Alcohol: the elephant in the room 
27 March 2018

The potential negative health effects of drinking excessive amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages are well known and frequently publicised throughout popular media. The average Australian appears to have taken heed, with sugar-sweetened beverage consumption decreasing since 1995 according to the latest research published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

While some of us have substituted intensely-sweetened beverages for regular sugar-sweetened varieties, the evidence suggests that unfortunately, we have also been drinking more alcoholic beverages instead.

An analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data recently published in the Medical Journal of Australia investigated alcohol consumption patterns of Australians from 2001 – 2011/12 and found that over 60% of people consumed alcohol each week, and that the weighted average alcohol intake increased by 13%, from an average of 3.9 standard drinks (10 g of pure alcohol per serve) per day in 2001 to 4.3 standard drinks per day in 2011/12. Over the same period, consumption among men increased from 4.7 to 5.0 standard drinks per day, and for women from 2.8 to 3.4 standard drinks per day. Interestingly, the gap between men and women appears to be decreasing, which is a concern due to women’s smaller average body size and lesser ability to metabolise alcohol, putting them at greater risk of developing alcohol-related health conditions like cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, liver disease, mental health conditions and obesity.

With more than 6 out of 10 Australian adults being overweight or obese, it’s surprisingly the contribution of kilojoules/Calories from alcoholic beverages to the diet of the average Australian that seems to be frequently overlooked. Alcohol is one of the most energy dense nutrients in our diets, providing 29 kJs (7 Calories) per gram. So consuming 1 standard drink containing 10 grams of pure alcohol will provide a minimum of 290 kilojoules (69 Calories), without any residual sugars left over from the fermentation process, or added sugars or fats from your favourite mixers. A glass (250 mL) of an average sugar-sweetened beverage provides ~440 kJs (105 Calories) to help put this into perspective.

One of the reasons that people may overlook the contribution of alcoholic beverages to their daily energy intake is that unlike food and non-alcoholic beverages sold in Australia, it is not mandatory to include nutrition information on the labels of alcoholic beverages: people simply do not know how many kilojoules/Calories are in their favourite tipple. This is starting to change, with Lion (on-pack) and Carlton and United Breweries (on-website) providing nutrition information on some (not all) of their beers. In the meantime, the following table will help you to see just how much kilojoules/Calories are found in a standard drink:

Drink (1 Standard) Volume Kilojoules Calories
Wine (red or white) 100 mL 280 67
Dessert wine 100 mL 410 98
Regular beer 285 mL 433 103
Low carb beer 285 mL 345 82
Cider (dry) 250 mL 403 96
Cider (sweet) 250 mL 553 132
Spirits 30 mL 255 61

Australia’s Dietary Guidelines advise us that “For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any one day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.” Even drinking only 2 standard drinks a day will add an average of 765 kilojoules (182 Calories) to your daily energy intake. When you consider that the average Australian consumes 8,700 kJ (2070 Calories) per day, you can see that alcoholic beverages can contribute a sizeable proportion to our daily requirements, and should not be overlooked if you are trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain.