Alcohol consumption is not just a risk for cancer and heart disease, it’s also bad for the waistline and pocket. Did you know that a large glass of wine has more calories than a Mars Bar?
Those of us who enjoy a glass of wine most evenings probably worry, to some degree or other, about the health risks we are running
But do we stop to consider how many empty calories we are consuming? Or what we could do with the money we’d save if we stopped drinking?
Dry January, the annual abstinence campaign from national charity Alcohol Concern, has a calculator on its website that spells this out.
For example, consuming just one pint of beer and one standard glass of wine every night adds up to nearly 2,000 calories and more than £50 each week. In terms of calorie intake that’s the equivalent of a whole day’s meals for an adult.
Burning those extra calories would take 60 minutes of moderate exercise every day. Over a year this relatively modest intake represents a drinking habit that costs around £2,500.
It’s long been known that over-indulgence of beer leads to a ‘beer belly’, but it’s less well known that other forms of alcohol also play a significant part in weight gain. Dr Deborah Pufal, a senior lecturer in nutrition and the course leader for the undergraduate nutrition degree programmes at Huddersfield University, says the calories in alcohol are frequently underestimated. “A single bottle of wine has more than 600 calories and there’s a tendency to overeat while drinking,” she added. “Just giving up drinking alcohol can have a big impact on weight.”
One of the leading weight loss organisations, Slimming World, has conducted its own research into the problem and found that cutting back on alcohol is one of the greatest challenges faced by would-be slimmers. And ‘beer bellies’ are now a female as well as male problem because growing numbers of women are adopting men’s drinking habits.
Dr Pufal agrees that this is a major and growing health issue. She explained: “Women are drinking more, particularly women of our age (middle aged). And when I was younger one glass of wine was one unit, but now, because percentages have changed, a single glass can be 2.7 units.”
Lynda Thwaites, a Slimming World consultant for 14 years with classes in Dalton and Almondbury, says alcohol is a concern for women wanting to lose weight. She added: “One of the first questions people ask when they join a class is how much they can drink or if they can still go out on a Saturday night and have a few drinks with friends. We say that they can, but it’s all about keeping it in moderation. Expecting people to give up altogether is too big an ask. We’ve all got used to having a glass of wine to wind down at the end of a day. It’s a relaxant.”
Slimming World discovered widespread ignorance of the calorie contents of different strengths and types of alcohol. For example, a large 250ml glass of light 9% alcohol sweet white wine has 210 calories, compared to a similarly-sized glass of high alcohol 16% red wine at 279.
The company has joined the lobby for alcohol labelling to include simple calorie counts. It is a move that is also supported by the Local Government Association and one that Dr Pufal believes would have some effect. She said: “It’s about appealing to people’s vanity and that works for me. Health should be our first consideration, but many of us are concerned about how we look; it’s why I go to the gym and eat healthily. Putting calorie counts on drinks is a really good idea because it will stop some people from drinking too much.”
Lynda also feels nutritional labelling, like that on foods, would be a positive move. She explained: “Most of us know about the high calorie content of fatty or sugary foods and we can make informed choices because we can read the labelling. But we don’t know how many calories there are in a bottle of wine.
“Another problem is that sometimes it’s difficult to know how much you are drinking because you might be in a social situation where someone keeps topping up your glass. And it makes you want to eat.”Her advice to group members is to alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks, take in plenty of water, don’t go out socialising on an empty stomach and stick to the Government’s new guidelines (14 units a week for both men and women), which represent moderate consumption. However, the Slimming World research revealed that most of us have a tipping point after which we lose inhibitions and will continue to drink - and then eat the fatty, high calorie foods drinkers tend to crave at the end of an evening.
The charity Drinkaware says alcohol is not just a source of ‘empty’ calories, with little or no nutritional value, but it is also a toxin and getting rid of it interferes with other metabolic processes. There are claims that alcohol affects the body’s ability to burn fat for energy.
However, moves for calorie labelling are unlikely to have an effect on the number of seriously heavy drinkers. As Alan Walker from Alcohol Support Kirklees says: “The people that I deal with have an addiction to alcohol and only when the consequences become greater than the benefit, only then will they consider change. They are drinking as an act of escape from perceived problems or responsibilities, it’s a chosen lifestyle. Heavy drinkers laugh at Government guidelines.”
But would calorie counting help to prevent the early signs of misuse? Alan added: “The more information that is available the more people would be able to use it and take it into consideration. If you go to a supermarket and look at items of food they have all sorts of information on them. But people intent on drinking might disregard it.
“There’s also a cultural problem with heavy drinking and people surround themselves with like-minded friends. They are not going to worry about calories.”
Links between alcohol intake and a whole raft of diseases, including breast cancer, are now well understood and yet 30% of the population still regularly drinks beyond the Government guidelines.
The consequences, says Wendy Edmondson, nurse manager for Kirklees’ Locala Substance Misuse Team, are that alcoholic liver disease is affecting younger people, including those who don’t consider themselves to be heavy drinkers. And drinkers are suffering a range of preventable health problems - from depression and anxiety to high blood pressure.
“There are people who go to the gym and eat healthily who see themselves as doing the right things and yet they are drinking above the recommended limit,” she explained. “I think a lot of people don’t realise the impact of alcohol; they don’t understand what a unit is or the calorific intake. Around 30% of the public are drinking at levels that increase health risks and yet don’t see themselves as having a problem at all. They think dependent drinkers are the ones with the problems. But they might be affecting their blood pressure, suffering from anxiety or, if they’re on medication, affecting how that medication is working.
“There are people who binge at weekends and run the risk of having an accident and ending up in A & E. Then there are those who regularly drink over the guidelines. Alcohol is having an impact if you are starting to feel anxious or low, if you’re having problems at home or suffering from the financial implications of drinking.
“The good thing about the new guidelines is that they have got everybody talking about the problem. It’s a difficult one to tackle because culturally alcohol is a big part of our lives and it’s everywhere. I even visited one gym that had a bar. It’s not like smoking where you can say ‘don’t smoke’. As a consultation exercise the guidelines have put it on the agenda.”
Older and wealthier drinkers at greater risk
The charity Alcohol Concern says there are more than 60 medical conditions linked to drinking alcohol, including breast cancer, high blood pressure and depression. NHS estimates of alcohol dependency show that up to one third of men and more than a quarter of women in the UK drink more than the recommended (former) guidelines. Older people drink more than the young, but young people do more binge drinking. Wealthier households consume more alcohol than the less well off.
Cheers! Make mine a Cornetto
A pint of beer or lager can vary from 165 to 335 calories. An average-strength pint is equivalent to a slice of pizza or a Mars Bar.
A half bottle of wine of average strength is more than 300 calories, more than a Snickers Bar or 100g of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate.
A large glass of 13% wine (250mls) can have the same calories as a Cornetto. Many drinkers will have more than one glass of wine per evening, would they have more than one Cornetto?