Calories and Alcohol – Could alcohol be making you fat?

Calories and alcohol - do you know how many calories there are in your favourite drink? Did you know that as a drinker, on average, 10% of daily calories are from alcohol? Yesterday, MEPs voted for calorie labels to be put on all alcoholic drinks in a vote at the European Parliament to help with the contribution of alcoholic drinks to obesity.

How could alcohol be making you fat, and what can you do to enjoy the benefits without the weight gain?

Young couple enjoying meal out and wine

1. There is nowhere for the body to store alcohol (unlike other nutrients) so it is processed by the body first. Then the calories we eat from food are more likely to be stored as fat. This reduces the amount of fat the body burns for energy.

2. Alcohol calories are ‘empty’ calories. Unlike food that contains important nutrients, vitamins and minerals, alcohol has little nutrition. When you drink your calories as alcohol you won’t feel as full up as if you had the same calories from food. Alcohol calories are usually extra calories. Most people don’t compensate by reducing the overall calories they eat or drink, so alcohol is an extra source of calories.

3. Each gram of alcohol has 7 calories so the stronger the alcoholic drink the higher the calories. But most alcoholic drinks also contain significant carbohydrates (sugar); after all, alcohol is fermented natural carbohydrates. Sweeter alcoholic drinks also have more calories. There is variation in the amount of calories in alcoholic drinks so you could easily be taking in more than you realise. For a man who has 3 pints of real ale in a day that can be 1000 calories (or 40% of daily calories). Three large glasses (3 x 250ml) of wine, is a bottle, about 600 calories. That's 30% of a woman’s daily calories and more calories than in a 100g bar of milk chocolate. Look at for more information about calories and alcohol.

4. In a restaurant or pub you get a set measure but at home people rarely measure it out, they just pour a drink. This can mean home drinkers are drinking more calories as they are not controlling the quantity they drink. But even the set pub measure of alcohol is increasing. Just as food portions have grown larger over time so have wine glass and spirit measures, and bought-in beer bottles.

5. What do you have with your drink? With spirits you have to include calories from any mixer you add and some can be high calorie and high sugar choices. Some like to have crisps or other nibbles with their drinks which adds calories. Also the ‘inhibition’ effect of drinking alcohol explains how sometimes people make unhealthy food choices because they are drinking. And then there’s eating with a hangover!


How to enjoy alcohol

Alcohol in small quantities has health benefits in terms of reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and diabetes. This is offset by a slightly higher risk of breast cancer and colon cancer and alcohol can raise blood pressure. Here's a suggested level to get the health benefits of alcohol.

For a man one pint (568ml) or one standard to large glass of wine (175-250ml) or one larger measure of spirits (50ml) a day.

For a woman one small glass (125ml) of wine or half a pint of beer (284ml) or one small measure of spirits (35ml) a day.

It is best to drink alcohol with or after food, and give the liver several alcohol-free days each week.

Downsize your drink size by buying some cheap supermarket small wine glasses, half pint or pint glasses, and a spirit measure as an alternative to measuring out on digital scales.

Bitter generally has more calories than lager. Liqueurs and alcopops are sweeter and have more calories than wine, or spirits like vodka, gin and whisky.

Calories and alcohol - think about what alcohol you choose and what you have with it (food or a mixer).

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