Health: Remember hidden calories before you have that drink

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As many of us aim to lose weight in the new year, we often see food as our only foe and forget about the secret enemy of alcohol...

BRIDGET Jones had the right idea. White or red, dry or medium, she knew not only her wine but exactly how many calories each glass contained.

When the fictional singleton poured herself a large glass of Chardonnay, it was with at least one thought in the back of her mind – that it was slightly less fattening than a glass of red.

And come New Year she’d meticulously write her resolutions in her diary – stop smoking, lose weight, definitely drink less.

Pretty much what most of us might jot down as we waddle our way into 2012, huffing and puffing to do up the button of a suddenly painfully-tight waistband and fighting that sinking realisation that the reading on the bathroom scales won’t move downwards regardless of which floor tile you position them on.

As Bridget knew, it’s not just the food we scoff at this time of year that does the damage to our waistline – and, indeed, everywhere from our double chin to our podgy ankles.

For alcohol, which many of us seem to regard as being blissfully calorie-free – indeed, research earlier this year showed two out of three of us haven’t a clue what the calorific value is of our favourite tipple – is the devil in the ointment when it comes to battling the bulge.

Alcohol awareness charity DrinkAware, which carried out the research, also claimed that while many people view themselves as being on a sensible diet to lose weight, only one in ten even considered the possibility of cutting down on alcohol.

Now the NHS has stepped in with an “at a glance” guide to how our drinks tally up against the snacks we’d normally think twice about eating. And the result is an eye-opening calorie comparison that might help explain how the tipples end up tipping the scales.

Take a glass of red wine – a small 175ml one at that – with roughly the same calorie values as a slice of sponge cake.

Or a pint of cider, empty calories but which in food terms would be the same as a filling and healthy slice of beans on toast.

You don’t even have to be a particularly big drinker for the calories to quickly add up: drinking five pints of lager a week adds up to a massive 44,200 calories over a year, equivalent to eating 221 doughnuts.

Add that to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle and it’s perhaps no wonder that more than a quarter of Scots adults are obese, never mind the damage the booze does to our bodies.

Such is the concern that we’ve all become oblivious to exactly what we’re knocking back, earlier this year 50 public health organisations from 22 European countries gathered at the European Parliament to debate the need to improve consumers’ knowledge of just what they’re drinking in terms of calories, sugar and even salt.

West Lothian based fitness and healthy eating expert Julie McCann, who earlier this year devised her own weightloss plan called The Reveal Method, says many people don’t make the connection between alcohol and calories. “Either that or they don’t want to,” she adds.

“But alcohol brings a triple whammy: first of all it slows down the metabolism so the body can’t work to get rid of the poison you’ve just given it.

“Then you start to crave more food, unfortunately it’s refined carbs you tend to want, basically that’s junk food.

“Then because you feel pretty miserable, you don’t move about much. While you’re slumped there you start thinking of what might make you feel better – and your mindset might be that what will make you better will be another drink.

“But alcohol is pure carbohydrate – I actually class it the same as having a sweet treat. It’s either the mini Mars bar or the wine but preferably not both.”

Edinburgh-based personal trainer Tracy Griffen, who is about to publish a fitness book specifically geared towards improving Scots’ health, says even smart high-flying professionals are often surprised to discover just how they are sabotaging their own weight loss and fitness by drinking too much.

“A big problem for a lot of my corporate clients is that they do a lot of entertaining. One of the first things I do is get them to do an alcohol audit to see how much they are drinking.

“I’ve had some who wouldn’t consider themselves as having any kind of alcohol problem but they are having 60 units of alcohol a week – around a bottle of wine every night, over six nights.

“The body has to work hard to metabolise that,” she adds. “And because it burns the alcohol first, it means you’re then struggling to burn off food.”

According to NHS Choices, the health information website, few drinkers who enjoy a pint of premium lager might realise that four pints is the same as tucking into around a thousand extra calories – that’s roughly two McDonalds’ cheeseburgers and two portions of chips.

Dr Knut Schroder, GP and spokesperson for NHS Choices, says: “Lots of my patients come in the New Year having gained weight as they just don’t realise how calorie laden alcoholic drinks are.

“While two pints of premium lager and a packet of crisps may not seem a lot, it is in fact the equivalent in calories to an average evening meal.

“I’d encourage people to think about what they’re eating and drinking. Good examples are switching to low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks.”

Superslimmer Tam Powell is acutely aware of the potential damage a glass or two of his favourite refreshment could do. Junk food and unhealthy choices piled on the pounds until he tipped the scales at over 23 stones.

Aware of the impact his weight was having on his health, he joined Scottish Slimmers in Prestonpans and lost a staggering 11st 6.5lb in around 18 months. Now weighing in at a healthy 11st 9lbs, the 5ft 5ins boarding kennel owner from Longniddry says he chooses carefully when it comes to enjoying a tipple.

“I don’t drink beer at all any more,” he says.

“At the end of the day it’s mostly sugar. Instead I’ll have a Diet Coke or a whisky with water.

“I’m careful with what I eat. I have my porridge for breakfast, my sandwich and salad for lunch and a chicken dinner. But drinking on top of that is just adding in more calories I don’t need.

“Most people don’t realise what’s in their drink or their food,” he adds.

“Now I keep a track of it, I still have my wee ‘refreshment’ and I’m able to enjoy life more.”

• For more information, go to www.nhschoices.co.uk/livewell/alcohol. For support with alcohol related issues, visit Scottish Alcohol Focus, www.alcohol-focus-scotland.org.uk.

sdick@edinburghnews.com