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What’s Your Poison?

By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD

With Christmas and New Year celebrations, alcohol might flow freely at this time of year. But thanks to changes to the licensing laws we’re now able to drink in pubs and bars at any time of the day or night. On the 24 November 2005, the new Licensing Act came into force, with the result that pubs, bars, clubs and shops can choose to sell alcohol around the clock and stay open for 24 hours.

The Government believes that flexible opening hours in bars, pubs and clubs will help to combat alcohol-related crimes and anti-social behaviour by staggering the departure of drinkers throughout the evening rather than forcing everyone to leave in one large group at ‘kicking out time’. Meanwhile, the Government also believes the new licensing laws will help the UK compete with other European countries in terms of nightlife and so boost tourism.

It might sound like a great idea, especially with the party season upon us, but many sceptics fear the new laws will do little for the nation’s health – or waistlines. According to a new survey conducted by BUPA Wellness, it’s estimated that one adult in four binge drinks regularly – that is, they consume double the recommended amount of alcohol in one sitting. And with alcohol now potentially on tap 24/7, it’s unlikely the situation will improve.

Going out and having too much to drink may seem like harmless fun, but the effects of just a few alcohol-fuelled nights on the town every week can cause both physical and emotional problems – not to mention the damage it can do to your waistline.

To start with, it’s a myth that you have to drink every day to damage your liver – just a few nights of heavy drinking every week is all it can take to damage the cells. Meanwhile, women are more susceptible to the health problems caused by excessive drinking than men because their bodies are less efficient at processing alcohol. Consuming more than the recommended amount of alcohol lowers the absorption of many nutrients including the B vitamins, calcium, phosphate and vitamin D. It also increases blood pressure and blood fats and increases the chance of getting a blood clot, all of which are risk factors for heart disease. Too much alcohol is also linked with certain cancers and may cause hormonal imbalances that lead to fertility problems and acne. And contrary to popular belief, too much alcohol does little to boost mood or make you feel happier. In fact, booze is a well-known depressant.

Meanwhile, excessive drinking also poses a massive threat to your diet. As well as being packed with calories and little else, chances are you’ll be more likely to fill up on high-calorie junk food after a heavy session in the pub, especially if you haven’t eaten beforehand.

So what are sensible limits for drinking? For good health, the Department of Health recommends that men should not drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol per day, whereas women should have no more than 2-3 units per day. That might sound a lot, but in fact, it’s easy to have your entire daily unit intake in just one drink. For example, a pint of strong lager such as Stella Artois or Kronenbourg, contains a massive 3 units. Meanwhile, a 175ml glass of red wine (14% alcohol) contains 2 units. And that’s not to mention the 250 calories and 120 calories in a pint of strong lager and glass of red wine, respectively!

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find out just how many units or calories individual drinks contain. Some alcopops and bottled and canned lagers are beginning to state the number of units they contain on the packaging, but this is by no means the norm. Meanwhile, it’s incredibly difficult to find out the calorie values of many popular brands of drinks – nutrition information is rarely given on the packaging (unless a nutrition claim is made) and even many websites fail to provide this information. More often than not, it’s a case of ‘guestimating’ just how many units and calories you’re consuming. As a guideline though, check out the chart below:

Drink Quantity Number of units Calories
Pub measure of spirits 25ml 1 50
Alcopops Bottle Around 1.5 120-240
Glass of wine 175ml Around 2 115
Ordinary strength lager 1 pint 2 165
Bitter 1 pint 2 180
Ordinary strength cider 1 pint 2 225
Strong lager 1 pint 3 250

Finally, here are some top tips to help you dilute both the number of alcohol units and calories in booze:

  • Offer to drive so that you can stick to low-calorie soft drinks all night. Don’t worry that missing the walk to and from the pub will damage your diet, either! A 30 minute walk will only burn 125 calories. Chances are you’d easily over-compensate for this loads by drinking loads more calories.
  • Start the night with a couple of low-calorie soft drinks – many people are thirsty when they first arrive at a bar or club, so quench this thirst with alcohol-free beverages.
  • Mix wine with soda or sparkling water.
  • Don’t drink neat spirits – always add a low-calorie mixer like diet cola or slimline tonic.
  • Pace yourself and have one low-calorie soft drink after every alcoholic one
  • Don’t be afraid to skip rounds and when it’s your round always buy a non-alcoholic drink for yourself (if friends or colleagues pile on the pressure to keep on drinking, simply tell them it’s an alcoholic drink – a diet lemonade looks just like a gin and tonic!)
  • Avoid doubles – and watch out for trendy bars that serve them as the standard. Many pubs now also sell 35ml measures as the standard instead of the more usual 25ml measure. These contain around 1.5 units and 70 calories each.
  • Use a spirits measure for drinks at home rather than pouring freely from the bottle.
  • Don’t drink too many alcopops – they’re generally loaded in sugar and calories and because they don’t taste alcoholic it’s easy to drink large amounts. If you like the fruity taste, go for fruit juice mixed with diet lemonade.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol and eat healthily for 48 hours after a heavy drinking session.

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