- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Americans prepare for the holidays as if we’re going into the biosphere. We start with a game plan:

Diet in October and November so we can splurge in December.

We eat before going to a cocktail party to avoid the buffet or appetizers that, yes, often are loaded with calories. We avoid alcohol during the week so the sky’s the limit on weekends. But it doesn’t usually work out the way we plan.

It’s unfortunate that we can’t accrue our skipped cocktail points, but somehow, we adapt.

Most physicians are hesitant to tell patients about any benefits of alcohol — with good reason. Look what’s happening to the good word on dark chocolate. It’s everywhere, and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, from chocolate manufacturers to the clients I see as a registered dietician.

I have one client who gained nearly 15 pounds in a single month. After reviewing her diet history, we discovered dark chocolate was the culprit. Repeat after me: A little is good; a lot does not necessarily mean real good.

In excess, alcohol can create numerous health problems. Too many to list. Alcohol in moderation is another story. Research from all over the world continues to show that moderate alcohol consumption actually may improve cardiovascular health and possibly reduce the risk of strokes and certain cancers. Studies even have shown a decreased risk in age-related diseases such as dementia.

Let’s clear up one thing. We’ve all heard about the French paradox. The French drink wine all the time, but they don’t gain weight and they have lower rates of heart disease. Why don’t we have the same luxury? Because we don’t.

Our eating and drinking habits just aren’t the same as those of the French. For one, we often pour larger glasses, and we Americans drink to take the edge off or feel a buzz. The French drink wine as part of the meal. It’s part of their food and food culture.

The way we drink wine is also associated with other American food choices, such as our heavy use of processed foods and supersized portions that play a leading role in our country’s health maladies. It’s just not the same. Move on.

We’ve been told for years that moderate consumption of red wine is the best choice when choosing a cocktail. The antioxidant resveratrol (called “res,” by those in the know) is prevalent in the skins of red grapes and is the power ingredient responsible for red wine’s purported virtues.

Recent research has found that moderate red wine consumption may be beneficial for more than just your heart. It’s believed that it might lower bad cholesterol and boost good cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease.

One study found that res may inhibit tumor development in some cancers, while another study touted its ability to aid in nerve formation. This makes red wine potentially helpful in the treatment of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

Red wine has received the most attention simply because it’s the most studied. Through additional research, the focus is slowly expanding to include white wine, dark beer and some spirits.

White wine is proving to have its own unique set of antioxidant benefits that promote heart health. Dark beer also contains antioxidants and minerals that may play a role in regulating blood sugar levels. The darker-colored spirits, such as whiskey, seem to have some of the same antioxidants found in red wine.

The bottom line is that the jury is still out. We’re not sure where all the good stuff comes from, be it the skins, seeds, oak, pulp or fermentation process.

To really examine the benefits, we need a large trial in which some people are randomly assigned to one or more alcoholic drinks a day and some have drinks that look, smell and taste like alcohol but are alcohol free.

Such a trial would be problematic, given the challenges of finding someone to fund a trial that makes people drink. Until then, one thing is certain: Drinking in moderation is key.

Moderate consumption is defined as a 3.5- to 4-ounce glass of wine. Good luck finding a restaurant that pours a 3.5-ounce glass of wine. Portions usually are more generous. In any case, a 3.5- to 4-ounce glass has 90 to 120 calories. Don’t be afraid to leave a little in the glass.

Spirits include gin, rum, vodka and whiskey, and they contain no carbohydrates, no fat of any kind, no sugar and very little sodium. Per 1- to 1.5-ounce serving (the recommended serving size), spirits have an average of 65 to 80 calories. That doesn’t seem like a lot until you add cranberry juice (about 235 calories for an 8-ounce glass) or tonic (about 200 calories) or Coke to rum (about 240 calories). It’s all in the mixers.

To save calories, choose club soda, diet soda, diet juices or splashes of regular juice. Over the holidays, when alcohol flows freely, these alternatives can save many calories. If you average each cocktail at 225 calories, 15 drinks will translate to 3,375 calories, almost a pound (3,500 calories equal 1 pound).

Eggnog, a holiday favorite, is like the Big Mac of the holiday drink menu. It comes in at about 340 calories per cup, with 19 grams of fat, 11 grams from saturated fat. You can make a healthy version using skim milk that equals about 200 calories per cup.

I think eggnog falls into the same category as Manischewitz, the ubersweet wine traditionally consumed during the holidays. It’s a holiday novelty, not something you crave during the year. If that’s the case, save the calories and make your own reduced-calorie version.

The recommendation for men is 1 to 2 drinks per day and for women 1 drink. Remember to be mindful of portion size, which can be tricky with oversized glasses and mugs. Consider asking for your drink in a specific sized glass to avoid overconsumption.

Don’t forget that drinking alcohol is contraindicated for some people, including alcoholics, pregnant women and those whose physicians recommend avoidance.

So, let’s review. Alcohol in moderation may have health benefits. In excess, it has negative consequences. Pay attention to the size of the cocktail and think about the mixers before you hit the bar.

Just as our parents told us not to compare ourselves to our siblings when we were little, let’s not compare ourselves to the French.

Low-fat egg nog

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 egg

4 egg whites

1 cups nonfat milk

1 teaspoons vanilla

1 cups nonfat half-and-half

cup rum or brandy, optional

Nutmeg for garnish, optional

Combine sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl. Add egg and egg whites and beat with a mixer for 3 to 4 minutes. Gently heat milk in a large saucepan. Gradually stir egg mixture into hot milk.

Heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is slightly thickened. Stir in vanilla and remove from heat. Let milk and egg mixture cool a little before blending with half-and-half. Cover and chill in the refrigerator. Add rum before serving and sprinkle with nutmeg, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 200 calories, 2 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 167 mg cholesterol, 11 grams protein

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