Alcohol, calories and maintaining a healthy weight
Alcohol has almost the same amount of calories as fat. Find out how these ‘empty calories’ can make it harder to maintain a healthy weight.
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Most alcoholic drinks are higher in calories than most people realise, so reducing the amount you drink can help you maintain a healthy weight. A pint of lager contains roughly the same amount of calories as a standard slice of pizza, or a large glass of wine (250ml) the same as a typical ice cream sundae.
Alcohol contains almost as many calories per gram as fat. And the calories in an alcoholic drink aren’t just made up from the alcohol - many drinks are also high in sugar.
Drinking alcohol regularly increases your likelihood of becoming overweight or obese, which contributes to your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Find out more about alcohol and diabetes
The calories people consume through drinking alcoholic drinks are usually additional to the calories they consume in the rest of their diet, rather than a replacement. That means you could be having lots of extra calories in your drinks without thinking about it, and that will lead to weight gain.1
The NHS recommends, as a guide, that an average woman needs around 2,000 calories (kcal) a day to maintain a healthy body weight, with an average man needing around 2,500 calories a day.2
For adults that drink alcohol habitually, it’s estimated that, on average, nearly 10% of their daily calorie intake comes from alcohol.3 A good way to avoid these extra calories is to stick to the UK Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking guidelines. These recommend no more than 14 units of alcohol a week for both men and women, with several drink-free days and no bingeing.
Calories from alcohol are often described as 'empty calories', meaning they have no nutritional value because they are consumed in addition to the calories your body needs. And drinking alcohol affects the way your body processes fat for energy.4
That’s because while your body can store many nutrients, protein, carbohydrates and fat, it needs to prioritise getting rid of the alcohol, which is toxic, which in turns interrupts all the other processes that should be taking place, like absorbing nutrients and processing fat.
So you are more likely to store fat around your middle – which is an area where men in particular tend to show weight gain, sometimes referred to as a ‘beer belly’.5,6 This type of fat can be particularly harmful as it is laid down around the important organs inside the abdomen (belly), including the liver.
Alcoholic drinks that are more than 1.2% ABV (alcohol by volume) are not required by law to display calorie information on the label in the UK. While slightly more than half of these types of drinks don’t display this information, recent research by the Portman Group has found that almost half (47%) do.7
An exception is low alcohol drinks with 1.2% ABV or less (including all ’alcohol-free’ options), which are legally required to display nutritional information on the label.8,9 So, if you’re counting calories as part of your healthy diet or a weight loss programme, swapping to alcohol-free or low alcohol products means you should always have the calorie information at your fingertips.
Alcohol-free drinks can actually contain a small amount of alcohol (up to 0.5% ABV), so most aren’t suitable if you want or need to avoid alcohol completely. You may need to check with the manufacturer as it might not be clear from the label that they contain a small amount of alcohol.
And since April 2022 in England, bigger chains of takeaways, restaurants, pubs and online stores have to display calorie information for non-pre-packed food and drinks too - including all drinks with less than 1.2% ABV.10 Scotland and Wales are both consulting to bring in similar laws.11,12
Some low alcohol and alcohol-free drinks are lower in calories, simply because they have less alcohol in them. But that isn't always the case – different drinks have different amounts of sugar and other ingredients, so check the label to make sure if you’re trying to choose a low-calorie option.
If you find that you eat more junk food after a drinking session, you won’t be alone. That’s because drinking affects the hormones that control your appetite,13 as well as making you less inhibited and therefore less likely to make healthy choices.14
Binge drinking means more than 8 units of alcohol in a single session for males, or more than 6 units in a single session for females.15 That’s equivalent to about four pints of normal strength beer for a man or three pints for a woman.
Binge drinking risks
On top of that, research has found that poor sleep can increase your appetite,16 and your sleep can be disrupted by drinking alcohol.17
Cutting back on alcohol to drink within the UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines (no more than 14 units a week for both men and women, with several drink-free days and no bingeing) can help you maintain a healthy weight, as well as having other important health benefits.18
A good first step is to track the alcohol and calories you are having – and it couldn’t be easier with the free MyDrinkaware app. It’s an easy way to log every alcoholic drink you have, with personalised goals and stats to keep you motivated on your journey.
Alcohol-free drinks can also be a step in the right direction if you are trying to cut your calories. With alcohol itself containing around seven calories a gram, cutting to a drink with much less alcohol in it can mean fewer calories. Government guidance in England says that alcohol-free drinks may contain up to 0.05% ABV (alcohol by volume)19 although, because this is voluntary guidance rather than law, some drinks labelled as ‘alcohol-free’ contain up to 0.5% ABV.
But it’s important to look at the whole picture - the calories in any drink don’t just come from alcohol. So when choosing an alcohol-free or low alcohol alternative, it’s best to check the label to make sure you’re going for a low calorie option.
 Kwok, A., Dordevic, A.L., Paton, G., Page, M.J. and Truby, H. (2019). Effect of alcohol consumption on food energy intake: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, 121(5), 481-495.
 Royal Society for Public Health. Increasing awareness of ‘invisible’ calories from alcohol (November 2013). Available at: https://www.rsph.org.uk/static/uploaded/979245d2-7b5d-4693-a9b3fb1b98b68d76.pdf [Accessed 1 December 2022].
 Sonko, B. J., Prentice, A. M., Murgatroyd, P. R., et al. (1994). Effect of alcohol on postmeal fat storage. Am J Clin Nutr, 59, 619-25.
 Shi, H. and Clegg, D.J. (2009). Sex differences in the regulation of body weight. Physiology &Behavior, 97(2), pp.199-204.
 Portman Group. Press release - Half of all alcoholic drinks now feature calorie information on labels (25 November 2021) Available at: https://www.portmangroup.org.uk/half-of-all-alcoholic-drinks-now-feature-calorie-information-on-labels/ [Accessed 8 December 2022]
 Department of Health and Social Care. Health and Care Bill: food information for consumers – powers to amend retained EU law. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-and-care-bill-factsheets/health-and-care-bill-food-information-for-consumers-powers-to-amend-retained-eu-law [Accessed 7 December 2022]
 Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council. Chapter IV. Section 3, Nutrition Declaration. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/eur/2011/1169/chapter/IV/section/3# [Accessed 7 December 2022].
 Gov.uk DHSC Press release. New calorie labelling rules come into force to improve nation’s health (6 April 2022) [Accessed 6 April 2022]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-calorie-labelling-rules-come-into-force-to-improve-nations-health
 Scottish Government. Out of home sector - mandatory calorie labelling: consultation (8 April 2022). Available at: https://www.gov.scot/publications/consultation-mandatory-calorie-labelling-out-home-sector-scotland [Accessed 7 December 2022].
 Yeomans, M.R., Caton, S. and Hetherington, M.M. (2003). Alcohol and food intake. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 6(6), 639-644.
 Gan, G., Guevara, A., Marxen, M., Neumann, M., Jünger, E., Kobiella, A., Mennigen, E., Pilhatsch, M., Schwarz, D., Zimmermann, U.S. and Smolka, M.N. (2014). Alcohol-induced impairment of inhibitory control is linked to attenuated brain responses in right fronto-temporal cortex. Biological Psychiatry, 76(9), 698-707.
 Office for National Statistics. (2018). Adult drinking habits in Great Britain, 2017 [dataset]. Accessed 30 June 2022. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/drugusealcoholandsmoking/bulletins/opinionsandlifestylesurveyadultdrinkinghabitsingreatbritain/2017
Last Reviewed: 1st March 2023
Next Review due: 1st March 2026