I’ve been holding myself in on this one because I thought if I let go I’d make NOUGHT-TO-RANT in about 3 seconds. But. I’ve just had the Daily Mail asking if I’d write a piece on “how many calories there are in our favourite bottles of wine” (subtext – you know that glass of wine you enjoy at the end of a hard day’s work? Well it’s going to make you FAT – here, we tell you EXACTLY HOW FAT that delicious glass of wine will make you) and it’s pushed me over the edge. I can’t keep quiet any longer. So here we go.
Last week Sainsbury’s announced their intention to label some of their wines with the number of calories per glass they contain. For the record, 228 calories in an average 250ml glass. The equivalent to two fish fingers or an ice cream, as the Mail helpfully pointed out. The news led to two broad media reactions: outrage (“hands off our vino, you killjoys”) and its opposite, approval (“At last, a move to tackle problem drinking in women.”)
I’d like to make the following points. In list form, as a means of containing Rant Mode.
1. Calorie-counting is a concept that belongs in the nutritional Dark Ages. It is not a healthy way to approach diet.
2. But let’s play the game and consider the calories for a moment. A normal healthy woman can expect to eat about 2,000 a day. So 228 is not that many. An ice-cream? I wouldn’t think twice before eating an ice cream. With two boules – so two ice creams. As long as I’d had lunch. Without the lunch, I’d be hyper and irritating for about 15 minutes then go a bit wobbly and have to have a sugar-crash-lie-down. But calories? No problem.
3. Two ice-creams-worth of wine = 2 glasses = 500ml. Oh, hang on – that’s two thirds of a bottle.
I wonder how many units of alcohol that is? Oh, hang on, in a 13% abv wine it’s 6.5 units. Isn’t that quite a lot? Like, more than I (for one) can drink without getting a hangover? Um, yes, it’s nearly half the government’s recommended WEEKLY allowance for a woman. But don’t worry, we’ve got you thinking about the calories now, you’ve probably forgotten all about alcoholic units and that they might be far more of a problem than those nasty calories, haven’t you?
4. It’s true that calories are likely to be a deterrant of some sort to many drinkers, especially women. We have a completely f**ked-up relationship with food in this country, as I remember every time I am hungry and try to buy fuel on the hoof only to be faced with labels boasting about how few calories there are in this particular sandwich or that pasta salad – as if getting less food for my money when I am trying to buy food might be a good thing.
5. The question is, what will people do with the calorie information? “Our research shows that many women choose pinot grigio thinking that because it tastes light [translation: bland] it probably also contains fewer calories,” one wine powerhouse told me this week. So if they know that’s not true? “Oh, they’ll just move on to another product, such as vodka.” It’s true. As anyone who has studied the science of persuasion will tell you.
6. Might some, if forced to choose between one calorie or another, decide they’d rather stop eating than stop drinking? I once had a boyfriend for heaven’s sake who told me he’d realised that, chubby-wise, he could either eat what he wanted or drink what he wanted – and chosen the latter. Has anyone considered this?
7. I like to eat and I like to drink. I don’t count calories. With the spectre of puffy-drinky-face on my shoulder I do, however, keep a rough tab on alcoholic units – if I’m not enjoying a drink, I leave it. If I don’t really feel like a drink, I don’t have one.
8. So in summary, it’s not so much that I mind calories being on the label. It’s simply information, after all. It’s that I think the approach to unpicking the social problems of obesity and alcoholism is wrong-headed and unhelpful. We can’t begin to solve these problems unless we are honest about what they are. Obesity is an emotive issue and in many cases it is at least partly rooted in social, cultural and emotional problems. You could say the same about alcohol. But they are not the same. And yoking the two together in this simplistic way only exacerbates the confusion and hypes up the emotions around them. So let’s leave calories out of the debate about drinking habits please. It creates more gremlins than it banishes.
As I said to the Mail this afternoon, if you’re drinking enough wine for the calories to be an issue – you really need to stop thinking about calories and worry more about the state of your liver than your BMI.