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How many calories in a drink? You might be surprised

Saying “yes” to an extra few beers or glasses of wine at the Labour Day barbecue means consuming calories above and beyond any burgers or hot dogs you eat, according to research from the University of Victoria.
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Adam Sherk, post doctoral fellow at the University of Victoria's Canadian Institute for Substance Abuse Research, has just completed a study on the amount of calories Canadians take in from alcohol.

Saying “yes” to an extra few beers or glasses of wine at the Labour Day barbecue means consuming calories above and beyond any burgers or hot dogs you eat, according to research from the University of Victoria.

Adam Sherk of the Canadian Institute for Substance Abuse Research at UVic says people don’t cut back on the food they eat to compensate for the alcohol they consume. They just eat the same way or even more as they drink.

“We just pile the alcohol calories on top the food calories,” said the post-doctoral fellow.

Sherk has just finished a paper showing the average Canadian drinker derives 11.2 per cent of their recommended daily calories — about 2,500, on average — from alcohol.

For Canadian male drinkers, it’s 13.3 per cent, while for women, it’s 8.2 cent. The average Canadian drinker consumes a little less than two drinks per day.

Sherk said he was surprised by the caloric amounts revealed in his study, which used figures obtained from Statistics Canada.

“On any average day, Canadian drinkers are getting over 11 per cent of the calories they should be getting from alcohol,” said Sherk. “And when people are binging or drinking more heavily, the percentage of recommended calories we get from alcohol is much higher. Sometimes it’s as high as 50 per cent of the calories we should receive in a day.”

Sherk said he would like to see nutritional information posted on the sides of alcoholic drinks. It’s mandatory on all other packaged foods, from soda pop to pasta, and alcoholic drinks should be no different, he said.

“It just seems kind of obvious that calories and other nutrient information should be required for alcohol like any other food or drink.”

But Health Canada said in an emailed statement that putting nutritional information on alcoholic drinks might confuse consumers into thinking of alcohol as food. Consumers should take much more into account than a food label when they decide to drink alcohol, it said.

“The short and long-term effects of alcohol on physical and mental health, as well as its addictive qualities and potential adverse consequences, are all important considerations that are unrelated to the nutritional quality,” wrote Health Canada.

Alcohol, derived from starch or sugars, naturally contains calories — almost as much as pure fat — but since it contains no nutritional value, it’s not a replacement for food calories, according to Health Canada.

Sherk’s study says adult Canadians are on the high side when it comes to drinking alcohol, averaging 1.6 drinks per day, versus the global average of one per day.

Canadian drinking men consume an average of 2.8 drinks per day and women 1.3.

Beer accounts for more than half the alcohol-derived calories in Canada, at 52.7 per cent. Wine came second at 20.8 per cent, with spirits a close third at 19.8 per cent. Coolers, ciders and other drinks account for 6.7 per cent.

Sherk in his study used a “standard drink” as a measure, the amount of alcohol contained in one 5.0-per-cent alcohol bottle of beer — 341 millilitres or 12 ounces.

His study also identifies the calories in a standard drink of each type: beer, 140 calories; red wine, 90; white wine, 85; spirits, 109; and coolers or cider, 220.

Other studies have shown the number of Canadians drinking alcohol is rising slightly, likely as the result of increased availability of alcohol and a relaxation of government and public attitudes, Sherk said.

“Now we are starting to see things like alcohol served at a farmers’ market,” he said. “It’s a small thing, but it’s an indication of the erosion of the culture.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com