Like Wine? Lower Alcohol Means Fewer Calories (and Perhaps a Whole Lot More)

08/17/2010 04:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A recent Gallup Poll stated that 67 percent of adult Americans currently consume alcohol, which is the highest that figure has been in 25 years. For those earning more than $75,000 a year, the number jumps to 80 percent. The Midwest prefers beer, while the Atlantic and Pacific coasts prefer wine.

We have all read about the potentially positive attributes of wine. In animal trials, rodents have experienced anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits from resveratrol, a substance found in red wine (and also in peanuts, blueberries and the skin of red grapes), and a recent University of Buffalo 20-person study led by Husam Ghanim, PhD, found that there was a reduction in heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes in subjects who took resveratrol pills instead of a placebo. Whether or not one could, or should, drink enough wine to get the benefits of resveratrol is questionable. However, there is also the reduction of stress, the pleasure of sharing a bottle with friends and the fact that wine beautifully complements a variety of foods. For those who choose to drink wine, the USDA recommendation is not more than two 5-ounce glasses per day for men, and one glass for women. This is a more conservative approach than some other countries. For example, England advises no more than three-to-four glasses per day for men, and two-to-three glasses for women, while France allows for a maximum of five glasses per day for men, and three for women.

Although rarely mentioned, the amount of alcohol in the wine is more significant than the number of ounces in a glass. First of all, it's the alcohol that has the calories. A gram of protein or carbohydrate has 4 calories and a gram of fat 9. A gram of alcohol has 7.

It would be terrific if winemakers put calories per ounce on their labels. Although they don't, they usually list percentage of alcohol, which is a great piece of information, and also an easy way to determine calories.* So, check the label. The wine may have an alcohol content as low as 8 percent, or as high as 15 percent. ** Younger, lighter wines such as Rieslings, Rosés, and Vinho Verdes are often lower in alcohol, and so are Champagne and sparkling wines. Reds tend to be higher in alcohol, although there are some wonderful lower alcohol reds (often Pinot Noirs), and some high alcohol whites. Fortified wines, like port, are generally very high in alcohol.

Once you know the alcohol content, multiply the percentage by the number of ounces per glass, and the result by 1.6. Thus, a five-ounce glass of 8 percent wine is 64 calories per glass; and a glass of 15 percent wine is 120 calories.

Alcohol Percentage = Calories per 5-ounce glass

8 = 64
9 = 72
10 = 80
11 = 88
12 = 96
12.5 = 100
13 = 104
13.5 = 108
14 = 112
15 = 120

How significant is this in terms of weight loss or gain? If you hypothetically consume five glasses per week of 10 percent wine, that's 80 calories per glass or 20,800 calories a year; but if you drink five glasses of 13.5 percent wine the figure jumps to 28,080 - an extra 7,280 calories. That translates to more than two pounds a year.

Higher alcohol wines can also result in a lot more headaches.

It has been theorized that tannins, sulfites, and histamines, often found in red wine, are what give people headaches. However, the reason people say "red wine gives me a headache" may very well be because red wine tends to be higher in alcohol. It all depends on you, and what you can tolerate. I get a headache from any high alcohol wine -- red, white, or rosé. Knowing this, I check labels in the wine store, and question sommeliers in restaurants. They are generally understanding and helpful, but last week when my husband and I were having dinner and asked the sommelier for his recommendation of a lower alcohol red, he inquired why we cared. I told him and he proclaimed that tannins produce headaches, not alcohol. I replied that was excellent information, and could we have some suggestions of low tannin, low alcohol reds? It turned out that he was unaware of the alcohol content of the wines on his list. He turned us over to his assistant, who suggested a 12-percent pinot noir that was wonderful. We finished the bottle, by the way, and I felt just fine.

A week earlier, we dined at a terrific restaurant in Oxford, England called Gee's that listed the alcohol content next to each bottle or glass on the wine list, a trend that I would really like to see cross the ocean.

Headaches and weight control aside, there may be other reasons to choose a lower-alcohol wine. The World Cancer Research Fund recently stated that switching from a 14 percent per volume wine to one with 10 percent could reduce the risk of bowel, breast cancer or liver cancer by seven percent. Checking the label and making an educated decision before you buy is a good habit to get into. As Homer Simpson once said in a toast: "Here's to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems"

* "Usually" because it is legal in the United States for "table wine" that contains between 7-14 percent alcohol to leave that information off the label. You don't see this very often, and usually at small wineries, perhaps to keep costs down by not having to print new labels each year.

** These numbers may not be completely accurate - a 1.5 percent variance is allowed by law, because alcohol by volume may vary from barrel to barrel.