On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Do Calories From Alcohol ‘Count’ the Same?

DEAR DR. BLONZ: With the holidays here, I was wondering whether calories from alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine and liquor cause weight gain at about the same rate as calories from carbs and fats. -- F.S., Hayward, California

DEAR F.S.: Calories from alcohol tend to have a more complicated agenda than those from other food components. Much depends on your diet, your overall health and your drinking habits. Regarding strict calorie content, one gram of alcohol contains about seven calories. Compare this with carbohydrates and proteins, which contain four calories per gram, and fat, which contains nine calories per gram.

While there can be brew-to-brew variances, the alcoholic content of beer is about 5 percent by volume, except in states or counties having regulations that limit alcohol content to 3.2 percent. There will be additional carbohydrates in beer, and there can also be an additional amount in other alcoholic beverages, such as liqueurs and finished wines.

Unlike packaged foods, there is no requirement for a Nutrition Facts label on alcoholic beverages. To get a caloric breakdown for a specific beverage, check with the manufacturer. The National Institutes of Health provides a generic calculator at tinyurl.com/ybh4cynr. If you’re only interested in good ballpark figures, you can stop here.

It should be kept in mind that alcohol can become toxic in excessive amounts, so the body has specific enzymes designed to break it down. When we consume alcohol more rapidly than it can be broken down, interim metabolites remain in queue, and this is what brings on the various feelings of inebriation. (Larger people tolerate more because their “queue” is bigger.) An interesting side note to this is that calories from alcohol count more in those who don’t drink on a daily basis. This comes from the fact that when alcohol is consumed on a regular basis, such as a glass of wine a day, the body has some of the needed enzymes at the ready.

There are complexities in alcohol’s metabolic rate that have to do with its ability to proceed down different pathways according to the situation at hand, each having a different impact on the net caloric yield. It’s known, for example, that the metabolites of alcohol can slow down the burning of the body’s own fat for energy; this happens because the alcohol gets preferential treatment. The net effect can be more of a positive fat balance, and alcohol-related fat tends to be deposited in the abdominal area.

Another issue with alcohol is its effect on the heat produced by the body (thermogenesis). Metabolic processes such as digestion are not 100 percent energy-efficient, so it is normal for some dietary energy (i.e., calories) to be lost as heat. (This also explains why we get warm when we exercise.) Alcohol is known to increase thermogenesis more than other foods, but this effect is less robust in overweight individuals, or when paired with a high-fat diet.

A bottom caloric line is that there are about seven calories per gram of alcohol, a number greater than carbohydrates, but lower than fat calories. It is no mystery that the more you drink, the more calories you consume. Excess calories from any source will be stored as body fat, but the alcohol-related excess tends to find a home around the midsection.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.