Page last updated: Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Weighing up wine
by Harvey E. Finkel, M.D.
The publication of a study from Colorado State University reported by Cordain, et al.1, froze attention and spread hope. One headline reporting the good news read, "New study finds no weight gain with moderate mealtime wine consumption."

In this age of slim is sexy, many, especially women, worry about the calories packaged in alcohol. Need they?

Lets review the facts and issues. First, what caloric burden does wine carry? Virtually all the calories of dry table wine come in the form of alcohol (seven calories per gram)about 80 calories per four-ounce glass. Residual sugar in off-dry and sweet wines (four calories per gram) adds about 4.5 calories per glass for each percent of sugar, rather insignificant. Alcohol's caloric contribution to a 20-percent fortified wine would be 133 per glass. The worst case for calorie-conscious consumers might be a Port containing 20 percent alcohol and 10 percent residual sugar: I calculate a glass would supply about 178 calories.2 Wine contains no fat or starch, and negligible protein.

How the body handles the calories of alcohol remains complex and murky.2 Men and women appear to differ in their metabolism of alcohol. Some have thought that alcohol had a weight-lowering effect on women. Metabolism may change when consumption increases from moderate to heavy, resulting in energy wastage and, thus, less weight gain than would be predicted for the number of calories consumed.

What and how much you drink and whether you are a woman or a man may determine the destiny of the surplus calories you consume.2 Men preferentially deposit extra calories (as fat) on their bellies. Women tend to cushion their posteriors, but may pad less per calorie than do men. Women are smarter, for abdominal adiposity is a risk factor for cardiac disease. Beer drinking is likely to lead to frontal protuberance (the old beer belly), but wine is associated with a more streamlined profile, and, probably, with less cardiac risk. Is it any wonder that warnings of both cachexia and corpulence due to drinking have been passed down through the ages?

We now turn to another of worthy scientific medical report. W. E. M. Lands3 has been trying to solve "the case of the missing calories" for several years. He observed that, unlike calories derived from dietary carbohydrates, either those from alcohol do not fully count or alcohol promotes a wastage of energy. Alcohol does not tend to make lean people obese but may cause the obese to become more obese. Lands cogently notes, "Clearly, the energy of alcohol is converted into body mass in different individuals in striking contrasting ways that are not yet understood," and, "The apparent inability of body mass index to be maintained in women when alcohol is consumed with food may indicate impaired metabolic processes that need to be better understood."

A study of male Quebecois may suggest opposite tendencies.4 Diets high in fat and alcohol led to overfeeding and body fat accumulation by making satiety difficult to reach. Like a number of nutritional research projects, this one studied a small number of subjects, not solidly reassuring.

Keeping the vat stirred, and taking cognizance of the studies cited above and others, Rumpler and colleagues, studying women and men, found that energy expenditure of alcohol did not differ from that of carbohydrateno wastage of energy, no suggestion of a tendency to disproportionate weight gain.5 Subjects in this study drank 10.5 drinks per week. Concentrating total consumption in a shorter time may reduce the efficiency of energy utilization, thereby "wasting" calories.

Then came Cordain1 and company, who studied 14 men during six weeks of abstinence and then six weeks of plenty (well, nine ounces of Cabernet Sauvignon daily), or vice versa. Caloric intake, activity, and other variables were kept as constant as possible. Be aware that the 207 calories per day, on average, contributed by the wine was part of, not in addition to, the equivalent total caloric intakes of the six-week periods. The results of the study are not surprising. The substitution of calories from moderate wine intake (two glasses with evening meal) for an equal number of food-derived calories produced no perturbations in weight or metabolism. We cannot guarantee the same security for added calories, derived from wine or food.

I would conclude from information so far available that moderate consumption of alcohol is generally healthful for most individuals (individual differences are to be expected).2 In the particular case of weight control, the calories of wine, handled by the body like other calories, should cause neither disproportionate weight gain nor energy wastage when moderately consumed. (Diabetics must be careful to eat whenever they drink.) Even the US government has acknowledged the place of modest alcohol consumption in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

If you wish to grow thinner, diminish your dinner, and take to light claret instead of pale ale; Henry S. Leigh (1827-1883): Carols of Cockayne, "On Corpulence"

Fat men are more likely to die suddenly than the slender. Hippoxerwa: phoeiama, c. 400 B,C,E.

Harvey Finkel is an award-winning wine writer, founding chairman of Committee on Health of Society of Wine Educators, clinical professor at Boston University Medical Center, member of AIMs Editorial Board.

REFERENCES 1. Cordain L, Bryan ED, Melby CL et al: Influence of moderate daily wine consumption on body weight regulation and metabolism in healthy free-living males. J Am Coll Nutr 1997; 16: 134-139.2. Finkel HE: Wine and health: A review and perspective. J Wine Res 1996; 7: 157-196.3. Lands WEM: Alcohol and energy intake. Am J Clin Nutr 1995; 62 (suppl): 1101S-1106S.4. Tremblay A, St-Pierre S: The hyperphagic effect of a high-fat and alcohol intake persists after control for energy density. Am J Clin Nutr 1996; 63: 479-482.5. Rumpler WV, Rhodes DG, Baer DJ, et al: Energy value of moderate alcohol consumption by humans. Am J Clin Nutr 1996; 64: 108-114.

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