The Healthiest and Unhealthiest Drinks at the Bar

Depending on what — and how — you order your beer, wine, and cocktails at the bar could make or break your summer diet efforts. And in moderate amounts, alcohol even as health benefits: it can strengthen your heart, it boosts brain function, and it reduces the risks of stroke and diabetes. Read on for the benefits of wine, beer and cocktails — and the healthiest and unhealthiest drinks to order!

Beer is like chocolate: it has surprising health benefits, but it’s best consumed in moderation. Moderate intake is linked with stronger bones (it’s high in bone-strengthening silicon) and heart health (it raises levels of “good” or HDL cholesterol). It also boosts brain health: a 2005 study found that women who drank one beer a day lowered their risk of mental decline by 20%. Other studies have also linked the brew to healthier kidneys, reduced cancer, stroke and diabetes risk, and lower blood pressure.

But just like chocolate, certain beers are better than others — and even the best kinds are still relatively high in calories. Darker brews tend to have more antioxidants and iron, and microbrews, which are less processed than mass-produced varieties, contain more “hops,” which contain polyphenols. Still, stick to one or two brews a day — any more can actually have negative health consequences, and a can can contain anywhere from 65 to 380 calories.

Best Beer: Stouts and dark ales, like Guinness Draught and Newcastle Brown Ale, contain more polyphenols. Specifically, they’re higher in xanthohumol, a compound found exclusively in beer that has been found to be a powerful protector against carcinogenic damage. And although darker beers are often heavier, you’ll most likely consume fewer calories overall. Most people feel full on one dark beer, but many can put down 3-4 light or ultralight beers, thereby taking in more than double the calories (light beers also give a false sense of security, just like reduced fat cookies or low calorie snack packs). Still, it’s worth finding out the calorie count before you hit the bar (the above have 126 and 138 calories per 12 ounces, respectively) so you know what you’re getting into.

Best Light Beer: If you’re going to go light, you might as well go really light: a brew like Beck’s Premier Light has 64 calories, compared with 124 in Sam Adam’s Light.

Worst Beer: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot contains a whopping 330 calories and 30.3 grams of carbs per 12-ounce pour. For the calorie counts of other popular beers, click here.

Wine has been touted as a health food for years now, due to its high content of antioxidants. Its star player, resveratrol — a phenolic compound — has been found to have many benefits. It boosts heart health by preventing blood clotting and plaque formation as well as boosting vascular function; it may reduce the risk of cancer by reducing the formation and proliferation of tumor cells; and it may aid in weight loss. But the benefits don’t stop there: wine promotes longevity more so than beer or liquors, it reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, cataracts, and stroke, and may slow cognitive decline.

Best Wine: Cabernet and Pinot Noir have the highest amount of antioxidant activity. Red wines, in general, contain more antioxidants than white wines: during the maceration period, phenolic compounds are extracted and end up in the wine. But to get the most out of your wine, drink slowly: sipping slowly increases the absorption of resveratrol into the mucous membranes of your mouth, which results in 100 times the blood concentration of resveratrol.

Runners-up: Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Aglianico, and Nobbiolo

Worst Wine: “Sweet” or “doux” wines — defined as more than 45 g/L — are high in sugar, which ups the calorie count (235 for a 5-ounce glass). Riesling, Rosé, Madeira, Vin Santo, and Port are all considered sweet. “Medium” or “moelleux” wines contain 12-45 g/L; “medium dry” or “demi-sec” contain between 4 and 12 g/L; and “dry” or “sec” wines have less than 4 g/L. These terms might not be on the bottle, so visit a vineyard’s website for information regarding sugar content.

Cocktails range in calorie count from under 100 to over 800! These stats depend largely on which ingredients are used and, as in all cases, portion size. As with most foods, the fewer ingredients, the better: options with only two ingredients (like a Screwdriver or cranberry vodka) often come in under 200 calories. When multiple liquors are added, like in a Long Island Ice Tea, calorie counts soar: each shot of 80 proof liquor (1.5 ounces) adds 97 calories to your drink. Mixers, like soda, tonic water, and juice, add even more empty calories, and sugary add-ins (simple syrup, sweet and sour mix, and sugared rims) make these drinks worse.

On the bright side, the art of mixology is a trend on the rise. Culinary cocktails, which are those made with fresh herbs, fruits, and spices instead of fake, sugary mixers, were named as one of the top food trends for 2012. In addition to drastically cutting down on caloric content, the addition of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices adds a healthy dose of antioxidants that is actually bolstered by the presence of alcohol.

At a bar or restaurant, inquire about the ingredients used, as they can vary even between the same drinks. A margarita, for example, may contain just three ounces of tequila, lime juice, and triple sec; or it might be a super-sized glass of tequila, lemon-lime soda, sour-mix, and sugar.

Best Cocktail: Greyhound (grapefruit juice and vodka); Bloody Mary; Vodka Martini; Paloma (grapefruit juice, tequila, and lime)

Worst Cocktail: Long Island Ice Tea; Mudslide; Piña Colada; Mint Julep; Daiquiri; White Russian; Mai Tai

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