BEHAVIOR
December 31, 2010

To Drink or Not to Drink

The health benefits and hazards of alcohol should be on your mind this New Year's Eve. A game plan for the night.

It's traditional to start the New Year with a drink. The best years start off with the right kind of drink.

Clare McKindley, a clinical dietitian in the MD Anderson Cancer Center, thinks you'll have a better year if you're selective about what you're drinking. Non-alcoholic drinks are best. If you really want to drink alcohol, drinks low in alcohol and calorie content are the way to go.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that women have no more than one drink a day and men no more than two.

If you're self-conscious about holding a drink with an obvious non-alcoholic look, club soda with a slice of lime solves the problem. It blends in perfectly.

McKindley has seen the recent studies that suggest drinking small amounts of alcohol may help lessen the incidence of certain diseases. But she's also seen the vast number of studies that show the toxic effects of heavy drinking and the other studies that suggest that even a single drink increases the risk of developing cancer. McKindley concludes that the less you drink, the better off your health will be.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that women have no more than one drink a day and men no more than two. This isn't 21st Century sexism; women generally have less total body water to dilute the effects of alcohol. This means that alcohol is more potent for them. In essence, when it comes to alcohol, it's always ladies' night.

It's not just the risk of cancer and liver damage that makes alcohol unhealthy. Alcohol is loaded with empty calories. A cup (8 oz) of typical beer has over 100 calories; a cup of rum nearly 600. The cream, soda or fruit juice in mixed drinks is also high in calories. Eggnog is a big holiday offender, with around 340 calories per cup.

Beer, wine and liquor all have different amounts of alcohol in them but about the same amount of alcohol in a normal serving — half an ounce. What usually matters isn't which of them you're drinking, it's how many drinks you have. Still, it can be useful to know how much alcohol there is in what you're drinking. You can check this by looking at the can or bottle. Mixed drinks and spiked punch are trickier. Alcohol content is usually given by volume percent or proof. Proof is twice the volume of alcohol present — 80 proof means 40% alcohol.

Beers range from 2-12% alcohol, wine from 9-18% and many distilled liquors are 40% alcohol, though some are 100 proof or higher. This means extra alcohol and extra calories in every sip. McKindley recommends avoiding these altogether.

Alcohol certainly isn't good for your driving. Along with using a designated driver, think about whether it's been good for your personality, looks or mental abilities. If you don't like the answer, this could be a good year to cut back.

Avoiding alcohol altogether, or at least limiting the amount of alcohol you drink, is the healthiest way to start off the New Year. This New Year's Eve, if you're enjoying yourself while sipping on club soda and lime and a friend asks what you're drinking, tell them it's an H-Bomb, a Midnight Rambler or a Quarterback Sneak. Maybe they'll join you.

Alcohol and Cancer: Know Your Limit is a release of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

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