Alcohol: calories not units?
Health warnings don’t work, but worries about weight might deter determined drinkers
We are often reminded that drinking too much alcohol is bad for us, but how many of us actually take this advice seriously? The young don’t tend to worry about their health, and to a student old age and fragility seem a long way off.
If people can’t be encouraged to cut down on alcohol consumption by informing them of the detrimental effects it’s having on their insides, what can be done? Here’s an idea: how about letting them know what alcohol is doing to their outside? In our image conscious society, weight might matter more than health.
An ineffective unit
Current UK government guidelines recommend that men and women should be drinking no more than, respectively, 3-4 and 2-3 units of alcohol daily. But this guidance seems to fall on deaf ears. The 2007 health survey for England reported that 59% of male and 55% of female drinkers admitted to exceeding this amount at least once in the previous week.
Do we pay the unit of alcohol much attention? The 2009 Omnibus survey on drinking revealed that 75% of people had heard of the daily drinking guidelines but that a significant proportion had not known exactly what the recommended intake was or indeed what they were drinking represented in terms of units. Only 13% actually kept a track of their unit consumption.
So rather than the focus being on the unit content of a drink, what if the emphasis was on a different number, a number that exists on every food and soft drink package but for some reason is missing from the back of an alcohol container: the calorie content?
One unit of pure alcohol is equal to 56 calories, not including the extra sugar or other additives found in many alcoholic beverages. A pint of lager contains about 240 calories, more than most chocolate bars. A measure of vodka with tonic is 126 calories, and a bottle of red wine is 510 calories.
According to recent research, more than a third of people in Britain had dieted within the past three years. In this group, 89% reported weight loss as a motivating factor but only 50% mentioned improved health. It seems that many people are more preoccupied with their weight than with their health. This is a strong indication that people might pay greater attention to the calorie content of alcoholic products than to the unit content.
Alcohol and obesity
Several large trials have looked at the link between alcohol and obesity. Interestingly, evidence that drinkers are fatter is inconclusive. This may be because they expend the excess energy in other ways or that they alter their eating habits accordingly, which itself is not good as alcohol has little nutritional value. Among drinkers, those who drink regularly but in small quantities (that is, have a healthy drinking habit) have a lower body mass index than those who consume large amounts less often. Not only does binge drinking damage our liver and brain but also, it appears, our waistline.
What’s special about alcohol?
Calorie content is clearly displayed on most food and soft drink packaging, so why not on alcohol containers? Currently there are no laws to determine what alcohol companies should display on their products. The Portman Group—an organisation that guides the UK alcohol industry on matters of social responsibility—has developed a code of practice for the marketing and packaging of alcoholic drinks.
The UK government, in collaboration with the Portman Group, has persuaded alcohol companies to sign up to a voluntary pledge on labelling. This involves displaying the number of units, the chief medical officer’s daily guidelines for safe consumption, and a warning against drinking while pregnant. The aim is to have 80% compliance by December 2013.
“Alcohol producers and retailers have already volunteered to display the government’s sensible drinking guidelines on drinks’ containers and in bars and stores,” said a spokeswoman for the Portman Group, when asked for the group’s opinion on displaying calorie content of alcoholic drinks. “This helps consumers to know exactly how much alcohol is in the drinks they are buying.
“The industry has not been asked to include calories and there is a danger that people could mistakenly opt for a lower calorie drink in the belief that it is ‘healthier’ or may include less alcohol. Calorie information is already widely available from sites like drinkaware.”
But surely for an individual to make an informed decision regarding their consumption of any foodstuff, they need to be aware of its content? This is particularly important for people with conditions such as diabetes for whom the hidden sugar content of many alcoholic beverages poses a threat. Displaying the calorie content on alcoholic products is unlikely to influence everyone’s drinking habits. It might, however, grab the attention of some weight conscious individuals the next time they risk succumbing to the dangers associated with excess sipping.
- Rourke E. Work hard, play hard. Student BMJ 2012;20:e5326.
1School of Medicine, University of Manchester
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
- Drinkaware. Alcohol units—guide to units and measures. 2012. drinkaware.co.uk.
- Health & Social Care Information Centre. Health Survey for England—2007: healthy lifestyles: knowledge, attitudes and behaviour. www.hscic.gov.uk/pubs/hse07healthylifestyles4.
- Office for National Statistics. Drinking: adults’ behaviour and knowledge in 2009. Opinions survey report No 42. www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lifestyles/drinking--adult-s-behaviour-and-knowledge/2009-report/index.html.
- Lieber CS. ALCOHOL: its metabolism and interaction with nutrients. Annu Rev Nutr 2000;20:395-430.
- Mintel. Consumer interest in diet foods getting slimmer? 2011. www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/consumer-interest-in-diet-foods-getting-slimmer.
- Breslow RA, Smothers BA. Drinking patterns and body mass index in never smokers: National Health Interview Survey, 1997-2001. Am J Epidemiol 2005;161:368-76.
- Portman Group. Responsibility deal pledge on labelling. www.portmangroup.org.uk/assets/documents/Alcohol%20labelling%20compliance%20and%20monitoring%20process%202011.pdf .
- The Governments Alcohol Strategy: HM Government, 2012. www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/98121/alcohol-strategy.pdf.
- Hanratty S. Views of the Portman Group on displaying calorie content on alcoholic products. In: Evans J, ed. Portman Group, 2013.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2013;21:f3883