‘Light liquor vs. dark liquor’ sounds more like a scene from a Spike Lee movie than a question I commonly hear as a doctor. I know this isn’t exactly a food-related topic, but the number of people that think light liquor is ‘healthier’ than dark liquor truly surprises me. #Nojudgementthough.
There’s nothing new about people having ‘color complexes,’ but who knew these complexes applied to alcohol also? I guess I grew up in an open-minded household— where alcohol was judged by its taste, not by its color. Surely, I’m not the only person who used a Crown Royal bag as a piggy bank at some point during childhood.
Nonetheless, I was still slightly taken aback when someone tried to ‘drink shame’ me over a dark, bourbon-based ‘Old Fashioned.’
I was shamed for drinking a single ‘Old Fashioned’— here’s my story
Not too long ago, I was hanging out with one of my colleagues after work at the Promontory, a bar close to the hospital. We were talking about typical gastroenterology stuff—taking out polyps, teaching fellows, bowel preps, etc. Suddenly, I heard someone yell out, “Dr. McDonald!”
I looked over my shoulder and saw that it was someone I recognized from the hospital. As they walked over to say hello, I noticed them staring at my drink. They then immediately asked what was I drinking? I simply said, “An old-fashioned.” I even commented that it was quite tasty.
When they heard my response, a blank look came over his face. It was like he had something to say, but he was still processing whether or not he should say it. Then he just blurted out:
Doc, I can’t believe you’re drinking dark liquor—you should know better.Random person at the bar
Wait…what? I was slightly confused by his dismay in my drink choice. Plus, his demeanor was a little aggressive.
So, I told him it was only one drink—thinking that he was suggesting that a doctor should know that drinking too much is dangerous.
Nope, he was literally referring to the dark bourbon in my ‘Old-fashioned.’ He emphatically boasted that he “never drinks dark liquor because light liquor has fewer calories.” He even followed his response with, “As a doctor, you should know better.”
My colleague looked at me in disbelief, hoping that I would not let this slight go unchecked. Plus, I think my colleague found his aggressive advocacy for ‘Skinny Bruh’ cocktails
In turn, I stood up and did what any doctor would do. I hit him with some knowledge and started quoting journal articles.
Here are the 3 reasons why you should stop looking at ‘light liquor’ as a healthier alternative to ‘dark liquor’
1. All alcohol has calories. Hence, too much alcohol may increase the risk of gaining weight.
Some people feel that light liquor generally has fewer calories than dark liquor. This generalization is blatantly false. It’s true that both light and dark alcohols naturally do not have carbs. However, the calories in these drinks come from the alcohol itself, not carbs.
Each gram of alcohol contains 7 calories. Thus, ‘stronger’ liquors, ones that have a higher amount of alcohol per volume, typically contain more calories.
Further, in the case of cocktails or mixed drinks, calories also come from added sugars (i.e. from juices, pop, syrups, etc).
2. IT’S ALCOHOL! Too much alcohol, regardless of color, can lead to health issues (especially cirrhosis, cancer, and chronic pancreatitis).
As a gastroenterologist, I’ve seen first hand the damage that alcohol can do to the human body. I’ve treated jaundiced patients with alcoholic cirrhosis. I’ve also treated critically-ill patients with acute alcoholic hepatitis. Both of these conditions may require a liver transplant in severe cases.
The color of a drink is not a determining factor for developing these conditions. Factors like the frequency of drinking alcohol, the amount consumed, and the concentration of alcohol ingested are all more relevant risk factors for developing these conditions.
Additionally, frequently consuming alcohol can lead to a variety of cancers.
According to a recent review article:
Heavy alcohol consumption (i.e., ≥4 drinks/day) is significantly associated with an increased risk of about 5-fold for oral and pharyngeal cancer and esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, 2.5-fold for laryngeal cancer, 50% for colorectal and breast cancers, and 30% for pancreatic cancer.
Regarding oral and pharyngeal cancer, there was a concern that frequently drinking dark liquor may carry a slightly higher risk of developing these cancers than drinking light alcohols. However, subsequent studies have not demonstrated any added risks for consuming dark liquor.
According to one study:
This analysis provides no support for the notion that dark liquors are more carcinogenic than light liquors or that non-ethanolic ingredients of alcoholic beverages are major contributors to the excess risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer.
3. Light liquor will intoxicate you just as much as dark liquor can.
The alcohol itself and the metabolites your body produces when metabolizing alcohol lead to getting drunk, buzzed, tipsy, sloppy, etc. The color of the alcohol really doesn’t matter at all when it comes to intoxication.
Although, dark liquor may increase the risk of hangovers due to congeners. Congeners are other chemicals in dark liquor that are a byproduct of aging alcohol in barrels. (Check out my post on hangovers for more information).
As a sidebar, in the era of Uber and Lyft, ‘drinking and driving’ should be as common as seeing a real-life dinosaur crossing the street—it should never happen.
What’s the bottom line?
- Don’t drink too much.
- Worry more about the alcohol and sugar content of drinks than their color.
- If you are interested in other articles, you may like this one about red wine and headaches.
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Ed McDonald