New report highlights the complex relationship between obesity and alcohol

Alcohol and food; the two have gone together ever since, well, alcohol was first discovered. Intentionally fermented drinks existed at least as early as the Neolithic period (around 10,000 B.C.) and wine appears in Egyptian pictographs from around 4,000 B.C. We can dip into any number of books and personal accounts from past centuries and find them there. Thomas Turner, a Sussex shopkeeper who kept a diary in the middle of the 18th century, frequently ate and drank enormous amounts. “We went to supper on four boiled chicken, four boiled ducks, minced veal, sausages, cold roast goose, chicken pasty, and ham” he wrote. “After supper…our diversion was dancing or jumping about, without a violin or any musick, singing of foolish healths, and drinking all the time as fast as it could well be poured down.” Despite the remorse which invariably followed these occasions, he was soon at it again, “drinking like horses, as the vulgar phrase is, and singing until many of us were very drunk, and then we went to dancing and pulling wigs, caps and hats…behaving more like mad people than they that profess the name of Christians.”

Probably just as well for Thomas Turner that his large meals and bouts of drinking were followed by all that dancing and capering around, as physical activity levels influence the relationship between alcohol and obesity, along with a number of other factors. A new report from the National Obesity Observatory highlights the complex relationship between alcohol consumption and obesity (defined as a BMI greater or equal to 30 in adults) and says there is a need for a better understanding of how they are linked, something which does not appear to have been a priority for research. The report draws out a number of issues that health practitioners and policymakers working to tackle obesity may find helpful to bear in mind.

Key points:

  • Associations between obesity and alcohol are heavily influenced by a number of factors including lifestyle, genes, gender, body weight and level and patterns of drinking
  • Many people are unaware of the calories in alcoholic drinks and fail to include them in their assessment of daily calorie consumption. Alcohol accounts for nearly 10% of the calorie intake of adults who drink, with an energy value of 7kcal/g, second only to fat at 9kcal/g
  • The effects of alcohol on body weight may be more pronounced in overweight and obese people
  • Alcohol consumption can lead to increased food intake
  • Heavy, but less frequent drinkers seem to be at greater risk of obesity than moderate, frequent drinkers
  • The relationships between obesity and alcohol differ between men and women
  • Excess body weight and alcohol consumption appear to act together to increase the risk of liver cirrhosis
  • There is emerging evidence of a link between familial risk of alcohol dependency and obesity in women


Gatineau M, Mathrani S. Obesity and alcohol: an overview. Oxford: National Obesity Observatory, 2012.

Thomas Turner The Diary of a Georgian Shopkeeper. Oxford University Press, 1979.

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Sarah Chapman

My name is Sarah Chapman. I have worked on systematic reviews and other types of research in many areas of health for the past 17 years, for the Cochrane Collaboration and for several UK higher education institutions including the University of Oxford and the Royal College of Nursing Institute. I also have a background in nursing and in the study of the History of Medicine.

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