Hi! I’m Ray, a qualified nutritionist at WW with specialist competencies in obesity risks and prevention strategies.
This week (19-25th November 2018) is Alcohol Awareness Week, so I’m taking over the blog to discuss alcohol and health.
The aim of this awareness week is to drive a conversation about alcohol – how it affects us as individuals, families, communities and society as a whole.
It is estimated that the annual cost of alcohol misuse on society is more than a staggering £21 billion! Over 24% of drinkers consume alcohol in a harmful way, and did you know that alcohol is the third biggest lifestyle risk factor after smoking and obesity in the UK?
Alcohol and health
The relationship between health and alcohol is complex. Media is overloaded with mixed and conflicting messages about alcohol and its effect on our health.
One moment you could find evidence suggesting that moderate amounts are linked to great health benefits, and the next you might be scrolling through your phone and come across articles indicating that alcohol can be very addictive and toxic – completely contradicting that red wine, which is believed to have health benefits due to its flavonoid content (a type of antioxidant) has any positive effect on our hearth health.
The truth is that alcohol does contain empty calories and can contribute to weight gain, and excessive drinking can also lead to a wide range of health problems, including cancer, liver disease, stroke, high blood pressure and in some cases affect mental health. The list is endless – according to Alcohol Concern, it’s estimated that alcohol can be the cause of more than 60 medical conditions! Now that’s something to think about...
However, it’s important to remember that alcohol affects everyone differently. This is dependent on a wide range of factors, such as genetic make-up, general health, weight and age. Furthermore, it also depends on the type and the amount of alcohol consumed, and whether you’re drinking on an empty stomach or not.
On a messy night out or when you’re simply enjoying a cheeky glass or two of wine, alcohol gets absorbed directly into the blood stream through the lining of the stomach. This happens quickly, and alcohol is carried in the blood to all parts of the body including the brain and muscles, which can affect our judgment and co‐ordination – sometimes almost instantly.
With the festive season fast approaching, it’s easy to lose control over your alcohol consumption. So, when should we exercise our willpower and politely decline another glass of wine at the Christmas party? How much is too much? And is there a magic formula out there to tell you how much you can safely drink (and avoid a hangover)?
Know your units
The reality is that more than 90% of people in the UK drink alcohol. Yet, most of us are not certain what the alcohol guidelines are.
Previously, women were advised to drink no more than 2-3 units a day and men no more than 3-4. However, the current guidelines that came into effect in January 2016 advise that both men and women drink below 14 units of alcohol spread across the week.
How many units in your favourite tipple?
As we all know, the alcohol content in drinks varies dramatically. Units are an easy way to measure a drink's alcohol content. This is usually expressed by the standard measure ABV (alcohol by volume), which is displayed on all alcoholic products by law. The ABV content affects the number of units there are in a measure, and the Smartpoints® value of a drink.
Here are a few examples of how many units there are in different strengths of white wine:
- 175ml glass of 8% wine = 1.4 units
- 175ml glass of 12% wine = 2.1 units
- 175ml glass of 16% wine = 2.8 units
Tip: to calculate the units yourself, you need to know the strength of the drink (ABV) and amount of liquid in millilitres (e.g. a standard glass of wine is 175ml). You simply multiply the amount of drink in ml by the percentage ABV, and then divide by 1,000.
For example, if you order a standard glass of wine (8% ABV): 175ml glass of wine x 8 (% ABV) ÷ 1,000 = 1.4 units in total
If this is too complicated or time-consuming, you can always use an online unit calculator. DrinkAware has designed an easy to use Unit and Calorie Counter, which calculates the units for you.
You can also scroll down to the bottom of this article, where we’ve listed common alcoholic beverages alongside their SmartPoints value.
Hangover cures are (sadly) a myth
We all know that drinking more than our bodies can cope with over the festive season, and in general, can sometimes result in a real struggle the next day! Excess drinking can lead to a really rough hangover and sometimes completely throw you off plan.
Unfortunately, there are no cures for a hangover (nope, not even a bacon sandwich). The best way to deal with a hangover is to rehydrate your body as much as you can – so drink plenty of water. If you’re not a fan of plain drinking water, try adding a slice of fresh lemon or ginger, or if you want a fruity variant choose a low sugar fruit squash (but make sure you check the points first).
How to stay on track AND enjoy the festive season
Using some of your SmartPoints Budget on alcohol potentially means leaving yourself with fewer Points to ‘spend’ on foods containing the nutrients needed for good health.
Alcohol is high in SmartPoints and of no nutritional value – added to which, too much alcohol can often make us crave foods with high SmartPoints values, like a greasy fry-up (even though there’s no scientific evidence it will help us feel better).
You’re much better off having a healthier breakfast packed with vitamins and minerals, which can top up depleted resources.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy an odd social drink here and there, and more importantly that shouldn’t make you dread the festive season – you can still take control and have a fabulous time.
Just make smart choices and plan where you can – get as much information as possible about what and when you’re going to be drinking and allocate your SmartPoints Budget accordingly. Why not use our brilliant barcode scanner in the WW app to check the SmartPoints values of your drinks?
With just a little bit of advance planning you can max the flexibility of your budget and have a great time without feeling like you’ve lost control. If spontaneity is more your thing, a little bit of retro-guesstimating is a good idea after the event. If you’ve totally decimated your SmartPoints budget, make room for exercise the next day or dance till you drop on the night! There are loads of ways to get back on track after a heavy night: while you’re prepping your Christmas meals, crank up your favourite tunes and have a little wiggle, for example.
Nobody’s perfect, so keep it real and remember that tomorrow is a new day and a fresh start. As with all good things in life, moderation is the key to maintaining a strong and healthy body. This also includes alcohol – drink sensibly this Christmas and have a jolly good time!
RELATED: Is it time to rethink your drink?
My top tips
- Match every alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic one, preferably water or a low-calorie soft drink, to help cut down on SmartPoints values spent on alcohol and to reduce alcohol intake.
- Always have water on the table – ask the waiter for a jug of tap water. It’s free and if it’s there, you’re more likely to drink it.
- Check the size of the glass or measure of the drink so that you can accurately calculate the SmartPoints values.
- Cocktails can be sugary and high in points. Be creative – dilute drinks such as wine with soda water to make them last longer (and turn it into a yummy spritzer). Check out these cocktail and mocktail recipes.
- Eat a filling meal before drinking alcohol.
- Use low-calorie mixers when drinking spirits. Avoid full sugar versions that are high in SmartPoints values, but also be aware that sugar-free fizzy drinks often contain artificial sweeteners, which can speed up the absorption of alcohol into your system.
- Try to drink at least a pint of water before you go to sleep. Keep a glass of water by the bed to sip if you wake up during the night.
Know your SmartPoints
WINE, LAGER, SPIRITS AND LIQUEURS
|Prosecco||Medium glass, 175ml||5SP|
|Red wine||Medium glass, 175ml||4SP|
|White wine||Medium glass, 175ml||5SP|
|Rosé wine||Medium glass, 175ml||5SP|
|Port||Pub measure, 50ml||3SP|
|Medium sherry||Pub measure, 50ml||2SP|
|Gin||Pub measure, 25ml||2SP|
|Vodka||Pub measure, 25ml||2SP|
|Whisky||Pub measure, 25ml||2SP|
|Rum||Pub measure, 25ml||2SP|
|Bailey’s the Original Irish Cream Liqueur||Pub measure, 25ml||4SP|
|Lager||1 pint, 568ml||5SP|
|Amaretto Liqueur||Pub measure, 25ml||3SP|
|Cointreau Liqueur||Pub measure, 25ml||3SP|
|Schnapps, Fruit Flavour||Pub measure, 25ml||2SP|
|Tonic water||1 can, 150ml||2SP|
|Slimline tonic water||1 can, 150ml||0SP|