Nutritional analysis (i.e. Energy/Calories)
In UK adults (aged 19-64), alcohol has been shown to typically contribute roughly 10% of total energy intake (1). According to Drinkaware, those of us (4 of 10) who consume alcohol are not aware of alcohol calories and their food equivalents, but, since alcohol is produced through the fermentation of sugars (e.g glucose, fructose, and sucrose), it has a high calorie content – exactly 7 Kcals per gram (2).
Some alcoholic drinks contain extra calories through added carbohydrate (rather than beer and wine which contain carbohydrates not added but have not been distilled out so remain in your drink), or other additional ingredients to make the final product such as flavourings (3). For example, spirits are often served with mixers (e.g sweetened soft drinks or fruit juice) or in cocktails and thus contain additional calories. To put it into context, in terms of calorie content, drinking a popular alcoholic drink such as a pint of lager is equivalent to eating a slice of pizza (4). Thus, the calories from alcohol accumulate before you know It, and significantly contribute towards daily calorie intake.
Although the majority of alcoholic drinks do contain vitamins and minerals, the amounts they contain are generally negligible, thus alcohol calories are commonly referred to as ‘empty calories’, in other words they have no nutritive value (5).
The alcohol content of a beverage is expressed as a percentage, communicated by alcohol by volume (%ABV) on either the label of bottles or cans (2). For example, a can of beer that states “4.5% ABV” on the label would contain 4.5% pure alcohol. The alcoholic content even in a similar variety of drinks can differ a great deal. A higher ABV, hence higher alcohol content, generally means a higher calorie content. For example, changing a standard glass of red wine with an ABV 14%, for a size matched glass of red wine with a lower ABV (12%), will save both calories and units (2).
Low Calorie Options
Cutting back on alcohol intake one way or another is ultimately the best way to keep alcohol related calorie intake to a minimum. However, if this isn’t an option, by simply choosing lower calorie alcoholic drinks you can still considerably reduce overall calorie intake in a drinking session.
Alcoholic drinks which would typically contain less calories include the following:
- drinks made with low or zero calorie mixers such as herb and fruit infusions, soda water and slimline tonic water, or sugar free soft drinks.
- drinks made with single measures (even at home – buying a measure will help in keeping to this)
i dry variations of wines and ciders (instead of sweet wines or ciders), as they will typically contain less calories.(2)
Examples of low-calorie alcoholic drinks include the following:
Beck’s Premier Light (330ml) – 64 calories
Bud Light (300ml) – 80 calories
Corona Light (330ml) – 99 calories
Vermouth (50ml) – 45 calories
Vodka Soda and Lime – 75 calories
Gin and Slimline Tonic – 88 calories
M&S Sumika Rosé (150ml) – 75 calories
Prosecco (150 ml) – 100 calories
Champagne (150ml) – 105 calories
National Guidelines for Consumption
In 2016, the guidelines for alcohol consumption in the UK were updated by the Chief Medical Officers and now propose a new weekly guideline of no more than 14 units of alcohol on regular occasions for both male and females in order to minimise alcohol related health risks (6).
To put this into perspective, one unit of alcohol measures 10ml of ethanol (pure alcohol), which equates to: half a pint of lower to normal-strength lager/beer/cider or a single small shot measure (25ml) of spirits (7). They added that when exceeded, it is better this is evenly distributed over three or more days throughout the week (6), (as opposed to what is commonly referred to as ‘binge drinking’ – defined as drinking 60 grams of pure alcohol at minimum or five standard drinks in one session (8).
Regular alcohol intake regardless of the amount will result in a greater chance of developing illness, thus it is advised to have a number of drink- free days per week in order to reduce overall alcohol intake (6).
Health Implications of Excessive Consumption
Alcohol consumption has been identified as an important risk factor for illness, disability, and death (9). This pertains to the harmful use of alcohol which encompasses not just the average volume of alcohol consumed over a time period but the pattern of consumption (i.e. either occasional or regular ‘binge drinking’)(8), and is a contributing factor in the cause of over 200 disease and injury conditions (10).
These may be categorized as follows: infectious disease; cancer; diabetes; neuropsychiatric disease; cardiovascular disease; liver and pancreas disease; and unintentional and intentional injury (11). The context of alcohol consumption is a key determinant in the incidence of alcohol-related harm, especially with health consequences of alcohol intoxication, and, rarely, also the quality of alcohol consumed (10).
Alcohol consumption may not just play a causative role in the incidence of diseases, injuries and other health conditions, but also on the prognosis of condition and their outcomes in individuals (10).
Not only does the harmful use of alcohol has physical health implications but it has also been associated with a number of mental and behavioral disorders such as alcohol dependence (10). Besides health implications the harmful use of alcohol also results in significant social and economic losses to individuals and society as a whole (10).
- Public Health England (2018). NDNS: results from years 7 and 8 (combined). [online] GOV.UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined.
- British Nutrition Foundation (2014). Calories in alcohol - British Nutrition Foundation. [online] Available at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritioninthenews/headlines/caloriesalcohol.html.
- DRINKiQ. Calories in alcohol| What are alcohol's nutritional values? – DRINKiQ. [online] Drinkiq.com. Available at: https://www.drinkiq.com/en-gb/facts-about-alcohol/nutritional-values/.
- Drinkaware. Calories in alcohol. [online] Available at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/calories/calories-in-alcohol/.
- Wang, P. (2019). 28 Charts That Will Help You Start Eating Healthier Immediately. [online] BuzzFeed. Available at: https://www.buzzfeed.com/peggy/charts-healthier-diet.
- Department of Health (2016). Alcohol Guidelines Review – Report from the Guidelines development group to the UK Chief Medical Officers. [online] Assets.publishing.service.gov.uk. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/545739/GDG_report-Jan2016.pdf.
- Gmel, G., Kuntsche, E. and Rehm, J. (2010). “Risky single-occasion drinking: bingeing is not bingeing”. Addiction, 106(6), pp.1037-1045.
- Rehm, J., Mathers, C., Popova, S., Thavorncharoensap, M., Teerawattananon, Y. and Patra, J. (2009). “Global burden of disease and injury and economic cost attributable to alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders”. The Lancet, 373(9682), pp.2223-2233.
- World Health Organization (2018). Alcohol. [online] Who.int. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/alcohol#.
- Rehm J. (2011). “The risks associated with alcohol use and alcoholism”. Alcohol research & health : the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 34(2), 135–143.