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Alcohol and cancer: Know your risk

December 2013

by Adelina Espat

These tips are part of the Healthy Bites challenge, developed to help you make healthier choices to lower your cancer risks.

When you raise your glass at this year’s holiday toast, choose your beverage wisely.

alcohol, cancerResearch shows that drinking even a small amount of alcohol increases your chances of developing cancer, including oral cancer, breast cancer and liver cancer.

Yet, other research says small amounts of alcohol may protect the body against heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Some evidence even suggests that red wine may help prevent cancer.

Confused? Use our beverage guide to choose a drink with the lowest health risk. You’ll learn your recommended drink limit and what alcoholic drinks to avoid.

Stick to the recommended serving size
The research is clear on this point – heavy drinking damages cells and can lead to cancer. So, if you must drink, do so in moderation.

Alcoholic drinks come in three forms: beer, wine and liquor. A drink serving is defined as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

alcohol, cancerThe National Cancer Institute recommends that women have no more than one drink per day and men have no more than two drinks per day.

Women shouldn’t drink as much as men because they have less total body water to dilute the effects of alcohol. This means alcohol stays in a woman’s body longer than in a man’s. And, the longer large amounts of alcohol stay in the body, the higher the risk for brain and organ damage, high blood pressure, stroke and other injury.

Select low-calorie options
Many of us get way too many calories from what we drink , not just in alcoholic beverages — about 460 calories a day. That can lead to a growing waistline, which also can increase your cancer risk.

Before taking a sip of alcohol, check the bottle label and look at the calories per serving, if listed. Many popular drinks are loaded with empty calories, especially drinks mixed with soda, fruit juice or cream. Eggnog is one of the largest holiday offenders with about 340 calories per one-cup serving.

The chart below from the US Department of Health and Human Services lists  the calories found in many popular drinks.  

BeverageRecommended Serving SizeApproximate Total Calories
Beer (regular)12 oz144
Beer (light)12 oz108
White wine5 oz100
Red wine5 oz105
Sweet dessert wine5 oz141
80 proof distilled liquor (gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)1.5 oz96
Champagne3 oz75


Want a mixed drink—a martini or margarita—perhaps? Be sure to choose the option with the fewest calories per serving. Or, create a low-calorie blend by adding diet soda or water.

Stay away from 100-proof liquor
It’s the ethanol or alcohol in beer, wine and liquor that researchers believe increases cancer risk.

alcohol, cancerSo while you’re checking the bottle label, check the ethanol percentage or number as well. You’ll find either an alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage or an alcohol proof number.

ABV and alcohol proof are standard measures used worldwide to show how much alcohol or ethanol is in a beverage. In the United States, the alcohol proof number is twice the ABV percentage.

Beer, wine and liquor contain about the same amount of alcohol per serving — about half an ounce. That equals to about:

  • 40% ABV or 80-proof in liquor
  • 2 – 12% ABV in beer
  • 9 – 18% ABV in wine

Avoid anything with even more alcohol than what’s listed above, like 100-proof liquor. This also is important because how much you drink over time still matters more than what you actually drink.

Non-alcoholic drinks remain the healthiest option
Your end-of-year celebrations may come with festivities that include fully stocked bars and encouragement to join in. But avoiding alcohol, or limiting the amount you drink, is your best bet for ringing in a healthy New Year.

If you’re looking for a non-alcoholic drink with a cocktail-like feel, try club soda and lime. It has minimal calories and health risks. Or, try these recipes for festive holiday punch.

Remember, alcoholic drinks offer few nutritional benefits. So, look for healthier food sources to get your holiday calories.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center