When you were pregnant, you swore off alcohol, but maybe now you'd like something harder than apple juice from time to time. Here's what you need to know to protect your health:
Less is more
For women as well as men, a little is healthy but a lot is not. "Having one or two drinks a day can benefit the heart, compared with either abstaining or drinking more heavily," says Eric Rimm, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston. Of course, women at risk of alcoholism should abstain. Choosing not to drink is fine too -- there are many other ways, such as exercise, to enhance heart health.
Any alcohol counts
The heart-protective qualities of alcoholic drinks come primarily from the ethanol, so you'll benefit from a margarita as well as a glass of Merlot. Still, calories count: A margarita has 270, while that glass of wine has only 90. Red wine's antioxidants -- also in purple grape juice -- may make it especially healthful, but research isn't conclusive.
Although an average of one alcoholic beverage a day may benefit the heart, studies indicate that it increases your risk of developing breast cancer by 10 percent. (Have two drinks a day and it's 20 percent.) But eating a good diet may bring those numbers to zero. Alcohol appears to increase risk indirectly, by suppressing cancer-protective folate, a B vitamin. If a woman gets enough folate -- 400 micrograms (mcg) a day -- there's no link between alcohol and breast cancer, says Rimm. Good sources, besides multivitamins: green vegetables, fruits (especially oranges), beans, and fortified cereals. You'll get 100 mcg or more from an eight-ounce glass of orange juice, a cup of cooked pasta, or a half cup of cooked spinach. And some fortified cereals provide 400 mcg in a single serving; check labels.
If you're nursing a baby, nurse that cocktail too
When a woman is pregnant, any alcohol that she consumes goes right from her blood through the umbilical cord to the fetus -- so even a little is too much. Breast milk is different; much less alcohol passes through. But sip slowly -- some studies find that downing a couple of drinks quickly may interfere with milk letdown. Better yet, have just one drink after your baby falls asleep; two hours later -- by the night feeding, say -- you'll already have metabolized the alcohol.