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
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
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.