Cheers to Healthy New Year's Cocktails

Tips and tricks for drinking responsibly.

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New Year's is a time to rejoice, and in our culture, alcohol is a big part of the festivities. But with alcohol flowing throughout the night, or for numerous nights throughout the holiday season, the calories can add up rather quickly. Minimize calorie overload, and celebrate guilt-free with these tips and tricks.

Toby Amidor
Toby Amidor
The Recommendations

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, if you choose to drink alcohol, women should consume a maximum of one drink and men two drinks per day. One drink is defined as 5 fluid ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol), 12-fluid ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol) and 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (40 percent alcohol) like rum or vodka. Each drink serving is about 100 to 150 calories.

When I taught these recommendations in a New York City culinary school, the most common question was if you can "save" your drinks for a Friday or Saturday night. Unfortunately, you cannot. The recommendations are per day and are not cumulative.

[Read: Is an Organic Margarita Ruining Your Diet?]

If alcohol is consumed in moderation as per the recommendations, it can be beneficial. Studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption may help benefit cognitive function as we age. Numerous studies have also shown that moderate alcohol consumption (as per the dietary guidelines) can lower the risk of heart disease. Red wine has been found to have the antioxidant resveratrol, which helps protect your heart. A 2011 study published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology concluded that the polyphenol may help prevent breast cancer.

However, more is not necessarily better. Frequent alcohol consumption, more than the recommended amount, has been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Excessive drinking, including regular binge drinking, increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, certain cancers within the gastrointestinal tract and liver damage. And it is no surprise that drinking alcohol is associated with an increased risk of injury from drunk driving and drowning.

[Read: Curbing Teen Driving Dangers.]

The combination of alcohol plus energy drinks is one of the most dangerous. It makes the individual feel as if he or she is not intoxicated and may mistakenly feel OK to drive. The combination should be avoided altogether.

What to Order

Ordering one cocktail doesn't necessarily equate to one serving of alcohol. Oftentimes, several fluid ounces of numerous spirits are combined with sugary mixes to create a cocktail. The result is excess alcohol and sugar packed into a several-hundred-calorie drink.

To keep calories in check, follow these tips:

• Order simply: Choose wine or beer, which have a set amount of calories. I prefer spirits, and ask for them on the rocks.

• Choose lower-proof alcohol: The lower the proof, the fewer calories it will have per serving.

• Use smaller vesselsKeep portions in check by using smaller glasses.

• Alternate with water: Keep your mouth busy by sipping water or seltzer between drinks. It will help slow you down, plus you will have a glass in hand to make a toast.

• Engage in good conversation: Find a friend or family member you enjoy talking to. Getting lost in good conversation can make you forget about ordering another cocktail right away.

[Read: How and Why to Make Small Talk.]

• Order your own: Some bartenders may be overly generous with portions, especially during the holidays. Control portions by asking the bartender to use a jigger or telling them to go light on the alcohol.

• Flavor with fresh ingredients: Fresh ingredients like mint, ginger root, fresh squeezed lime juice or muddled berries add delicious flavor with minimal calories. Artisanal cocktails can now be found on many menus, so you may be able to find a delicious choice for fewer calories than expected. If you're unsure, ask your server for the ingredient list.

• Choose low calorie mix-ins: Seltzer, lemon or lime juice or small amounts (4 fluid ounces) of 100 percent juice can help minimize calories.

• Order on the rocks: Order drinks over ice (aka on the rocks). Although you get a little less of the actual drink, it can help keep calories at bay.

Cheers to a fabulously healthy and happy 2014!

[Read: How to Make Realistic New Year's Resolutions.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the forthcoming cookbook "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and blogs for various organizations including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.