Friday 9 December 2016

We are getting dangerously fat on high-calorie bargain booze

Drinking also reaps a harvest of suicides, assaults, liver disease and cancers

Prof Donal O'Shea

Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30

Danger zone: Drink has become so cheap that women especially are at a greater risk of cancer and liver disease
Danger zone: Drink has become so cheap that women especially are at a greater risk of cancer and liver disease

Christmas is coming but few people are aware that in many cases it will be the booze, not the turkey and trimmings, that will pile on the weight - with all the adverse impacts that has on overall health.

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We all know how easy it is to gain weight in the run-up to the festive season with the temptation to eat and drink to excess all around us.

Health professionals find that many people still don't count liquid calories when they look back on their daily intake. They will consider a gin and tonic (160kcals) to be the same as an Americano (4kcals). A night out having two pints (190kcals each) before dinner and two glasses of wine (120kcals each) totals around 600 liquid kcals - before eating.

Many people in Ireland have more than this and reach over 1,000kcals in alcohol consumption, before they have any food. Before you know it, your total daily calorie allowance (1,600kcal to 2,000kcal) has been consumed in one sitting.

Wine consumers in their 40s are likely to have a different diet to beer drinkers in their 20s, whilst there is a cohort of young women who reserve their calorie intake exclusively to alcohol especially over weekends - so-called alcorexia. The associated lifestyle differences have a major impact on their health in various ways.

It can be hard to know just what you are consuming when you are drinking alcohol.

While we can buy alcohol products virtually in every retailer, unlike food items, there is very little useful information about what is contained in a bottle of wine, a can of beer or bottle of vodka, let alone their calorie content.

The guidelines in terms of drinking in a low-risk way are 17 standard drinks for men and 11 for women. It can be hard to know what a standard drink looks like - it's a small glass of wine and a half-pint of beer - and all health professionals find that everyone grossly underestimates how much they drink.

While alcohol clearly contributes to obesity, the major direct effects on health are through traumas such as those caused in incidents, accidents and assaults; for example, 80pc of neurosurgery is carried out as a result of alcohol-related head injury.

Alcohol consumption is associated with liver disease and cancers and impacts on mental health, with the risk of suicide eight times higher among those who abuse alcohol. In fact, three people die in Ireland every day as a result of alcohol use - that's 88 a month. Virtually every family is affected.

Alcohol has become a regular staple in our diets. High-strength alcohol drinks sold in supermarkets, in particular, are very cheap. A woman can reach her low-risk weekly drinking limit for €6.30, while a man can reach it for less than €10. It is cheaper for young people to buy alcohol than bottled water or a cinema ticket.

The hugely profitable alcohol industry spends millions every year to show the fun side of alcohol - it's the essential ingredient in all celebrations and gatherings - and it's an industry message we have embraced.

Research published by Alcohol Action Ireland this week found that drinks companies also target our children - the next generation of drinkers.

It found that children often see alcohol adverts four times a day, which is alarming.

The food industry does the same, and both manufacturers produce research that suit their narrative around their products.

Hopefully this time next year we will be able to make better choices around alcohol consumption following the adoption of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar is due to publish it shortly and this legislation must remain a priority for the next government.

For the first time, this bill proposes to introduce labels on alcohol drinks that will show the pure alcohol content in grams, calorie content and its link to health harms. It is not the type of labelling the drinks industry will advertise or want consumers to know.

It's still a struggle to secure traffic-light labelling on foods that allows us to identify the ingredients, calorie content and where these products are sourced, for example.

There have been improvements, but we still have a very long way to go. Labels can be small and deliberately confusing.

The drinks industry's mantra is to tell us to "drink responsibly" without assuming any responsibility for informing its customers about what they are actually drinking.

These well-funded companies will stop at nothing to block any progress in better informing consumer choice. Already, the volume of their opposition to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill shows that it is touching nerves and has the ability to change behaviour. It is important legislation that needs widespread support.

In the meantime, remember that drinking a bit less this Christmas will make for a healthier 2016.

Prof Donal O'Shea is a Consultant Endocrinologist and chair of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland Policy Group on Obesity

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