As if pairing wine and food was not complicated enough, establishing a relation between alcohol and calories seems to be even more challenging as the connection between the two might not be as clear as we might think.
In England, it is estimated that 67% of men and 60% of women are classed as overweight or obese, a proportion that has significantly risen since 1993 (+15%). While the recent global pandemic might have played an important role, one of the main culprits could be the excessive consumption of alcohol.
What's in your drink: Units, Nutritional Values and Calories
In 1983 the UK Government introduced the idea of UNIT to help people get their head around their drink's alcohol content. As per the NHS website:
"One unit equals 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol, which is around the amount of alcohol the average adult can process in an hour."
A large 250ml glass of 13% wine, contains 3.2 units, which means drinking more than four glasses in a week would exceed the recommended amount of units (14).
Despite being devoid of most nutritional values, wine still contains around 7 calories per gram (almost the same amount you would find in a gram of fat), mostly coming from alcohol and sugar, which will go towards your carbohydrate intake. Of course, the amount of calories is dependent of the style of the wine consumed: a glass of champagne comes in at 95 calories per glass, whereas a glass of dessert wine can contain three times as much due to a higher sugar content.
So far, so good: wine (or alcohol in general) contains calories, excess calories cause weight gain therefore alcohol leads to obesity. Simple, right? Unfortunately, not quite: the relationship between alcohol and weight gain is far more complex and intricate than that. For the past century several researchers have tried and solve the mystery, yet the debate (and the confusion) is still in full swing.
Can drinking lead to weight gains ?
Here you have it, the one-million pound question.
On paper the answer should be straightforward, however, we will sit on the fence on that one, and we will say “It COULD”.
Even better, it depends on who you listen to as researches and studies conducted in recent years have given us enough food for thoughts regardless of the side you pick.
Back in the nineties a few scholars including Stock and Lieber suggested that recurring drinking was not related to weight gain and that calories from alcohol did not count since they were processed differently by the metabolism and burned off relatively quickly.
In a similar vein, a more recent study carried in the US showed that moderate alcohol consumption might actually help reduce weight gain in middle-aged and elderly women.
The latest studies seem to be pointing towards the opposite direction and found that alcohol is indeed related to weight gain and obesity either directly or indirectly.
Heavy drinking has been linked to increase of BMI and adiposity gain (Barry, 2016), mostly due to the extra pressure on the digestive system that will in turn slow down the metabolism. Some argue that alcohol is also responsible for high level of cortisol, the main culprit of food cravings and increased appetite.
Besides its impact on a physiological level, alcohol has been proven to interfere with some neurological processes in regards to hunger: A study conducted by Cains and Blomeley et al. gave us further insights into the neurological activity, hyperactivity even, involved in “alcohol-induced overeating”.
Essentially, they concluded that alcohol - more specifically ethanol- stimulates nerve cells (Agrp neurons) in the hypothalamus causing a false sense of hunger and/or starvation.
Limitations: cause or solution?
While it is safe to safe that alcohol is a nutrient containing calories, the discrepancy in literature proves that the correlation with weight gain is not as clear-cut as we might expect. After all, studies and researches, as reliable as they might be, will always have limitations: a temporal or causal link cannot always be established and drinking patterns are unlikely be analysed for an extensive period of time.
Also, other confounding factors might not have been taken into account, such as personality, genetics, body composition, habits etc.
We still have some way to go before we can resolve the alcohol paradox, however if there is something that all these studies agree on, is that MODERATE drinking does not seem to be harmful, or at least not as detrimental. Therefore, while (study) limitations might have caused a few problems in shedding lights on this mystery, (personal) limits might be the solution to it.
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Cains, S., Blomeley, C., Kollo, M. et al. Agrp neuron activity is required for alcohol-induced overeating. Nat Commun 8, 14014 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms14014