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Is Holiday Wine Giving You a Santa Belly?

A CDC survey reports alcohol drinkers consume more calories than recommended, lumping wine in with soda

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: December 11, 2012

Just when Americans are drinking and making merry at holiday parties and dinners, a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that alcoholic beverages may be adding extra calories to our waistlines. But is it simplistic to lump wine, beer and spirits in with sugary sodas?

Published by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, the survey finds that the average consumer of alcoholic beverages takes in more than their daily-recommended intake for the kinds of calories that come from added sugars, a category that includes beer, wine and spirits. But some experts argue that the survey paints with too broad a brush.

For the survey, the authors examined data from the long-running National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which involved more than 11,000 people across the country over the age of 20 who provided details on the foods and drinks they consumed in a typical day. The good news is drinkers don't pass the calorie threshold by much. The survey finds that, on average, Americans who drink daily take in 16 percent of their calories in the form of added sugar. The recommended intake is between 5 percent and 15 percent.

The authors calculated that 12.5 ounces of wine contains roughly 150 calories. So, if drinking in moderation, a man could consume up to two glasses per day and a woman could drink up to one and still be under the 15 percent maximum. But how close men or women stick to this guideline also seems to depend, to a degree, on a variety of subfactors.

The CDC survey finds that men typically drink more than women, consuming on average 150 calories worth of alcohol a day compared to a little over 50 calories for women. Younger adults appear to be heavier drinkers. People with higher incomes were more likely to pass the calorie threshold. Race did not appear to make a large impact.

In nutrition, alcohol is classified as a sugared beverage, lopped into categories with similarly caloric drinks, such as soda. The CDC admits it cannot factor if one type of beverage may be healthier than another.

"We collect the survey statistics but do not know the 'why' behind the statistics," said CDC spokesperson Karen Hunter. "CDC does not conduct clinical research and has no position on whether or not there are health benefits from consuming alcohol, nor does CDC conduct the type of research that looks at the physiological effects of alcohol." The CDC would not make the author of the survey available for interview.

Helena Conibear, co-director of the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research, a gathering of medical professionals who critique alcohol-related research, said that when studies look at beverages from a caloric perspective, quantity, not quality, matters. "Alcohol is fat free, but high in calories, as with orange juice or full sugar soda," Conibear said. "Alcohol adds extra calories to your diet if you normally drink water, but there are no more calories in wine than in apple juice, for example."

Dr. Curtis Ellison, a professor of medicine and public health at Boston University and a member of the forum, does not doubt the veracity of the findings from the CDC, but feels it adds little to the current discussion of daily recommend calorie intake and how it relates to health. "The data presented is correct, I am sure," he said.  "[But] there is no discussion, so no ability to discuss differences in effects on obesity, etc., of calories from different sources."

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