November 16, 2012
U.S. adults get almost as many calories from alcohol as from sugar-sweetened drinks, a new government study has found. The study was based on interviews with more than 11,000 people. They were asked detailed questions about what they ate and drank in the last 24 hours. Sugar-sweetened drinks accounted for about 6% of calories and alcohol added about 5%. One-third of men and one-fifth of women had consumed some form of alcohol on the day in question. The average was about 150 calories a day -- equal to a beer -- for men. For women, the average was about 50 calories a day, roughly half a glass of wine. Men drank mostly beer. Women drank beer, wine and liquor, with no clear favorites. Younger adults drank more than older ones. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the study. The Associated Press wrote about it November 15.
By Mary Pickett, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
When it comes to the obesity epidemic, Americans are growing wider, but we are also growing wiser. We are taking steps to analyze our bad habits. And we are learning how much each of our habits may be contributing to our excess weight. This week, thanks to a government study, the focus is on alcohol.
Alcohol accounts for about 5% of all the calories an average U.S. adult consumes. Soda and other sweetened drinks, by comparison, make up 6% of calories. Like soda, alcohol is a prime target for us to reduce or eliminate, because these are "empty" calories. That means they offer you no nutrition.
There are many reasons to limit the amount that you drink. For light, regular drinkers, obesity is a reason that does not often get our focus. But it should. A soda has about 140 calories, and a typical beer has roughly 150. A 5-ounce glass of wine has about 100 calories.
We can translate this into an exercise "penalty." For example, if you want to have your alcohol calories but not gain weight, figure out how much extra exercise you will need to do in order to compensate. For 2 beers after work, you will need to jog for an extra 30 minutes to burn your alcohol calories.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
As old-fashioned as it sounds, diet and exercise are still the best ways to lose weight. Include alcohol in your thinking about diet.
Here are the best changes I think you can make, if you need to lose weight:
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require nutrition facts labeling for alcohol. Instead, alcohol labeling has been governed by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Labeling has emphasized warnings about the hazards of drinking. It has not required clear listing of calories and nutritional content.
This might change in time, and it would be a welcome change. In the meantime, keep in mind that alcohol calories add up.