Beer, Wine And Spirits: When Counting Our Liquid Calories, Are We Honest?

Nov 16, 2012
Originally published on November 16, 2012 8:07 pm

When it comes to tallying our liquid calories, we're not always so accurate. Does that tiny 5-ounce serving of wine really count as a glass of wine? (The answer is yes.)

So as the season of celebrations heats up, and holiday cheer is delivered in the form of bubbly, beer or booze, just how many calories are we consuming from alcohol on a random Tuesday night?

Almost as much as we get from soda, apparently — an average of about 100 calories a day. That may not sound like a lot, but it can add up.

A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis provides some more insights into the nation's drinking habits.

If you're a guy in your 20s or 30s, the average intake is about 175 calories per day from alcoholic beverages. That's the equivalent of about two light beers.

And for women, the average is lower, at about 60 calories per day. So, spread over a week, we're talking 420 calories, or about four glasses of wine. Women in their 40s and 50s tend to drink a tiny bit less, about five calories fewer per week.

And what are our favorite drinks? Perhaps, not surprisingly, beer reigns with men; guys drink three times more beer than wine.

But here's a surprise: Ladies seem to be equally partial to beer, wine and spirits. Yes, women are consuming about as many calories from hard liquor cocktails and beer as they are from wine. Could it be the Skinny Girl Margarita effect? Or is the growing craft beer movement bringing in the ladies?

And, interestingly, the big drinkers seem to be outliers. Only 20 percent of men and 6 percent of women are drinking 300 calories or more from alcoholic beverages daily.

This analysis comes from a new CDC report based on findings from a large, national health and nutrition survey.

Another interesting finding: There appear to be more teetotalers and occasional drinkers than many people realize. On any given day in the U.S., about one-third of men and 18 percent of women drink an alcoholic beverage. This means far more people are abstaining, on a typical day, than imbibing.

These numbers may seem low, but they're similar to the findings of the NPD Group's National Eating Trends survey. "We show that 27 percent of adults over 21 years old report having an alcoholic beverage at least once in a two-week period during the year ending May 2012," says Harry Balzer of NPD Group. And he says for each of the 10 years before, the number hovered between 27 percent and 30 percent.

"I think the most interesting thing for the general public to think about is one 12-ounce beer has, on average 150 calories; the same as one 12-ounce can of soda," Samara Joy Nielsen, a senior fellow at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, tells us in an email.

Alcohol, according to her findings, accounts for about 16 percent of an adult's total caloric intake. That's about the same percentage that kids get from sugar.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that just 5 percent to 15 percent of calories come from added sugars and fats. And as the researchers point out, since alcohol is considered part of this added sugar/fat category, the percentage of total calories from alcohol is slightly above the recommended level.

Now, it's important to point out that these caloric estimates of alcohol are based on self-reported surveys, and it's possible that people are "underestimating by a lot," says Madelyn Fernstrom of the University of Pittsburgh. "People also don't count their drinks correctly." She says a 5 ounce-serving of wine may not look like much, so when you fill your glass to the top, you may have consumed closer to what's considered two glasses of wine.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey is conducted by asking thousands of participants, representing a cross-section of Americans, about everything they've consumed in the past 24 hours. As Nielsen explains, "participants report all the foods and beverages they have eaten from midnight to midnight the previous day."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. 'Tis the season for holiday cheer in liquid form. Think bubbly, beer or booze and all of those calories can add up. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on a new analysis of American drinking habits. It reveals what kinds of drinks and just how many calories we're drinking.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The survey found that on any given night, about one-third of men in the U.S. and about 20 percent of women are drinking alcohol.

JOHN QUANT: Not a surprise to us.

AUBREY: I met up with the happy hour crowd at the Irish Times, a bar on Capitol Hill in D.C. Friends John Quant(ph) and Adam Short(ph) are typical of what the survey found about men in their 20s and 30s.

QUANT: I would say that the majority of Americans drink beer.

AUBREY: Bingo. Among men, beer is the most popular choice. Guys drink three times more beer than wine or spirits, but with women, it's a different story. We tend to mix it up more. According to the results of the survey, women drink as much wine and hard liquor as they do beer. It's not a big surprise to Kate Gerard(ph) who joined the happy hour crowd.

KATE GERARD: Yeah, I find that more young women are drinking whiskey than I think they were in my parents' generation, definitely.

AUBREY: Gerard says she has a favorite way of ordering up whiskey.

GERARD: Jameson on the rocks.

AUBREY: And why? Well, it's not just the taste she's going for here. It's also about the calories. A shot of whisky has about 100 calories, about the same as a light beer. And when it's watered down with ice, you can sip it slowly and make it last. A five-ounce glass of wine has the same number of calories, but it can disappear faster. So, Gerard says whisky or other hard liquors are not a bad option when you're watching your waistline.

Health expert Madelyn Fernstrom at the University of Pittsburgh is interested in the influence of alcohol on weight. She says for many people, alcohol can be a source of invisible calories.

MADELYN FERNSTROM: Here's the thing. I mean, people are consuming alcohol and the issue is, you know, how to consume it smartly.

AUBREY: According to the new survey analysis, men in their 20s and 30s consume about 175 calories from alcohol on average per day. That's about two light beers or 14 of them over the course of a week. Do the math, that's at least an extra 1200 calories. And for women, it averages out to be about 60 calories per day or 420 in a week. Fernstrom says in a way, this is good news.

It suggests that Americans are paying attention to recommendations from health experts to limit alcohol to specific amounts. Not just for the sake of calories, but for overall health.

FERNSTROM: All the health recommendations are one drink a day for women and two for men.

AUBREY: But Fernstrom says her hunch is that many Americans tend to have a little trouble keeping track of what they drink.

FERNSTROM: And people don't count their drinks correctly.

AUBREY: For instance, a glass of wine has about 100 calories if you only pour five ounces into it. And this barely fills half a glass, so she thinks people must be underestimating.

FERNSTROM: Underestimating by a lot.

AUBREY: Especially when you go into a bar. Once you're relaxed and socializing with friends, it can get confusing.

QUANT: When I drink, I drink one or two drinks. They have maybe like 4 or 500 calories.

AUBREY: John Quant says he's not exactly sure. His friend Amanda Colvin(ph) says she does try to keep track of the calories she's drinking. And what's the tally?

AMANDA COLVIN: Too many. I count my calories, so it gets a little high, in the 600s. I don't like that.

AUBREY: So Ferstrom says if you want to be smart about it, plan out how much you'll drink before happy hour begins. This way, when your inhibitions melt away and you're counting skills get a little fuzzy, your intentions to slow down and savor may stick. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.