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The Not-So-Hidden Calories From Alcohol
Dan Neville/The New York Times – Are there too many calories hiding in your Thanksgiving toast?
The New York Times, November 20, 2012, by Anahad O’Connor — Hoping to stave off weight gain in the coming weeks? You may want to hold off on the mulled wine and cocktails this holiday season, according to a new report that looked at the number of calories Americans get from alcoholic beverages.
The study, which used nationwide data collected between 2007 to 2010, found that the average adult consumes about 100 calories worth of alcohol daily — an amount that for many people could contribute to excess weight gain. In fact, the study found, many Americans consume far more than 100 calories of alcohol a day: 20 percent of men and 6 percent of women drink more than 300 calories worth daily, roughly the amount in two 12-ounce cans of beer or two-and-a-half glasses of wine.
Of course, it is no secret that Americans get many of their calories in liquid form. The average person consumes between 140 and 180 calories worth of sugary drinks a day, which according to health officials is enough to pack on several pounds a year. Soda bans in school cafeterias and initiatives like Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in New York City have also highlighted concerns about the link between obesity and liquid calories. But until now researchers had never looked in detail at the calories Americans were getting from alcoholic drinks.
“Most of the research has focused on sugar sweetened beverages,” said Samara Joy Nielsen, the lead author of the study and a nutritional epidemiologist with the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “No one has ever really looked at alcohol from a caloric perspective.”
One reason for the new study, Dr. Nielsen said, was to quantify a source of calories that Americans rarely give much thought to.
“I think people may be aware that there are calories in alcoholic beverages,” she said, “but I don’t know if people actually look at a beer and realize that it’s the same amount of calories as a soda. Or that a five-ounce glass of wine is almost as much as a soda.”
To get a better sense of the number of calories alcohol contributes to the average American diet, Dr. Nielsen and her colleagues examined data from the long-running National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which provides some of the most reliable statistics available on Americans’ health. This was the first time that the group had examined the calories from alcoholic beverages. “Previously, the focus has been sugar sweetened beverages, including soda and fruit drinks,” she said.
The research, published on the C.D.C. Web site, involved more than 11,000 people across the country over the age of 20 who provided details on the foods and drinks they consumed in a typical day.
Dr. Nielsen and her team found that on a given day, one third of men and 18 percent of women have at least one alcoholic drink. All told, among those who drink, alcohol accounted on average for about 16 percent of their daily calories.
But the study also found that there were clear age and gender divides. Men, not surprisingly, typically drink more than women, having on average 150 calories worth of alcohol a day compared to a little over 50 calories for women.
Younger adults appeared to be heavier drinkers. Men between the ages of 20 and 39 consumed roughly 175 calories of alcohol a day, almost double the 96 calories worth of alcohol consumed by men over the age of 60. Women between the ages of 20 and 59 drank about 60 alcohol calories on average, while older women consumed about half that, roughly 33 alcohol calories a day.
Race and ethnicity seemed to have little influence on the amounts consumed. But income played a role: the highest earners also had the highest levels of imbibing. As for the types of alcohol that Americans turned to, there was little surprise when it came to men. Beer was a heavy favorite, especially among younger people. But the researchers found something they were not expecting when they looked at what women were drinking. Women were consuming equivalent numbers of calories from wine, liquor and beer.
“I think we confirmed what people think about men consuming more alcoholic beverage calories from beer,” said Dr. Nielsen. “But I find it interesting that women on average consume approximately equal numbers of calories from beer, wine and liquor.”
“This is a time of year where potentially people could be drinking more,” she added, “and I think sometimes people forget completely that alcoholic beverages have calories.”