consumed for millennia. "Like any liquid calories, it goes down so easily," she sighs. Remember, a beer contains a shot of ethanol, just like a glass of wine or a gin and tonic.

The No. 1 summer drink? Water! It can be bottled, filtered, or the water cooler variety. "If you get sick of it," Cross says, "try icing a pitcher of it with cut lemons and limes packed in it. Freeze fruit in cubes and use those."

Iced tea comes in second. Cross recommends making a sugar syrup that's half sugar and half water -- boiled until it's clear -- and then let it cool. "Use this in it instead of that granulated sugar that falls to the bottom," she says. "You will use less sugar." Green tea is also a refreshing iced variety, although recent studies put in doubt its purported powers as an antioxidant. You can also make iced tea with garden herbs, such as rosemary or lemon verbena.



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