by Mike Anson and Ben Schwalb
This article will discuss exercise, appetite and weight. It will also discuss the consumption of beer, which is only right since that is what prompted the authors to write it in the first place. It should be read by anyone who cares about his or her body and health, who enjoys good food and drink, and who has ever engaged in or plans to exercise. Also anyone who personally knows the authors.
One thing most of us have in common is the desire to look good. If you could go a step further and toast your good looks with a nice beer without ruining your health, you'd have it all, right? (Most of it, anyway?) "But," you say, "that only happens in Dreamland. A beer gut is the price you pay for enjoying your favorite malt beverage." Horse patooie! Keep reading, if you want to see the light ... through a nice golden malt.
What is beer?
To most people, beer is that ice cold, watery, fizzy stuff they consume while watching sports or dancing at frat parties. To others it's a full-bodied homebrew or microbrew that is to be sipped and savored rather than chugged. Either way, it is an alcoholic beverage.
What is alcohol?
Alcohol is a waste product of microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast. The vast majority of alcoholic beverages start out as a sugar-containing solution inoculated with yeast. The yeast eats the sugars and gives off alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste products. So basically, beer is yeast pee. (Think about that the next time you open up a cold one!)
Most of us know about protein, carbohydrates and fat. These are all nutrients (substances that provide calories). You probably also know that alcohol provides calories. Therefore alcohol is, technically, a nutrient. But what is it - protein, carbohydrate or fat? Well, it's none of the above. Its chemical structure is quite different from that of the other three nutrients, so it really belongs in a class by itself. Alcohol is unique in that it is both a nutrient and a drug. In addition to supplying us with calories, it depresses the central nervous system. We don't mean depress in an Al Gore sort of way, but in a sedative sort of way (well, then maybe we were referring to Al Gore). It can calm us down and remove our inhibitions, which can make us more talkative; hence alcohol is often referred to as a "social lubricant" (although we don't like that term - KY Jelly is a social lubricant).
Alcohol is metabolized by the liver. Some people have a very low alcohol tolerance due to lack of a certain enzyme. There is little correlation between body weight and production of this enzyme; however, men tend to produce more than women. People who lack this enzyme are very sensitive to alcohol and may get flushed or sick from consuming just one drink. In college we called these people "nerds".
Virtually all of the calories in beer come from alcohol. You might hear some folks joke that they're "carbo loading" while they're pounding brewskies, but only a small fraction of beer's calories come from carbohydrates, and even these are not complex carbos like you'd find in potatoes or pasta, but residual sugars that yeast are unable to metabolize. Very malty beers have fair amounts of unfermentable sugars; however, if you're like 97.5% of the beer-drinking population, you consume light-bodied brew and so the amount of sugar in your beer is negligible.
The Beer Gut
What is a "beer gut"? We've all seen that comical, gelatinous mid-section that protrudes through shirts and hangs over belts. If the person drinks beer, many people label this fleshy blob a "beer belly" or "beer gut". But what if he doesn't drink beer? The belly is just as huge, disgraceful, and fun to laugh at, yet there is no beer to blame. What gives?
Fat is fat. Obesity is obesity. Extra calories get stored as fat, whether they're from hamburgers, French fries, milk shakes, potato chips or beer. A big belly is no more a "beer gut" than a "food gut". For example, if all you did for a week was have two beers after playing a game of football (no food at all), you'd actually lose weight. (Don't do this - this would be stupid.) Watch the game on TV instead of playing it, and throw in some chips and burgers while drinking those beers, and the end of the story changes. In fact, if you were to cancel those beers, you'd still gain weight from the fatty diet and lack of exercise. If a fat, lazy, chip-eating, football-watching, beer-drinking slob were to give up beer, then he would still be a fat, lazy, chip-eating, football-watching slob. And he wouldn't have beer as an excuse, either.
Beer itself contains no fat, but since alcohol is an "obligatory fuel" that must be burned before any other nutrient, it has a calorie-sparing effect. That is, it provides energy that would otherwise have been supplied by other nutrients. So, if just enough food is consumed to meet caloric needs, and you drink beer in addition to it, then there will be calories left over to be converted to fat. Hence beer can contribute to weight gain. But the same can be said about "healthful" foods such as tofu, or potatoes, or rice cakes. For example, say your daily caloric requirement is 2000 calories, and you eat 1500 calories worth of food and drink 500 calories worth of beer. No problem yet. Then you eat 500 calories worth of rice cakes. This causes a surplus of calories. Do this every day for a week and you'll gain a pound. If you hadn't eaten the rice cakes, you wouldn't have gained weight. So are rice cakes fattening? Well, they can be. They are just as much to blame as the beer. You could maintain your current weight by cutting out either the beer or the rice cakes. Which one? That's up to you (although we suggest getting rid of the rice cakes since beer is much more fun). Basically no food or beverage is, in and of itself, fattening - it's the amount consumed that can be fattening.
There isn't anything unique about the calories you get from beer. Guys get a "beer gut" because guys store fat in their gut when they overeat. Remember, men are apples and women are pears: men tend to store extra fat in their bellies, making them shaped like apples; while women tend to store extra fat in their hips, thighs and butt, making them shaped like pears. It is for this reason that you won't see many women with a "beer gut" - it isn't merely because guys fooled them into thinking that beer was a man's drink (hey, share the joy, men, share the joy!). It's just that women get "beer hips" instead of a "beer gut". In a way, they're lucky: storing fat down by the legs isn't as dangerous to health as storing it right inside the abdomen where it is near but not dear to the heart (apples tend to be more prone to heart disease than pears are).
The human body is designed for motion. When all the parts are moving and stimulated, they work optimally. This includes the brain, which contains the appestat (the mechanism that tells you when you're hungry). Through most of the development of civilization, the vast majority of people had to do some sort of physical labor (hunting, gathering, sowing, reaping, walking rather than riding from Point A to Point B, etc). Additionally, processed food (white flour, sugar, potato chips, etc) was not available to the average person until the past few centuries. It was not easy to become overweight unless you were either wealthy or an opera singer.
Modern technology has turned the majority of us into sedentary slobs. We ride around in cars, trains and buses; make our living seated in office furniture; watch television and surf the Web. Most of us who don't do some form of recreational exercise live in soft, wimpy bodies that would turn our ancestors' stomachs. Despite the low calorie expenditure, however, a lot of people consume just as many or even more calories than their more active counterparts. It doesn't take a physician to figure out that this will cause overweight. But why do sedentary people eat so much? After all, if they don't need the food energy, shouldn't they have smaller appetites? Unfortunately, no. Lack of movement causes various physical and mental processes to become less efficient, and/or to just plain malfunction. The appestat is a good example. Lying in bed watching Montel can make you reach for the chips and dip because you're bored, lonely or unhappy; the mental/spiritual void can cause you to use food in an erroneous attempt to fill it.
Sometimes we eat something because it just tastes so good that we are willing to gain extra weight in exchange for the instant gratification. That is, we know that we don't need it, but we eat it anyway. We have every right to indulge this way, but then let us not complain that we're gaining weight or claim that we have no idea why.
Many foods taste better and are less filling than they "should" be according to millions of years of heredity (or thousands of years - we're not trying to contradict anyone's religious or historical beliefs). Empty-calorie foods such as Twinkies and donuts taste good because of the sugar and fat, but lack protein, vitamins, minerals and complex carbohydrates that our bodies need. Thus these foods can leave us hungry even though they fill our stomachs (and arteries), because if we're missing a certain type of nutrient, then we will have a food craving even if we've eaten enough of all other nutrients. For example, you know how sometimes you have a really strong craving for meat? It's probably because you're deficient in protein or something else that meat provides. If you attempt to satisfy your appetite with onion rings, mozzarella sticks and pie, then not only might you still be hungry afterwards, but you will also gain weight from all the unneeded fat you consumed.
Genetics and activity levels regulate our appetites. After a while, we're taking in enough food to satisfy our body's measure of "enough". Beer can bypass the whole process: alcohol lowers blood glucose level, which is the biggest indicator that your appestat uses in order to determine whether you're hungry. In this way beer can cause you to gain weight by making you eat calories that you don't need.
Vigorous exercise purges pent-up energy and relieves stress. Additionally, unlike activities that bring only immediate benefits (e.g. eating chocolate mousse), exercise keeps improving your life even after the activity is over: it keeps your joints limber, makes you look better, lowers blood pressure, strengthens bones, increases coordination, releases endorphins into the bloodstream that make you relaxed yet alert, and adds muscle mass. The extra muscle raises your basal metabolism because muscle requires more energy to maintain itself at rest than fat does; hence you burn more calories around the clock. Exercise is quite possibly the best thing a person can do for himself/herself, and yet most people don't do it on a regular basis. In fact, there is a large segment of our population that exercise nothing but their mouths and their colons.
Different types of training burn different amounts of fuels. Strenuous exercise requires quick energy, so mostly glucose is used. Light exercise burns fat as a slow fuel, but because it uses fewer calories per unit of time, it must be done for a much longer duration than strenuous exercise in order to burn the same amount of calories. Moderate exercise uses some glucose and some fat. You need not get caught up in this categorization though, since any type of exercise burns fat eventually. For instance, strenuous exercise might not burn fat immediately, but since it raises metabolism, it increases the amount of fat burned later on.
At this point you might be asking, "Can I exercise my gut away?" You sure can, but only if you couple that exercise with a sensible diet. So what kind of exercise is best? Some self-proclaimed experts tell us that if we exercise our abdominal area (e.g. do sit-ups), it will get smaller. The fact is that any exercise will cause you to burn more calories and fat, so you can shrink your belly with nothing but arm and leg exercises if you want. You cannot make your body shed fat from one particular area by exercising that body part. When fat is to be burned, your body decides where to take it from. Most but not all of it usually comes from the abdominal/thigh/buttock region, but the biggest determinant is genetics, not the particular exercise. By the way, those "experts" who tell us that sit-ups will shrink our abdomen are often the same ones who say that if we exercise our arms (e.g. do push-ups, bench presses and curls), they will get bigger. Well, which is it? If exercising a muscle makes it grow, then sit-ups should give you a bigger mid-section.
Why is most food served at parties fatty and/or salty? Sour cream dips, cheese, potato chips, cake and brownies are standard fare. People work hard all week, then "reward" themselves by slowly committing suicide. Well, perhaps it's not all that bad. Since parties are a time to relax, it is only right that we should enjoy ourselves and not fret over what the foods we consume will do to us later. Moreover, if we "pig out" once every week or two and eat healthfully and exercise the rest of the time, then our infrequent binging won't do us much harm. If you're still phobic about unhealthful food (while being unable to control yourself around it), a viable option is to eat something light and healthful before going out, so that you won't have a lot of room to fill up on poison.
It's difficult to imagine a party without beer. After all, it relaxes us, it makes others more interesting, and it improves the appearance of potential sex partners. But how much should we drink? Aside from obvious signs of overconsumption (e.g. double vision, puking, asking the refrigerator to dance), the rule of total calories applies: consumption exceeding need means weight gain. So you might compensate for drinking three 150-calorie beers by staying away from the onion dip.
If you wake up and realize that you consumed about a pound worth of excess calories the night before, you can do a week-long penance of a 500-calorie deficit per day. It is frustrating to have to go through that much deprivation in order to make up for one night of indulgence, but this is the way it is because we can consume calories a lot faster than we can burn them.
Putting it all together
Wait! Don't stop reading yet. "Yeah, sure," you're saying. "Eat less and be miserable and hungry all the time, and when the hell do I have time to exercise? These people who spend two hours a day in the gym need to get a life."
You're doing something very, very wrong if you are hungry or uncomfortable at all. For example, inactivity and boredom can cause false hunger pangs. We've all had times when we sat around the house doing very little, eaten more food than we needed, and felt guilty afterward. The truth was that we had no calorie deficiency at all, but we ate in order to break the monotony. If we stay involved in interesting activities, our appetite doesn't kick in until we truly need food.
A common misconception is that we must eat less in order to remain trim and healthy. This isn't necessarily true. What we need is to eat better. Vegetables, fruit, whole wheat bread, skim milk, fish and nuts are preferable to cake, prime rib, ice cream and anything fried. We can eat more of the former foods than the latter and maintain the same weight. However, we can enjoy "premium" foods such as red meat and ice cream as long as we do so moderately and balance them with other foods that are more healthful. There is no need to wolf down a one-pound steak when six ounces will do, or a pint of Death By Chocolate when a cup is plenty.
We all have time for what we make time for. It's interesting that a lot of people who claim that they have no time to exercise will spend ten hours per week watching television. Their preference is clear. Perhaps the time would be better spent at the gym. Or, even better, do both simultaneously: buy an exercise machine and use it at home while watching the boob tube.
Exercise need not be an obsession that leaves us with little time and energy for other pursuits. Don't forget the Law of Diminishing Returns, which states that when you do more than you need, you're overdoing it. If a 3-mile jog and an hour of weight training purge your pent-up energy, make you feel good and keep you in good shape, then you needn't pump iron for two hours and run 8 miles.
You can have your beer and physique too!
The great news is that you can have a beer or two a day and not get fat. A lifestyle of eating right and exercising will give just about anyone a good physique, even if they drink a moderate amount of beer. As long as one is not drinking so much that cirrhosis develops, and total caloric consumption is reasonable, there is no reason that drinking beer should make anyone fat. Thus we can heft a pint or two now and then, enjoy its relaxing effects and camaraderie with our buddies, and not worry that we're undoing any of the effects we work so hard for in the gym.
However, if you want a six-pack or two a day, then you need more help than we can give you (preferably medical help and a prescription for Antabuse).
Ben Schwalb is a 40-something-year-old computer programmer who complements his sedentary work life with an active private life that includes weight-lifting, jogging, wrestling and channel surfing. He has nine years of kickboxing to his credit, but he no longer has time for it, although he occasionally gets into fights with his wife, which is kind of the same thing. He brews beer at home and is a member of five homebrewing clubs whose meetings consist of drinking homebrews and microbrews. He also attends several microbrew festivals every year. Despite his frequent beer consumption he has a proper amount of body fat and normal blood pressure, can do one-legged squats with a 60-pound weight, and can bench press more than his body weight.
Mike Anson is also 40-something years old; he spends his workdays sitting behind a desk or standing motionless at a lab bench, claiming to be a scientist and teacher. He spends his free time lifting weights and drinking beer. He has (as of 2003) 31 years of weightlifting under his belt, averaging three to six hours a week, and hopes it shows. He also has at least 25 years of beer under his belt, cheerfully consumed one or two per night, but he hopes that doesn't show. Like Ben, he brews beer at home; unlike Ben, he lacks the coordination required to do a one-legged squat (where does the other leg go, Ben, behind the head or something??). He'll work on it. In the meantime, he can do a two-legged hips-below-knees squat with 300 pounds!