Whether we celebrate at home with family and friends, attend lots of parties or take a vacation to get away from it all, the holidays always tempt us to consume more food and drink than we normally would – and more than may be good for us.
The average American adult devours about 3,000 calories and 229 grams of fat in one Thanksgiving meal alone, according to surveys by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a non-profit fitness advocacy organization. Those figures can quickly swell to 4,500 calories and more when all the feasting is considered.
Many people start by snacking throughout the day, which combined with the meal can lead to substantial overeating, according to Dr. Cedric Bryant, an exercise physiologist at ACE. However, those casually added calories are rarely remembered.
Another source of uncounted calories are often alcoholic beverages. It’s no secret that alcohol consumption escalates during the holiday season. The distilled spirits industry alone makes more than 25 percent of its annual profits from Thanksgiving to New Year, according to reports by Forbes, based on data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).
“Many may not realize that even a little daily drinking can lead to weight gain over time,” says Dr. Samara Joy Nielsen, a senior fellow at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
She admits that even health experts tend to forget how many calories from beverages contribute to the total calorie intake among adults. “Although the risks of excessive alcohol consumption in terms of injury and chronic disease are well known, less is known about the calories consumed from alcoholic beverages. As with calorically sweetened beverages, alcoholic beverages are a top contributor to calorie intake but provide few nutrients,” says Dr. Nielsen in a study report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While people are becoming increasingly aware of the effects of sodas in terms of weight gain, alcoholic beverages have so far escaped similar scrutiny.
Of course, the impact of alcohol on the waistline is not limited to the holidays. About one-third of men and one-fifth of women in America consume calories from alcoholic beverages on most days, according to the CDC report. For most Americans, the average intake is less than 100 calories per day, however, 20 percent of men and 6 percent of women consume more than 300 calories from alcohol on any given day.
One of the reasons why the consequences of alcohol consumption are not always understood may be that many people don’t even know what constitutes a “drink,” says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). A “standard drink” in the U.S. is defined as any drink that contains 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol. For regular beer that is equivalent to 12 fl oz, for table wine 5 fl oz, and for 80-proof spirits 1.5 fl oz. For beer that’s about 150 calories and for wine 100 calories. For hard liquors, especially when mixed or combined with other ingredients in cocktails, those numbers can be much, much higher.
Needless to say, drinking alcohol – at any time, but especially during the holidays when there are so many opportunities – can also be hazardous in other ways. Multiple health problems and potential addiction are well documented. And, of course, there are safety concerns. Nearly half of all driving fatalities on Christmas Day are alcohol-related, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), disasters that could easily be avoided.
Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun,” which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD).