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Don't forget to count the calories in alcoholic beverages when dieting

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, obesity, empty calories

Most are aware of the calorie content of soft drinks, but what about alcoholic beverages? According to a new study released on November 15 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most adults in the US get almost as many empty calories from alcoholic beverages as from soft drinks.

The focus of many ant-obesity campaigns is avoidance of sugary soft drinks. These represent about 6% of the calories consumed by adults; however, on the average, adults get about 5% of their calories from alcoholic beverages. Study first author Cynthia Ogden, PhD, a CDC epidemiologist noted, “We've been focusing on sugar-sweetened beverages. This is something new," said Cynthia Ogden, one of the study's authors. She notes that these findings deserve attention because, like soda, alcohol contains few nutrients but plenty of calories.

From 2007 through 2010, more than 11,000 US adults were interviewed. The participants were queried extensively regarding what they ate and drank over the previous 24 hours.

Research findings on drink calories

* On any given day, about one-third of men and one-fifth of women consumed calories from beer, wine or liquor.

* Averaged out to all adults, the average guy drinks 150 calories from alcohol each day, or the equivalent of a can of regular beer.

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* The average woman drinks about 50 calories, or approximately half a glass of wine.

* Men drink mostly beer. For women, there was no clear favorite among alcoholic beverages.

There was no racial or ethnic difference in average calories consumed from alcoholic beverages. However, there was an age difference, with younger adults drinking more.

For reference, a 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 140 calories, which is slightly less than a same-sized can of regular beer. A five ounce glass of wine contains about 100 calories.

In September, New York City approved an unprecedented measure: it focused on giant sodas (larger than 16 ounces or half a liter). The statute will take effect in March and bans sales of drinks that large at restaurants, cafeterias, and concession stands. Following similar logic, New York officials might consider cracking down on tall-boy beers and monster margaritas? According to city health department statement, there are no plans for that; however, the statement also noted that while studies show that sugary drinks are “a key driver of the obesity epidemic,” alcohol is not.

Take home message:
This study notes that most US adults get just about the same amount of calories from alcoholic beverages as from soft drinks. An anti-obesity campaign for children should appropriately focus on children; however, those geared for adults should also cite the calories in alcoholic beverages. Thus, New York, and other cities that want to follow New York’s example, should consider adding alcohol to their anti-obesity campaigns. Alcohol has an effect lacking from soft drinks: it stimulates the appetite and reduces willpower; thus, increasing food intake.

Reference: CDC