DIET
May 4, 2015

Counting Calories in Margaritaville

Should we be giving alcoholic beverages the same scrutiny as sugar-sweetened sodas?

A lot of people have a glass of wine or two with dinner, or a couple of cocktails in the evening. It is one of life's pleasures. But few of us stop to think about how many calories we are downing — mostly in the form of carbs — with our drinks.

One ounce of a margarita has about 45 calories. That means an 8-oz serving is about 360 calories, which is a fifth of most people’s total daily calorie intake. And if you have another, you are close to half your total daily calories.

Just as calorie counts on food products can get us thinking when we see what a serving actually is, nutrition labels on alcohol may get us thinking about how many calories from alcohol we’re actually consuming.

We have made strides when it comes to being aware of the empty calories in sugar sweetened beverages, and now the author of an editorial in The BMJ argues it's time to do the same with alcohol. Companies should be required to publish similar nutritional information on alcoholic beverages, since calories from alcohol ae major contributors to the obesity crisis.

“Most women, for example, do not realise that two large glasses of wine, containing 370 calories, comprise almost a fifth of their daily recommended energy intake, as well as containing more than the recommended daily limit of alcohol units,” Fiona Sim, Chair of the Royal Society for Public Health in the United Kingdom writes in her editorial. She adds that in the UK, wine glasses at bars and restaurants have gotten conspicuously larger over the years — just like plates and portions in restaurants in the U.S.

This tendency toward larger servings means adding nutrition labels to beverages won’t be totally straightforward. For instance, Sim writes that one international alcoholic drink manufacturer, Diageo, has volunteered to work with the EU governments to add nutrition labels to its products. The problem is that their proposed serving size, 5-oz, is a good bit smaller than the average size of a serving at a bar or restaurant, which she estimates is about 8.5 oz., which may make the labels more difficult to observe.

On the other hand, just as calorie counts on food products can get us thinking when we see what a serving actually is, nutrition labels on alcohol may get us thinking about how much alcohol we’re actually consuming. That is, if we bother to look at them.

According to CalorieKing.com, a 4-oz Cosmopolitan has 213 calories; an 8.5-oz vodka tonic has 169 calories, and an apple-tini has 235 calories. It would take about an hour of running to work off all those calories. A 5-oz glass of red wine? About 130 calories.

Starting in December of this year, restaurants In the U.S. with more than 20 locations (such as chains like Applebee’s and Olive Garden) will have to publish the nutritional information of alcoholic drinks on their menus. How that will affect business or how much we imbibe remains to be seen.

What is clear is that we often eat and drink without thinking much about it — so anything that makes us a little more aware of how much we consume is a step in the right direction.

Sim's editorial is published in The BMJ.

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