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How to drink and eat whatever you want without feeling guilty

Martini

 (iStock)

Strike a healthy balance in your diet and alcohol consumption.

In Your Diet
Alcohol
Numerous studies indicate that a little imbibing can help protect your heart and may lower the risk of diabetes. Other research touts the many benefits of resveratrol, the powerful antioxidant in red wine. One recent finding even showed that older adults who drink alcohol moderately often live longer than teetotalers. 

Related: Is Your Home Obesogenic*?

“There’s no reason to feel guilty about light drinking,” said Jill Weisenberger, a registered dietitian in Yorktown, Virginia. However, if you’ve had breast cancer, you may want to abstain completely: A new study from Kaiser Permanente, a not-for-profit health-plan provider in Oakland, California, showed that even moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a 30 percent recurrence of the disease.

The middle ground: For most women, moderate drinking means one alcoholic drink daily (men get two a day). A single 12-ounce serving of beer a day is considered healthfully beneficial. Prefer wine? Stick to five ounces (most bottles contain about 25 ounces, or five glasses). If you love a martini, limit yourself to 1½ ounces of liquor in the glass. And, no, you can’t save up your alcohol allowance for the weekend.

Fish
They’re a good source of protein, and even better, the fatty kinds (salmon, sardines, albacore tuna) contain omega-3 fatty acids, whose health benefits―including a lower risk of heart attack and stroke and a probable immunity boost―continue to be discovered. What’s not so clear: how to eat fish safely, since many contain contaminants, like mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), that can damage the brain, the kidneys, and the lungs. 

Related: 11 Superfoods You Should Know About

“It’s easy to have blood levels of these chemicals higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe,” Deborah Rice, a toxicologist for the state of Maine, said.

The middle ground: Each week, eat two to three servings of wild-caught fish, as farm-raised varieties have higher levels of added chemicals, said Amy Goodson, a registered dietitian at the Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital, in Fort Worth. Fish to avoid include imported swordfish, non-domestic tilapia, and shark. To see if a fish you like is a healthy choice, go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website (montereybayaquarium.org).

Sodium
This important mineral controls fluids in your body and helps regulate your heart and metabolism. Too little can cause muscle cramps, fatigue, nausea, and cognitive problems. Too much forces your heart to work harder. Sodium is found in nearly every processed food―even, counterintuitively, in sweets like doughnuts.

Related: The 30 Healthiest Foods

The middle ground: The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day (about one teaspoon). African-Americans, people with hypertension, and those who are middle-aged and older need less than 1,500 milligrams a day. But the average American gets nearly double that. 

“The best way to reduce sodium is to minimize processed foods,” Goodson said. Then take the salt shaker off the table; if you need a flavor kick, try cumin, tarragon, or oregano.

Caffeine
Studies link moderate caffeine consumption to a decrease in type 2 diabetes and to better defenses against endometrial cancer and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, both coffee and tea are rich in the antioxidants that may help lower the risk of stroke. 

Even more compelling, recent research published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology shows that caffeine may offer protection against sun damage. However, other reports suggest that too much can cause breast cysts, migraines, and, you guessed it, sleep problems.

The middle ground: For most, 200 to 300 milligrams of caffeine―about two cups of coffee daily―is plenty.

Sugar
On its own, a bit of the sweet stuff isn’t so bad. 

“But it’s in many foods with little nutritional benefit,” Toby Smithson, a dietitian in Lake County, Illinois, and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, said. That means excess calories, which puts you at risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The middle ground: New guidelines from the American Heart Association state that women should have no more than 100 calories of added sugar a day, or about six teaspoons (this is in addition to the sugar that occurs naturally in whole foods, like fruit and dairy products). And in general it’s wise to scan food labels to manage your sugar intake, Goodson said. Look at the grams of carbohydrates; if sugar accounts for half of those grams or more, you’re probably better off skipping the item.