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Not all cocktails are created equal. Take the Margarita. A mega-size, fruity version of this classic beverage can run upwards of 800 calories at a chain restaurant. But you can easily keep it under 200 if it’s made fresh at home or at a quality bar. It’s easy to forget about all the sugary syrups, sodas and juices that can be packed into a cocktail, but the good news is that it’s just as easy to find healthy options to enjoy.
New Year’s resolution season is just around the corner, so we’ve compiled a few important tips to keep in mind for a happy hour that’s better for your health. And these are so simple that there’s really no need to wait until 2018 to get started.
1. Choose the right booze
Every bottle of liquor has a different nutritional makeup. In general, it’s better to stick with a standard alcohol—vodka, gin, tequila, scotch or whiskey—all of which which have zero carbs and rack up fewer calories than cream-based liqueurs or those with added flavors, like Kahlúa or Baileys.
But tequila (the good stuff, none of that mixto garbage) may actually be your best pick. Made from agave, it contains agavina, a natural sugar that can trigger insulin and therefore lower blood sugar levels. It’s also gluten-free—great for those who suffer from celiac disease.
2. Keep it simple
Probably the most helpful trick to keep in mind: The fewer the ingredients in a cocktail, the healthier it’s likely to be. That means cutting out sugar-packed juices, syrups, soda and pre-made mixes, as well as sticking to just one liquor per drink.
The best option, health-wise, is ordering a spirit neat. Not only does this decision cut out excessive sugars and calories, it also encourages you to sip slowly over a longer period of time rather than throw multiple drinks back. So while lighter liquors have slightly less calories and may be preferable in other cases, whiskey and scotch, which tend to have more, are perhaps more enjoyable to drink neat.
3. Get Creative with Flavor
If you want to mix things up beyond a single-spirit sipper, there are plenty of healthy ingredients you can use. Replace sugar-filled soda, simple syrup and fruit juices—even tonic water (which runs about 125 calories for one 12-ounce serving)—for seltzer or club soda, both of which have zero calories. Other options include green tea, coconut water or even fresh fruit juice, which is healthier than the store-bought version.
To add some more zest, get creative with herbs like mint, rosemary or cilantro, as well as citrus, like lime, lemon and orange. More ideas? Try muddled berries, ginger, sliced cucumber, jalapeño or a dash of honey. And as for that low-cal Margarita we mentioned early, try a simple combination of lime juice, agave nectar, tequila and lime.
4. Exercise Portion Control
This one is common sense but important to remember: Consume less, cut out excess, and reap the benefits. Any drink north of eight ounces will tend to be a calorie overload. Larger cocktails can pack a serious punch and often include more than one shot of alcohol and a long list of ingredients that go against all of our previous tips.
We know portion control can be tricky at restaurants, which can serve up super-sized drinks, so be sure to ask your server the size if the menu doesn’t list it. And never feel pressure to finish the glass if you’ve had enough!
5. Don’t forget water—and food!
There are reasons seasoned bartenders recommend drinking a glass of water after each cocktail. For one, taking the time to drink water rather than alcohol for a moment allows you to figure out how tipsy you are and whether you should stop. It can also keep you hydrated and prevent a hangover.
Often the most calories consumed during a night of drinking don’t come from the cocktails but the food that our alcohol-fueled inhibition makes us crave. Eating healthy snacks while drinking, such as nuts, carrots and fruit—or even better, having a full meal—will help your stomach digest the alcohol and help prevent you from thinking you need that 1 a.m. slice of pizza.