The Skinny on Beer and Health


I am not a doctor. I am not a nutritionist. I am not a personal trainer or an exercise physiologist. (Iím also not normal, but thatís another matter.) I have no formal training or degree in anything that even remotely resembles the medical field. However, Iíve lived a relatively healthful lifestyle and read many books about health and nutrition, and Iíd like to pass my knowledge and experience on to you, the health-conscious beer lover.

First off, letís get the alcohol issue out in the open. Some non-drinkers like to point out the deleterious effects of alcohol as a reason not to drink. What they fail to realize is that only large amounts of alcohol hurt you; small to moderate amounts are not bad for most people, and in fact can actually be good for you (Iíll tell you how later). Furthermore, you can be hurt by overindulgence in anything - even things that are normally touted as being healthful, such as exercise and sex (especially if you have sex with the ex-wife of a certain former football star).

By now most of us have heard of carbohydrate-restricted diets. Atkins and Scarsdale are just two of the many names associated with this idea, and millions of people have lost weight by eliminating or severely reducing their carb intake while continuing to eat ample protein and fat. The unfortunate thing for us suds sippers is that some versions of this diet regimen forbid beer. I have a problem with any group of people that tells us not to drink beer, e.g. the Taliban.

The purpose of restricting carbohydrates is to reduce the blood level of insulin, which, unless youíre a diabetic, your pancreas produces in response to elevated blood sugar in order to get that sugar out of the bloodstream and into cells for energy. The theory is that large amounts of insulin cause the lining of blood vessels to harden and thicken, which in turn raises blood pressure. Additionally, insulin is thought to damage arterial walls and thereby promote atherosclerosis. How? Arterial damage provides irregularities onto which pieces of cholesterol can catch and cling, creating deposits that narrow the lumen and restrict blood flow. (This process might not be merely mechanical; perhaps the body lays down cholesterol in an attempt to stop further arterial damage.) It is important to note, however, that this theory about insulin being a culprit in atherosclerosis is not widely accepted by the medical community, and therefore neither is a carbohydrate-restricted diet.

Exclusion of beer from a low- or no-carb diet is based on the premise that beer has a significant carbohydrate content. This is so commonly believed that many folks refer to their beer drinking as "carbo-loading". The truth is that the vast majority of beer is so low in carbohydrate that a full bottle has fewer carbs than a single slice of bread. I proved this hypothesis through an exhaustive scientific process whereby I pulled a Coors Light out of one of my four beer fridges and compared the nutritional information on the label to a package of whole wheat bread. The 12-ounce bottle contained 5 grams of carbohydrate, while one slice of the bread had 8. Okay, so many other types of beer are more malty, but 1) there arenít enough carbs in several beers - except for big beers such as Scotch ales, barleywines and imperial stouts - to cause a significant insulin response, and 2) if you are drinking very strong beer, chances are that youíre not gonna have more than one or two (unless youíre Ted Kennedy).

"So where do the calories in beer come from?" you ask. The answer: from alcohol. Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram. Unlike carbohydrate, alcohol does not raise blood sugar (if anything, it lowers it), and so it does not trigger an insulin response.

Many no-carb people tell us that we can order an octuple cheeseburger that contains as much fat as Rush Limbaugh, and eat this huge lump of lard as long as we remove the bun. Some people actually do this, only to have their blood cholesterol rise. Letís discuss cholesterol further. The general consensus is that cholesterol is the main culprit that forms deposits in coronary arteries (arteries that feed the heart) and thereby promotes heart disease. Heart disease is the number one killer of American men and women (many more women die from this condition than from breast cancer). Not all cholesterol is bad. Without getting too technical (because Iím lazy), cholesterol can take the form of either low-density lipoprotein (LDL) which encourages lipids (fats) to stay in the bloodstream (hence LDL is called "bad cholesterol"), and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) which carries lipids to the liver for excretion (hence HDL is called "good cholesterol"). It is not so much oneís total cholesterol as the ratio of HDL to LDL that affects the amount of lipids available to cause harmful fatty deposits inside blood vessels. (In the medical community, a harmful fatty deposit is referred to as a "plaque"; to us laymen, a harmful fatty deposit is referred to as "Linda Tripp".) As I described earlier, lipids can coagulate on blood vessel irregularities and restrict blood flow. Eventually a blood vessel can close completely, cutting off the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the tissue it used to nourish. If it happens in the brain, itís called a stroke; if it happens in the heart, itís called a heart attack.

So where does beer fit into the picture? Recent medical research is showing that small-to-moderate amounts of alcohol can raise our level of HDL - the good cholesterol. (Large amounts, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect, as well as create other health problems. One more reason to drink responsibly.) It is not definitively known whether this benefit is caused indirectly by enabling you to relax and de-stress (stress wreaks havoc on cholesterol ratios, blood vessels and the nervous system), or directly by altering the bodyís production and processing of cholesterol. Either way, drink in good health!