Alcohol and nutrition

The energy in alcoholic drinks represents ‘empty calories’, meaning they are high in kilojoules but do not deliver any nutritional benefit.

The alcohol in drinks (ethanol) is made from fermented sugars in foods like grains, fruits and vegetables. The sugars are converted to ethanol, meaning the alcohol itself in beer, wine, and spirits is a concentrated form of energy (measured in kilojoules).1,2 

The kilojoules in alcohol can contribute to weight gain which in turn can lead to overweight and obesity.3 Carrying excess weight can increase the risk of:4,5 

  • 13 different types of cancer
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease

How does alcohol contribute to weight gain?

1. Alcohol is high in kilojoules (kJ)

Each gram of pure alcohol has 29kJ.3 In Australia, one standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol, which provides 290kJ of energy from the alcohol alone.  If someone drinks two full strength beers (375mL) or two glasses of wine (150mL) each day, this equates to approximately three standard drinks and represents 10% of the total daily energy intake.6

Want to find out more about standard drinks?  Try our Standard Drink Tool.

2. Alcohol impacts our food choices

Alcohol use can lead people to eat more food than they normally would, so it’s not just the alcohol that increases overall kilojoule intake. For example, studies have shown that when people drink alcohol before or with meals, their food intake can increase by up to 30%.7

Alcohol can also increase the desire for junk foods such as burgers, kebabs and pizzas which are high in salt, sugar and fat. Cravings for junk food can occur when drinking and also when ‘hungover’ the following day.7

To learn more about alcohol and unhealthy foods, visit the LiveLighter® website.

3. Alcohol is often mixed with sugary drinks

Sugary drinks are energy dense beverages that are very high in sugar and contain no nutritional benefits.  They are a form of junk food.  When alcohol is mixed with sugary drinks (known as ‘mixers’), alcoholic drinks contain even more kilojoules. For example, a can of soft drink and two shots of whiskey contains approximately 1,200kJs,8 which is equivalent to the energy content of a small meal.

Alcohol and nutrient absorption

Alcohol causes damage to the organs involved in digesting, absorbing and processing nutrients. The body also prioritises metabolising alcohol at the expense of other nutrients.9 This can lead to nutrient deficiencies in those who drink at high-risk levels.10,11 The key nutrients affected include:

  • Thiamine
  • Folate
  • B12
  • Vitamin A
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Zinc
  • Folic acid

Find out more about how alcohol damages your body.

Reduce your risk of harm from alcohol

If you do drink, the Australian Alcohol Guidelines recommends no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any day to reduce the risk of alcohol-related harm. 

The less you drink, the lower your risk of harm from alcohol.

Learn more

  1. Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. What is alcohol? 
  2. Whitney, E., & Ebook Library. Understanding nutrition (2;2nd; ed.). 2013. Melbourne: Cengage Learning Australia.
  3. Lourenco, S., Oliveira, A., & Lopes, C. The effect of current and lifetime alcohol consumption on overall and central obesity. 2012. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 66, 813-818.
  4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. A picture of overweight and obesity in Australia. 2017. Available here:
  5. Lauby-Secretan, B., Scoccianti, C., Loomis, D., Grosse, Y., Bianchini, F., & K. Straif. Body fatness and cancer – viewpoint of the IARC Working Group. 2016. New England Journal of Medicine 375: 794-798. Available from
  6. 2 full strength beers = 1160 / 8700 * 100 = 13.33; two glasses of wine = 920/8700 * 100 = 10.5
  7. Lavin, J., Pallister, C. & L. Greenwood. The government must do more to raise awareness of the links between alcohol and obesity, rather than treating them as separate issues. 2016. Perspectives in Public Health 136(3): 123-124.
  8. 1 can of coke = 693kJ. 2 shots of whiskey = 580kJ. 693 + 580 = 1,273kJ.
  9. Cederbaum, A. Alcohol metabolism. 2012. Clinics in Liver Disease, 16(4), 667-685. 
  10. Bode, C., & Bode, J. C. Alcohol's role in gastrointestinal tract disorders. 1997. Alcohol Health and Research World, 21(1), 76.
  11. Mann, J. & Truswell, S. Essentials of Human Nutrition. 2017. 5th ed. Oxford University Press: United Kingdom.

Page last updated16 February 2024