10 Apr, 2012 Last updated: 12 Mar, 2015

By Brian Vandenberg, Alcohol Program Manager, VicHealth

Opinion piece first published in the Herald Sun on 9 April, 2012.

Maybe it was the celebratory long, weekend booze up that did it.

Consider this. Drinking a six-pack of beer or cider is akin to scoffing two large hot cross buns slathered in butter. And a single glass of the dieter’s choice, gin and tonic, is equivalent to three mini solid chocolate Easter eggs. Sadly, a bottle of red wine contains as many kilojoules as a Big Mac.

Perhaps it’s time we faced up to what’s really at the bottom of the beer glass.

While we know that alcohol is responsible for too many tragic accidents, more than 200 illnesses and is a driver for a range of society’s ills, not a great deal has been said about alcohol and weight gain.  The evidence in Australia is not clear-cut, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that booze is playing a role in the nation’s obesity epidemic.

Many people would be surprised to learn that it is the alcohol content, more than the sugar, which contributes most to weight gain. When we have a drink our body’s internal organs immediately start work on metabolising the alcohol content and the kilojoules it contains.

However, this slows down the body’s ability to metabolise any food that we eat at the same time. This is where the problems start, because that unused energy turns into fat.
Even when we sit, we burn energy. But if we’re sitting and drinking a bourbon and coke, the excess energy isn’t going anywhere except to our hips and guts.

The evidence indicates that sticking to the NHMRC safe drinking guidelines of no more than two standard drinks a day and no more than four on any one occasion probably won’t affect your weight.

But people who drink more than this every day, or indulge in regular binge-drinking sessions, are more likely to be overweight or obese than those who drink responsibly.

A 2010 VicHealth survey of low-carb beer drinkers found that almost three quarters of Australians thought it was a healthy alternative to full-strength beer and almost half believed it was less fattening, despite no evidence that this is true.

The poll revealed widespread misunderstanding and confusion on low-carb beer and points to a wider lack of public knowledge about the mechanics of alcohol and weight gain.
Even the anecdotal evidence is telling a clear story here. Another VicHealth study of febfast participants showed two in five participants lost weight after 28 days of abstaining. One in three participants took part in the challenge specifically to drop a few kilos.

We can’t reduce the amount of energy in alcohol but we can let people know the truth about what’s in the products they consume. Alcohol cans, bottles and casks are exempt from carrying anything on the label other than the number of standard drinks, alcohol percentage and whether preservatives and sulphites are present. Look at the label on a can of soft drink and a range of nutritional information is presented at a glance.

Some large takeaway outlets are now displaying kilojoule information on menu boards. So why is packaged alcohol a special case?

VicHealth would like to see alcohol manufacturers show more transparency about the ingredients and energy content of their products, so that it’s easier for drinkers to make better choices for their health. It’s not inconceivable. Very recently, America’s largest alcohol manufacturer, Diageo, announced they supported nutritional labels on alcohol and in fact, are leading the charge to have this information included on their products.

So until that happens in Australia, the best way to avoid the alcohol weight trap is to cut down.

Have more alcohol-free days throughout the week and avoid going rounds at the pub. Be mindful of the damage alcohol is doing to your body. And when you’re drinking, choose a mid or light strength alcohol option instead.

- Brian Vandenberg