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If not beer, what’s causing those large tummies?

17 February 2015, 08:59

No sooner had I written the words “beer belly” in my article on the use of waist circumference (WC) as a measure of body fatness, beer producers started vociferously defending their noble brews – with one going as far as sending me an article entitled “Revealed: Beer is not linked to ‘Beer Belly’!” If this is true, then where on earth do all those large tummies come from?


I pointed out that waist circumference is a useful tool because it identifies what type of obesity a patient suffers from. We differentiate between two kinds of obesity that tend to form in the lower half of the body, namely android or “apple-shaped” obesity as opposed to gynic or “pear-shaped” obesity.

Android fat distribution is associated with fat deposits in the abdomen. Android fat distribution is associated with a greater risk of ill health than pear-shaped fat distribution. Research has shown that people with android obesity are more vulnerable to lifestyle-associated illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, raised blood fats, arthritis, gout, and metabolic syndrome.

If not beer, then what?

The unfortunate name “beer belly” has become part and parcel of our parlance. To counter this negative image, South African Breweries (SAB) released their article in which they quote one of my colleagues, who quite correctly stated, “While beer would indeed contribute to a person’s kilojoule intake, it is often a small part of the equation.”

No one food or beverage is totally to blame for the high levels of obesity in Africa, and there are many high-energy foods and drinks, popular with consumers, that could be the culprits.

The role of alcohol and other beverages

Just like fat, which contributes 37 kJ per gram to our energy intake, alcohol of any kind contributes 29 kJ per gram and is thus the second highest energy item in the African diet when compared gram for gram.

However, it is not just the energy content per gram that is important. The volume of items such as drinks which we consume also makes a difference when it comes to energy intake.

Beer has a lower energy content than spirits, but is consumed in larger quantities at a sitting.


For example, the current edition of the SA Food Tables, lists the energy content of spirits (brandy, whisky, cane, vodka, rum (alcohol content of 43% v/v or 36% w/w) as 1044 kJ per 100 ml.

However, people who have a tot of spirits which in metric terms is 25 ml, will consume 1044 x 1/4 = 261 kJ, while a double metric tot of 50 ml will provide them with 522 kJ of energy.


According to the current SA Food Tables, beer with an average alcohol content of 4,6% v/v or 3,6% w/w, provides 172 kJ of energy per 100 ml and stout with its higher alcohol content of 6.1% v/v or 4,7% w/w has 242 kJ/100 ml.

“So we were correct!” I hear the beer brewers say with satisfaction. “Beer, even stout, has a much lower alcohol and energy content that spirits and can’t be held responsible for those large tummies!”

Volumes consumed:

But who drinks only 100 ml of beer at a sitting? Beer is sold in various containers in South Africa, but the most common volumes are cans of 330 ml or bottles of 750 ml.

A 330 ml can of standard beer provides 330 x 172/100 = 568 kJ, which is the same as a daily double tot of whisky, cane, vodka or rum. And a 750 ml bottle of standard beer provides 750 x 172/100 = 1,290 kJ, which equals 5 tots of spirits.

So let’s say you are a prudent beer drinker and have only one 330 ml can of beer a day, this will add 568 x 7 = 3,976 kJ per week to your energy intake. And if you're less careful and drink one 750 ml bottle of beer a day, you will add 1,290 x 7 = 9030 kJ to your weekly energy intake.

In other words, even prudent beer drinkers who have only one can or one bottle of beer a day, 7 days a week, will increase their energy intake by around 4,000 kJ to 9,000 kJ per week, which can add up over time to cause fat deposition in the body.


We need to keep in mind that (1) the energy content per gram, (2) the energy content per 100 ml, and (3) the volume of alcoholic drinks we consume all play a role in our energy consumption and level of fat deposition.

Fat deposits

Where you deposit these extra kilojoules is probably determined by your genetic makeup, age and gender. Large stomachs tend to run in families, so genetics may be important. Age is also involved, although nowadays there is an alarming tendency for young people to develop what used to be called a “corporation” (i.e. a large stomach).

Then there are the gender-related fat depots – in women extra energy is usually deposited in fat depots in the breasts, hips and buttocks, particularly in younger women – later, after menopause, abdominal fat deposits also increase in women.

In men, fat is usually deposited in the abdomen and the neck, which is often called a “buffalo hump”. (Apologies to the producers of buffalo meat!)


Any item of food or drink consumed in excess provides us with more energy than we need and can be deposited as fat. Beer is certainly not the only contributor to abdominal fat with all its health risks, but all alcohol, even when consumed in very moderate quantities, does add to your energy intake and may cause fat deposition, which in younger women will probably produce “pear-shaped adiposity” and in men and older women turn into “apple-shaped adiposity”.

It may be wise to keep this in mind when you sit down to watch the Cricket World Cup on TV!


- Anderson, S (2015). Revealed: Beer is not linked to ‘Beer Belly’. FPD (2001). Certificate Course in the Management of Obesity. Foundation for Professional Development, 13-14 Sept 2001, Centurion.

- Kaslow JE (2015) Body impedance Measurement.

- Mahan K L et al (2012). Krause’s Food & the Nutrition Care Process. Elsevier Publishers, USA.

- Wolmarans P et al (2010). Condensed Food Composition Tables for SA. Medical Research Council, Parow Valley, Cape Town.

- Health24


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