Alcohol, calories and sugar

Alcohol has a high calorie content but these are ‘empty calories’ with no nutritional value or benefit. What many people don’t realise however, is that alcohol can also contain a lot of sugar. Drinking regularly will increase your calorie and sugar intake so it’s a good idea to get the facts on the amounts of each in alcohol.

Get the facts

Alcohol is made from natural sugar and starch but the amount of calories and sugar in different types of alcohol will vary depending on the fermentation and distillation processes involved. One gram of alcohol contains seven calories, almost the same as pure fat (nine calories). This doesn’t include mixers such as soft drinks, which will increase the calorie and sugar content of the drink.

The amount of calories and sugar you consume through alcohol can stack up quickly. For example, drinking a six pack of cider (4.5%) over the course of the week will add 1,260 calories and 126 grams or 32 teaspoons of sugar to your intake. Similarly, a bottle of white wine (12.5%) contains 564 calories and almost 30 grams or 8 teaspoons of sugar. For reference, one teaspoon contains approximately four grams of sugar.

When it comes to fitness or weight loss goals, we are used to factoring in the calories and sugar found in food but often forget to do the same for alcohol. This could potentially limit the benefits of your efforts. Drinking less alcohol can help to maintain a healthier weight and overall appearance.

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What’s the harm?

In Ireland, only 40% of people now have a healthy weight while six in ten adults are overweight or obese. This can contribute to the development of a range of health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancers and have an impact on mental health.1

Alcohol is known to have a negative effect on blood sugar levels. When you drink alcohol, your liver will work to get rid of any alcohol in your system instead of its normal functions including glucose production. This can lead to low blood sugar levels (otherwise known as hypoglycaemia) and could increase the risk of longer-term alcohol-related health issues.

How many calories and sugar?

Below are some common types of alcohol and their calorie and sugar content to help you make informed decisions about your drinking. All nutritional information is taken from McCance and Widdowson's The Composition of Foods, 7th Summary edition. The Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge.

Make a change

  • Opt for half pints or bottles instead of pints.
  • Take advantage of the growing range of lower strength or no-alcohol beer or wine and swap for your usual drink.
  • Never top up your wine glass – always finish one glass before refilling.
  • Alternate each drink with a glass of water. Try keeping a jug of water on the table to make this easier.
  • Always use a measure, never free-pour spirits or wine. Don't have one? Order one now
  • Avoid rounds – you may end up drinking more than you intended.

Try out our Drinks Calculator to see the calorie and sugar content in alcohol

Official guidance

The following guidance is based on the nutritional content of food, not alcohol. We include it here as a reference only, to make it easier to understand the high calorie and sugar content found in alcohol.

The Healthy Eating Guidelines for Ireland advise the following guidance for calorie consumption:2

  • A daily intake of between 2,000 and 2,200 calories is recommended for an average woman who is active.
  • A daily intake of between 2,400 and 2,800 calories is recommended for an average man who is active.

The World Health Organisation recommends that an adult’s daily intake of sugar should not exceed roughly 50 grams.3

References

1: A Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan 2016 – 2025. Department of Health (2016). Available here

2: Healthy eating and Active living for adults, Teenagers and Children over 5 Years. Food Safety Authority of Ireland. Available here

3: Sugar intakes for adults and children. World Health Organisation (2015). Available here