It’s no secret that alcohol, whether it’s a pint of beer, a glass of wine or a dram of whiskey, contains calories but has no nutritional value, hence the term “empty calories”. But are you aware of just how many calories your favorite tipple sets you back?
On April 6 2022, new legislation regarding displaying calories on menus came into force, applying to large businesses such as takeaways, restaurants and cafes. However, there are some exemptions to this new law, including food that is only on a menu for 30 days of the year or less and all alcoholic drinks above 1.2% ABV.
This exemption means that the health implications of a trip to the pub or bottle of wine with dinner comes down to guesswork.
This comes after the Commission on Alcohol Harm highlighted in its 2021 report on calorie counts for alcohol that people who drink regularly get nearly 10 per cent of their daily calorie intake from alcohol, contribute to the ongoing obesity crisis.
Though it can be difficult to find out the exact calorific content of your favorite stout, it is possible to take an educated guess. The calorie content of alcoholic drinks is largely dependent on sugar/carbohydrate content and alcohol percentage. Alcohol has more sway as it contains more calories per gram than sugar (7g compared to 4g). So you may be surprised to hear that spirits, classically thought of as a more calorie-conscious choice than beer or cider, might contain equal or larger numbers of calories than lower-alcohol drinks. When in doubt, opt for the drink with a lower ABV (alcohol by volume).
It’s not just about the drink itself, either. The food we eat while drinking (or, of course, after a night of drinking) tends to be higher in fat and sugar, contributing to higher cholesterol, higher blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and weight gain.
Though cutting down on the number of alcoholic drinks you have throughout the week is the most effective way to control the number of ’empty calories’ you consume, it’s easier said than done, particularly now it’s summer. So how to keep slim while enjoying a summer cocktail or two?
It helps to have an idea of which drinks are particularly high in calories, and which you can easily switch to a lower calorie option. Here are the rough calorie contents to some of our favorites to help inform your choice next time you raise a glass.
beer and cider
The calorie content of beer ranges depending on the type; Drinkware estimates the average pint of beer (ABV 4%) contains 182 calories. A pint of higher-ABV beer such as ale or stout, however, can set you back 250 calories or more – the same as a Mars bar.
Cider, due to the higher sugar content, is slightly higher in calories than beer, with an average of 215 calories in a 4.5% ABV pint.
Healthline suggests that one pint of regular beer contains an average 12g of carbs but 0g of sugar. Non-alcoholic beer, however, usually contains 28.5g of carbs as well as 28.5g of sugar.
But the sugar content can also vary per label as Foster’s contains 2.7g of sugar per 100ml, meaning one pint contains just over 13.5g – nearly 27 per cent of your recommended daily sugar intake.
Both red and white wine have similar nutritional profiles, despite the popular belief that red wine is more calorific than white. A 175ml glass of wine (ABV 13%) contains around 160 calories – slightly fewer than a bag of Walkers Ready Salted crisps – with a large measurement (250ml) containing roughly 225 calories. A 175ml glass of wine with an ABV of 12%, by comparison, contains around 133 calories.
There are thought to be around 0.8g of sugar in a medium-sized glass of red wine and 1.4g in white wine, which is almost the equivalent to the quantity in a single slice of white bread.
If you want to watch your calorie intake but still enjoy a glass, look for lower ABV wines, of which there is a growing number by quality producers.
Champagne, prosecco and other sparkling wines are slightly lower in calories than red or white wine. A 125ml glass of champagne contains around 89 calories, while prosecco contains around 86; the equivalent of a chocolate digestive biscuit.
One glass of prosecco is also estimated to contain around 1g of sugar which has led some to brand it as “one of the more diet-friendly alcoholic drinks”.
Again, the calorie content of spirits differs based on the alcohol and sugar content. A single shot (25ml) of rum contains 61 calories, while a shot of cream liqueur contains around 80, and a shot of gin around 97.
One of the most calorific spirits is, surprisingly, vodka, which contains, on average, 110 calories. This, of course, is due to the alcohol content of vodka, which can range from 40% upward; the strongest vodka available to purchase in the UK is Balkan 175, which has an ABV of 88%.
Spirits on their own contain very little sugar, (almost 0g), but combined with other drinks, the sugar content rises drastically.
For example, vodka mixed with around 250ml of cranberry juice contains around 30g or 7.5 teaspoons of sugar and rum mixed with 250ml of cola bumps the sugar content up to around 27.5g or seven teaspoons.
If you think spirits are bad, then cocktails are the mother of calorific drinks. Most cocktails consist of one or more spirits, plus juices, sugar syrups and flavourings, with some totting up totals higher than a pint of stout.
A simple martini, made from gin or vodka, vermouth and ice, contains anything up to 120 calories. But a pornstar martini, a popular cocktail made from vodka, passion fruit liqueur, sugar syrup and sparkling wine, contains roughly 225 calories per drink. Even higher is a long island iced tea, a concoction of vodka, tequila, light rum, triple sec, gin and a splash of cola, which can contain upwards of 280 calories, or the rough equivalent of a McDonald’s cheeseburger.
To cut down on calories, keep your cocktail simple. The fewer alcoholic ingredients, the lower the calories and sugar (and the less severe your hangover).
A favorite among younger drinkers slurping on neon-coloured drinks on a night out, alcopops are both high in sugar and alcohol, making them a particularly high-calorie option. A 275ml bottle can contain anything between 170 calories and 230; a 330ml bottle of Smirnoff Ice contains roughly 228 calories, or two slices of buttered toast.
Does alcohol cause weight gain?
Alcohol can make you gain weight, not just because of its calorie content but also because, after drinking, your body focuses on breaking down the alcoholic units as opposed to burning fat.
Consuming too much alcohol can also cause severe damage to your liver which can then affect its ability to metabolize and store carbohydrates and fats.
And additionally, alcohol can leave you feeling hungry and can result in you making poor food choices.
What is the recommended alcohol intake in the UK?
The current guidelines state that both men and women should not consume more than 14 units of alcohol a week on a regular basis. This is the equivalent to six pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.
The NHS also advises to spread your drinking over three or more days if you regularly exceed 14 units a week.