The forgotten calories in alcohol

As we try to lose a few pounds after the excesses of a summer holiday, it may be worth remembering that our intake of “fatty” foods is not the only thing we should be cutting down.

We may be feeling virtuous as we cut out our mid-day chocolate snack, our lunchtime crisps and evening pizza, but if we’re not keeping an eye on what we’re drinking then the pounds will be slower to disappear.

Alcoholic drinks are produced by fermenting and distilling natural starch and sugar so that means they contains a lot of calories – seven calories a gram – second only to fat with nine calories a gram.

And when we drink alcohol, it reduces the amount of fat that our body can burn for energy because although we can store protein, carbohydrates and and fat, we can’t store alcohol. This means when we have a few drinks, our body wants to get rid of the alcohol straight away, interrupting all the other processes – including burning fat.

Worse still, calories from alcohol are “empty” calories because they have no nutritional value. So drinking a glass of wine at the end of the day will cost you around 160 calories – or the same as eating two chocolate digestive biscuits. Consuming a pint of lager gives you the same number of calories as a slice of pizza.

Nutritionists say that while many of us trying to lose weight are very conscious of calories in food, we simply forget the calories in our daily tipple and the knock on effect that having a few glasses can have. The other downside is that when we drink, we like to have a few nibbles too. And then if we have a hangover in the morning, we crave a big unhealthy breakfast to make us feel better which piles on even more calories….

Surveys have found that while many people can cite the number of calories in their favourite chocolate bar or cake, they have no idea when it comes to what they drink and it’s easy for calories from alcohol to add up quickly and go unnoticed as they are consumed as a liquid.

NHS recommendations are that men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day and that women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day. One unit of alcohol contains eight grams or 10ml of alcohol which totals 56cals plus any additional calories from mixer drinks.

Large wine glasses hold 250ml which is one third of a bottle and means there can be nearly three units or more in just one glass. So by drinking just two or three drinks, you could easily consume a whole bottle of wine and almost three times the government’s daily alcohol unit guidelines – without realising.

Two large glasses of wine for a woman puts them over the recommended daily intake but also gives them nearly a fifth of their daily recommended 2000 calorie intake!

So to avoid putting on weight from drinking alcohol, the British Nutrition Foundation gives this advice:

• Stick to your recommended daily units
• If you are drinking, alternate with a glass of water
• Don’t drink on an empty stomach
• Try cutting your alcohol intake with someone you know as it’s easier when you have some support
• Pace yourself by taking small sips
• Avoid binge drinking
• If your friends are drinking in rounds – opt out and go at your own pace

Calorie issues aside, the other negative effect of excess alcohol consumption is that it has been linked with breast, bowel, mouth and liver cancer.

But to finish on a positive note, if alcohol can be drunk in moderation and the calories kept under control, it may help protect against heart disease….


Page last reviewed on 16/08/2013