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With many celebrating the end of a courageous dry January with a stiff G&T or beer tonight, we’ve taken a look at the latest evidence…

Alcohol is a relaxant and is often the deserved reward after a hard day. Previous research has suggested properties in some types of alcohol, such as antioxidants in red wine, can have cardio protective benefits, particularly for women 55+years with low intakes (<5 units a week). However, the latest evidence has shown the health risks of alcohol outweigh the potential benefits. Long term exposure to high alcohol intakes can lead to high blood pressure, liver complications and weight gain, this in turn increases the risk of a number of health conditions such as heart disease, liver complications and some cancers.

In 2016 the Chief Medical Officer’s advice on alcohol was updated to reflect this and now gives one maximum guide for all adults, men and women alike – max 14 units a week, spread evenly across the week.

Although the measurements of alcohol units becomes more ubiquitous and can be found on the back of most labels and even on some menus, an important factor that be easily missed for alcohol is the calorie content. Pure alcohol provides a lot of calories – about 7 kcal per gram, which is almost as much as fat g for g. But most of us don’t consume alcohol in the pure form, we enjoy it with mixers, with bubbles or added infusions which invariably adds more calories in the form of sugars or fat (if a creamy liqueur). 

The aperitif nature of alcohol usually means drinks are additional source of calories in our diets and when combined with its appetite stimulating properties it’s easy to see why a Dry January can instantly make a big difference to daily calories.

The latest evidence from the UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey has shown that alcohol typically provides just over 8% of our dietary calories – which is quite high. But the good news is our frequency of drinking is heading in the right direction – in 2016 the proportion of men and women who would be classed as ‘frequent drinkers’ (drinking alcohol on 5+ days of the week) reduced to 12% and 7% respectively compared to 2005.

So a break from regular alcohol consumption can have a big benefit - not only does it immediately help to cut calories from the diet and improve health, it can also improve sleep. Alcohol induces sleep more quickly but reduces quality, with less time in the restorative deep sleep and more time in the lighter ‘REM’ Rapid Eye Movement sleep. And as a Dry January has become an annual routine for many, the choice of lower and no alcohol drinks continues to expand, meaning there’s need to miss out.

Calorie and Unit content of typical drinks

DrinkMeasureCaloriesUnits
Beer (4%)1 pint182 kcal2.3
Beer (5%)1 pint244 kcal2.8

1 bottle (330ml)142 kcal1.6
Cider (4.5)  1 pint216 kcal2.3
Prosecco / Champagne (12%)1 flute 89 kcal1.5
Wine (13%)Small glass (125ml)114 kcal1.6

Regular glass (175ml)159 kcal2.3

Large glass (250ml)228 kcal3.2
Spirits (40%)1 measure (25 ml) 61 kcal1.0

British Nutrition Foundation: Calories in Alcohol 2016