Booze: Do Calories Count?

With the Government proposing nutritional labelling for alcoholic drinks we ask whether it will bring about the desired effect or simply drive the calorie counting craze further in the wrong direction.

Keris Marsden Wine GlassBack in November 2014 news reporters had the fun job of hitting the local bars on a Friday night and interviewing the public to assess the impact of nutritional labelling on alcoholic drinks. The line of questioning seemed to center around comparing the calorific impact of alcohol with junk food: “Did you know a large glass of wine contains a similar number of calories to a doughnut?”

This debate was fuelled by a report from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) who polled 2,000 people about the calorie content of alcohol and found the vast majority had no idea. With a quarter of UK adults now classed as obese the RSPH are pointing the finger at the drinks industry and suggesting beer, wine and spirits are fuelling the obesity epidemic believing that if bottles are labelled with calories people would think twice about getting in another round. The European Commission are expected to decide by December 2014 (crikey don’t let this ruin Christmas!) whether to enforce nutritional labelling on alcoholic drinks.

Not All Calories Are Equal

The frustrating thing about some of the publicity and journalism covering the proposal is the notion that we can compare calories:

 Calorie Count

The single biggest failure of the diet industry has been this idea that our bodies operate on this simple, straight forward equation of balancing calories in versus calories out. Calories are relevant of course and we often provide our clients with guidance to assess their calorie requirements in our one-on-one nutritional consultations, but it’s only one aspect of the bigger picture that governs our body composition and health.

As we’ve mentioned before our risk of obesity and inflammatory disease is the culmination of several factors: including; nutrition, sleep health and gut health to our daily environment. The Functional Medicine disease model explains this more effectively. If we want healthy leaves we need to nourish the roots:

 FM Tree

The irony here is a 175ml glass of good quality red wine actually offers more health benefits than a donut, so comparing the two is not hugely helpful. Incidentally, we often find we help people kickstart fat loss by bumping up calories (NOT from alcohol of course) to fire up metabolisms with nutrient dense (which usually means high calorie) foods.

Turkey Coconut CurryWe offer a breakdown of calories and macronutrients in our debut book The Paleo Primer (previously called Fitter Food: A Life-Long Recipe for Health and Fat Loss).  

This allows people to personalise the recipes to their individual protein, fat and carbohydrate needs. You can take a peek at the contents and the breakdowns here.

The chart topping recipe in the calorie count is our Turkey Coconut Curry, which can pack in around 900 kcals, yet we have personally witnessed several people eating this dish (and several similar high calorie meals) and dropping weight. Why? Because the meal includes: coconut milk, which is packed with medium chain triglycerides that have been proven to aid weight loss and support gut health. The protein content of the turkey helps to keep blood sugar levels stable and regulate appetite.  Finally, the herbs and spices offer powerful antioxidant protection and help reduce inflammation; essential for fat loss and lowering your risk of disease.

Our Turkey Coconut Curry is the equivalent of over 5 ½ glasses (175ml) of wine or 5 pints of beer but we would never suggest they have a similar nutritional impact!

One concern of this government measure is that it is driving people back to the oversimplified model of counting calories whilst disregarding the source of them, which is HUGELY relevant. We are already a nation hooked on calorie counting (and therefore packaged foods as that’s easier to count) as well as calorie based weight loss schemes that advise “eat whatever you like as long as you count the calories.” It’s a win-win for the food and diet industry who stand to gain from this unsuccessful (note earlier stats!), oversimplified, mathematical approach to health and fat loss.

Beyond Calories

LiverSomething that can’t and wouldn’t be covered on any nutritional label is the lasting impact alcohol has on your body. As alcohol cannot be stored, our liver converts it into acetate and at 9 kcals per gram (higher than fat, protein or carbohydrates) it becomes the preferred source of fuel, so your body will run on alcohol the entire time it stays in the blood stream, essentially putting fat burning on hold.

Beyond calories, the detoxification of alcohol utilises many essential nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium and zinc that all play an essential role in energy metabolism. If you are already deficient in these nutrients any amount of alcohol will hinder your fat loss efforts, even the low calorie kind!

Finally, there’s the issue of hormones. Alcohol in excess may increase levels of estrogen in the body (hence it’s association with breast cancer). Alcohol consumption disrupts blood sugar often leading to a ferocious appetite on the way home from the pub (and the following day) that can only be satiated by a Cadbury’s Boost (or is that just us?) After a broken nights sleep (ever had drinkers dawn?) it’s more than likely you’ll crave sugary foods in the days that follow and skip the gym in favour of some much needed duvet hugging.

In the long term poor blood sugar management and the nutritional choices it leads to encourages weight gain around the middle, if you love that muffin top look go get the next round in!

Will It Make A Difference? Units Vs Calories

Interestingly, the drinks industry is lobbying to display alcoholic units instead of calories, which would actually be more useful from a health perspective but is much easier to  dismiss any correlation with your body composition.

We’re all for anything that helps to educate and empower people when it comes to health and if calorie information genuinely allows people to make better choices we would certainly back such a movement. However, our fear is that people will just do what they’ve always done and simply opt for lower calorie alcoholic drinks such as a gin ‘n’ slim, so they can have their cake and eat it. The appeal of getting drunk on as fewer calories as possible will likely win over any other health priority. This was pretty much reiterated in many of the interviews televised last week. Maybe the solution to the situation would be some health warning similar to those offered on cigarette packets:

“WARNING: More than 2 servings = Increased Risk of Moobs or Muffin Top” 


We’d love to hear your thoughts on our Facebook page or feel free to tweet us.

What would have the biggest impact on your choices at the bar?