According to a UK leading public health doctor, alcohol drinks should be calorie counted because they contribute to obesity. Fiona Sim is the Chair of the UK Royal Society for Public Health. She writes that adults who drink alcohol may get as much as 10% of daily calories from it, but most people don’t know this.
Sims’ data, which are based on local surveys and not national studies, is right to highlight the silent role that alcohol plays in weight gain. A lack of information on the energy content in alcoholic drinks may contribute to an underestimate of energy consumed.
It’s important to know that alcohol provides almost as much energy as fat. The best way to make people aware of this is to highlight the calories on the label of alcoholic beverages.
Every gram of alcohol contains seven calories. A gram of carbohydrate, protein, or fat contains nine calories.
Alcohol is nearly as energy-dense as fat. Martin Cathrae/Flickr, CC BY-SA
How much alcohol is stored as fat in your body instead of being used for immediate fuel depends upon how much alcohol you consume and the availability of vitamins and minerals required to metabolize it.
Around 20% of alcohol ingested is absorbed by the stomach into the bloodstream. 80% of the remaining alcohol is absorbed by the small intestine, just like food. Alcohol does not need to be digested before this happens.
Alcohol is a fluid that travels freely through the blood. This is why blood alcohol concentration levels are measured. Alcohol cannot be stored, but it spreads throughout the body’s tissues and fluids (wherever there is water) until it is metabolized. The liver primarily does this. However, some alcohol metabolism can also occur in the stomach.
Alcohol metabolism is prioritized over energy-containing nutrients due to its toxicity. The amount of alcohol that is metabolized by the liver per hour is approximately seven to ten grams.
All around you, there are calories.
The alcohol content is expressed as a percentage of 100 milliliters of pure alcohol. A 375mL beer bottle with a 4.5% alcohol content per volume has 4.5mL pure alcohol in every 100mL. This is 3.6 grams per 100 mL and 13.5 grams for the entire bottle.
You’ll have 300 calories in a bottle of red wine that you share with your partner before you even start thinking about the calories of your first meal. Emiliano De Laurentiis/Flickr, CC BY
Energy in an alcoholic drink includes calories from alcohol, but also additional starch, sugar, and non-fermented sugars in wine and beer, or sugar added to mixers such as tonic water in a gin & tonic.
A bottle of 750mL red wine containing 14% alcohol has 600 calories. If you share a bottle with your partner, you have already consumed 300 calories before even tasting the first bite. This is the same as a cup of chunky vegetable broth, a piece of wholemeal toast with a teaspoon of butter, and two slices of prosciutto.
Cocktails and mixed drinks must contain at least 30mL (one nip) of spirits or liquors that have between 30% and 90% alcohol by volume. They may also include soft drinks, sugar syrup, or juice. A gin-and-tonic, for example, has approximately 140 calories. Margaritas have around 170 calories, and Mohitos have about 145.
Premixed beverages are diluted with a mixer (usually a soft drink) to increase their caloric content.
What You Can Do
Drinking a few beers after work, when the average woman requires around 2,300 calories per day and men need about 2,750, can add an enormous amount of “empty energy” to your day. The empty calories are called that because they’re not providing you with the vitamins and minerals necessary for good health, but only your estimated daily energy needs.
Alcoholic beverages, on the other hand, are “nutrient-poor” or “nutrient-empty” as they contain calories but little in terms of vitamins and minerals. Some people claim that wine and beer contain nutrients, but their amounts are so small that they have a negligible impact.
Ask for mixers that are unsweetened to reduce alcohol calories. Travis Wise/Flickr CC-BY
What can you do until the government mandates caloric labels on alcoholic drinks?
Compare the energy content in food and alcoholic beverages.
Be sure to ask for non-sweetened mixers and refill your glass before it is empty. Also, be mindful of the alcohol content in “on tap” and how much you order.
Choose alcohol that has the least amount of calories if you plan to drink. You can make low-alcohol drinks at home using diet sodas, carrot juice, tomato juice, or sparkling water. Choose from a wide range of lower-calorie and low-alcohol wines.
If you plan to drink alcohol, eliminate other “discretionary food” such as muffins, chocolate bars, and slices from your day to balance your energy intake.