As we relax over Christmas, so do some of our healthy habits, especially our approach to drinking. Dietitian Brooke Longfield shows you how to toast the festive season with your health intact.
As Christmas parties fill our social calendar, that quick after-work drink can turn into a long night of boozy festivities. In fact, this relentless socialising can make it very easy to drink all through December — giving you a pretty unhealthy start to the new year.
Is vodka healthier than wine or beer?
As beer sales decline, many of us have come to think of a vodka soda as the ideal low-kilojoule drink. But is this classic combo really any better for you?
Fermenting and distilling alcohol creates congeners, chemical by-products that give alcoholic drinks their particular taste, smell and colour — and can exacerbate hangovers. (The congeners in red wine, for instance, take the form of tannins.)
Dark distilled liquors, such as brandy and whiskey, have more congeners than clear spirits like gin or vodka do, hence vodka’s reputation as a ‘cleaner’ drink. At the other end of this slippery scale is bourbon, which has about 40 times the congeners of vodka. In short, all alcoholic drinks can cause an unpleasant morning after, but too many vodka and sodas could result in a slightly more bearable hangover.
Still, at the end of the day, it’s not the congeners, but the amount of alcohol you drink that delivers the biggest blow to your long-term health, and decides whether or not you’ll feel sorry for yourself in the morning!
Remember that in terms of kilojoule content, alcohol is second only to fat. So if adding soda to vodka helps you sip more slowly, that’s a good move. But if diluting your drink means you’ll down twice as much, make sure you choose a low-kilojoule mixer. Otherwise, you may be guzzling the alcohol’s hefty kilojoule load as well as the mixer’s unwanted sugar. You may be surprised to hear that tonic water can have more sugar than lemonade!
Doesn’t red wine offer some health benefits?
Many people say that the antioxidants in red wine can benefit our heart health, making it a better choice than spirits. The problem is that we pay more attention to these claims than they deserve, simply because we want to hear good news about drinking alcohol.
National Heart Foundation experts concede that red wine’s polyphenols have protective properties, but that doesn’t give us licence to overindulge under the guise of lowering our risk of cardiovascular disease. (We certainly wouldn’t be drinking to our heart’s content!) Any health benefits from red wine are available only to people who limit their intake to one to two standard drinks a day.
So how much is too much? It’s Christmas!
The festive season’s extra social occasions give us seemingly endless opportunities to drink alcohol, and though these may wane as the new year gets under way, excessive drinking does present health risks. What’s at work here is a dose-response curve — meaning one drink is riskier than none, two drinks are riskier than one, and five drinks are a whole lot riskier.
Healthy adults should have no more than two standard drinks per day, according to National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines, which aim to reduce the risks of alcohol-related disease and harm.
These guidelines also suggest that you aim for two alcohol-free days a week. Though this sounds like obvious (and sober!) advice, a 2005 Australian survey shows that approximately 90 per cent of men and 81 per cent of women believe they can drink alcohol every day without experiencing any adverse health effects.
In reality, the average Aussie drinks nearly 10 litres of alcohol every year, so we certainly have room for healthy change. If every drinker gave up just one glass of wine a fortnight, the number of cases of alcohol dependence and alcohol-related disease would drop by a huge 35 per cent.
Is there any way to avoid a hangover?
Waking with a pounding head, nagging thirst and nausea is a sure sign that you overdid it the night before — and no one wants to face Christmas feeling terrible.
Adopt the smart drinking tips below, and you’ll enjoy the silly season minus the hangover!
Five tips for healthy tipples
1. Refresh with a spritzer
If you like white wine, try a summery spritzer — half wine, half soda and a few ice cubes — for a reduced-alcohol drink with festive fizz!
2. Skip the rounds
Drink at your own pace instead of trying to keep up with the fastest drinkers, especially when they’re men. The female body tends to carry more fat and less water than the male, so drinking can leave women with higher levels of blood alcohol and intoxication.
3. Pour a long drink
Serve drinks in a tall, slim glass rather than a short tumbler. Studies show that when people pour a drink into an elongated glass, they’re less likely to over-pour, but feel as though they’re drinking more.
4. Say no to refills
Constantly charging your glass can make it easy to lose track of your intake. Finish your drink before you request a refill, and sip a glass of water before your next drink.
5. Eat, drink and repeat
If you drink alcohol on an empty stomach, you’ll feel its effects very quickly. Eat a small meal before any event, and drink lots of water to stay hydrated. It’s also essential to eat while you’re drinking, as this helps slow alcohol absorption.
The only proven way to prevent a hangover is to drink less!