Calories in wine – missing the point?

Is the current focus counterproductive, even harmful?


It can’t have escaped your notice that when it comes to food messaging in the public arena, low fat is “good”, calories are “bad”, and we should all, apparently, be cutting back on what we consume. Nutritional labelling is a legal requirement on all packaged food, and there are talks about making it mandatory to have calories listed on menus, which many chain restaurants already do.

And now we’re starting to see it with alcohol. Skinny booze, low calorie gin, hard seltzers. It’s all about minimising – but not the amount of alcohol you consume, which for some people is actually problematic, but the calorie content within those alcoholic drinks.

There is a growth in obesity in this country (The Health Survey for England 2019). There’s also an increase in people with eating disorders – hospital admissions rose 13% from 2017 to 2019, suggesting that diet talk isn’t great for everyone. There’s not a one size fits all approach to diet and weight that works. 

It feels like, by adding this conversation to wine, we are missing the point.

Alcohol has for a long time been a fun drink that brings people together – when enjoyed responsibly, obviously. Sharing a bottle over a delicious dinner with your partner, or toasting in a celebration with a couple of glasses of fizz. To have the focus solely on calories and content is to ignore the enjoyment and fun that comes with it.

I know. I’ve had anorexia for 16 years. I’ve been inpatient, outpatient, up and down, round in sodding circles, but I’ve never got over it. Some people ask why I drink wine if I can’t help but count calories? Well, partly because it helps me forget the incessant restrictions that come with a long term eating disorder.

I bloody love wine, and Christ knows, eating disorders are hard enough. This feels like one area where, within moderation, and only on days when I’m feeling super brave, I can let myself go.

I don’t want to be made to feel any worse than I already do. I mean with the guilt, not the hangover. And that’s what I think a lot of calorie labelling is about. Not for public empowerment or responsible information, but to guilt and shame us to stop doing something that is fun and liberating.

As well as providing enjoyable effects, alcohol can also taste brilliant. Think of a good wine’s aromas, the flavours dancing on your tongue, the tannin fuelling your rosy cheeks. Rather than go for something low calorie which doesn’t really cut it, often missing sugars, diluted with water, or chemicalised within an inch of its life, I truly believe we should be drinking something delicious that we genuinely enjoy.

Ernest Hemingway reminds us just how sensuous it can be: “Wine is one of the most civilized... and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”

To focus purely on calorie content is to miss out. Which I know. As someone with an eating disorder who is also trying to adopt a normal healthy relationship with all food groups and social activities in recovery, I do like wine. But I’ve succumbed, and tried the skinny booze. To be honest, a lot of it sucks. So what’s the point?

This is something Isabelle Lynch at Wine List (now sadly defunct) agrees with. 

“I hate the whole shaming around calories – if you enjoy something you shouldn’t have to deny yourself. I really advocate drinking something you love in moderation. Drink less but drink better,” she says.

I hate the whole shaming around calories – if you enjoy something you shouldn’t have to deny yourself.

“Wines that are around the £10 to £20 mark are great because they’re often more interesting and complex than standard supermarket offerings, so you really get your enjoyment out of it. They’re something to really look forward to and savour. It’s also a benefit that the vast majority of wines in that price range are less likely to have sugar added to them. There are a lot of organic wines in that price point.”

So maybe there’s a different type of education that is needed. One that, rather than being centred around calories, is about enjoying a drink for its inherent qualities of bold flavour and bright sensations. For pleasure. 

Wine + Health

It is possible to be healthy and drink wine. It’s part of a holistic diet. Yes, if we drink three bottles a night and hit the kebabs straight after, we’re probably not going to be the epitome of health… but is that really the wine’s fault?

Marco Castelanelli, sommelier from Club Vino says not to get too hung up on counting the calories in wine. “There are various measures you can take to limit the effects of drinking wine.” 

“One of the main risks we take with a view to our health when drinking wine is not the wine consumption itself, but our decision making after drinking a few glasses. When we drink wine, our blood sugar drops, and this can lead to our brains thinking we’re hungry and so we end up going for the snack drawer or ordering a greasy takeaway to satisfy the cravings. To combat this, eating a good amount of protein before drinking will help greatly – resulting in a decreased chance of binging on unhealthy foods.”

But he doesn’t want to dwell on that. Because as he says: “Drinking wine is one of our oldest traditions when it comes to winding down and enjoying yourself. Meeting up with friends or peers and bonding over a good bottle of wine can be ceremonious for many, helping to bring people together and form meaningful relationships with others. It’s important to remember that as with everything in life, moderation is of course key. However, wine is definitely something that can be enjoyed in a healthy fashion when done right!”

Jane Peyton, founder of the School of Booze supports this idea that wine is an important part of life. She says: “Drinking alcohol is a ritual, one of life’s great pleasures especially in a social setting. With wine, part of the pleasure is the sensory experience of drinking it – the aromas, flavours, and textures, and the feeling that it is pure enjoyment. Thinking about the calories it contains negates all the above by introducing doubt as to whether drinking the glass of wine is a good idea. The only way to escape that is not think about it and instead appreciate one of nature’s gifts as you sip your wine.”

 With wine, part of the pleasure is the sensory experience of drinking it – the aromas, flavours, and textures, and the feeling that it is pure enjoyment.

Nico (Personal Wine Shopper extraordinaire for Humble Grape) had this to say: “Everyone is obsessed with calories nowadays, but how could a human body function without calories and energy? The trick is always to keep the balance and do it with moderation (plus, red wine contains proteins). Look at people in the Mediterranean area, wine is part of the culture and the diet but doesn’t cause obesity and, many areas are considered the ‘blue zones’ (Sardinia, Greece etc) where people live the longest. The Venetians used a simple trick when out at sea for a long period of time. They would always bring with them ‘Pan e Vin’, bread and wine. Why? Because even if the bread was getting older and hard, they could always dip it into the wine and restore the energies and calories lost which would guarantee the survival of the crew.”

He’s right. We need calories and energy to function. And so why not get it from something we enjoy?

Wine is truly a gift. You can enjoy a glass with dinner, overlooking your garden, or in the pub with your mates. And as well as tasting brilliant and helping you react, drinking can be a bond, a relationship broker, an important social stimulator. When done properly, when enjoyed, when having a drink becomes a social event that brings people together, when it’s done responsibly, that is when it works well. 

Let’s forget about calories, briefly, and have a good time.

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