I was already drinking beer fairly regularly before I started my training as a Beer Sommelier. Then I looked at the huge variety of beer styles I was going to have to become familiar with, and quickly realised I was going to have drink an awful lot more. (I know. Poor me.) A thought came to me right away: is this going to make me really fat?
Beer’s image problems
I want you to try something for me. I want you to picture two people. The first one is a young beer drinker. The second is an older beer drinker.
Were they both male? It’s fairly likely that they were. That’s beer’s image problem number one. It’s a big one, but one for another day, so let’s move on.
When you imagined the older beer drinker, was he overweight? He probably was. And that’s beer’s image problem number two. We all know what a ‘beer belly’ or ‘beer gut’ looks like. But while beer and a belly often go together, is it really true that beer itself is to blame? Does beer make you fat?
Let’s look at the calories
Forget beer for a moment and think about food. We all understand that eating too much will make us fat. And we know instinctively that what amounts to ‘too much’ varies between one person and another. This can depend on a lot of factors including age, metabolism, activity levels, and so on.
A simple way to understand this is to think about the amount of energy in an item of food and drink, measured in calories.
The basic rule is no secret: if you take in more calories than you use up during the day, you will put on weight.
The NHS gives this advice on the recommended daily calorie intake for men and women:
Within a healthy, balanced diet, a man needs around 2,500kcal (10,500kJ) a day to maintain his weight. For a woman, that figure is around 2,000kcal (8,400kJ) a day.
How do different drinks measure up?
Beer, cider, wine, and spirits are all made from natural starch and sugar. Fermentation is used to convert most of this sugar into alcohol. The calories in these drinks are found in the alcohol and in any residual (i.e. unfermented) sugars.
Alcohol contains quite a lot of calories – seven calories per gram, which is almost as much as you will find in a gram of fat. But is beer particularly bad in this respect?
Well, no. In fact, it’s often better. This is because beer is usually lower in alcohol by volume than wine or spirits.
Did you know that about 95% of beer is water? I was surprised when I first heard that, but then I asked myself: if I didn’t think it was water in there, what else did I think it was?
I guess, like most people, I just wasn’t thinking about it at all.
Beer is usually around a third the strength of most wines.
One 300ml bottle of 5% ABV beer contained 142 calories. Most beer drinkers would consider this to be a fairly small serving, so let’s compare it with a small (175ml) glass of wine. At 13% ABV the wine contains 159 calories.
If you’re having a pint of beer (568ml), at 4% ABV, that’s 182 calories. A large glass of wine (250ml), at 13%, is 211 calories.
A pint of cider at 4.5% ABV is 216 calories.
A single measure of spirits (25ml) at 40% is 61 calories. That’s before you’ve added any mixer, which will of course bring even more calories along for the ride.
So it’s plain to see that beer is usually lower in calories than other alcoholic drinks.
Beer is also lower in sugar than lots of alternative choices. A pint of 4.0% ABV beer contains 2.5g of sugar, compared to 300ml of cola (34g), a chai latte (21g) or a tall frappuccino (35g).
But it does get a little bit more complicated than that.
When alcohol is involved, it’s more than a matter of calories in vs calories out
Under normal conditions your liver works to metabolise fat cells. It is this routine fat burn that helps to maintain – or even lower – your existing weight.
Guess what: alcohol disrupts this process.
When you drink alcohol 20% is absorbed into your bloodstream right away. The rest is taken up over time as it passes through your intestines.
Once alcohol enters your bloodstream it travels to your liver. Your liver does what it would with any toxin in your blood, and works to flush it out.
As it does this, waste products called acetate and acetaldehyde are created. When these waste products are detected, your brain will prioritise removing them.
To do this, your brain will send a signal to your liver to stop burning fat. At the same time, your body actually starts producing fat from another waste product of alcohol, acetyl CoA.
Your liver can effectively process only 15-30ml of alcohol per hour. So one 330ml bottle of 5.0% beer, containing 16.5ml of alcohol, could stop your body from burning fat for anything from 30 minutes to an hour. And after one 250ml glass of 13% wine, containing 32.5ml of alcohol, the effect could last for up to two hours.
Don’t forget about those snacks
Beer goes great with food, but all too often our ‘pairings’ aren’t exactly fine dining: pork scratchings, crisps, peanuts, perhaps a kebab on the way home. Beer can make us crave a fatty treat, but it’s not alone in this. All alcoholic drinks will stimulate our appetites.
On top of that, alcohol lowers our inhibitions. This makes us more likely to give into temptation and eat foods we wouldn’t normally consider. Just think, how many people that you know have abandoned a diet after a drink or two?
It’s not the calories in alcohol alone that can make you fat. It’s not just the reduced fat burn. It’s the combination of both of these PLUS the extra, often unhealthy, snacking and eating that can lead to weight gain.
So, does beer make you fat? It can, if you abuse it. But beer is not unique in this respect. The same goes for all alcoholic drinks.
“There’s no fat in beer and no cholesterol either, and it’s ridiculously low in calories and carbs. Your spare tyre is probably due to all those pork scratchings you ate alongside your pint or even due to your breakfast orange juice which, health clubs please note, does contain fat.” – Rupert Ponsonby, a founder of the Beer Academy.
Keeping a healthy lifestyle if key
This all sounds pretty bad, but it doesn’t have to be. The biggest factor in maintaining a good weight is eating a healthy balanced diet and taking some exercise once in a while. If you do this, a few beers aren’t going to make you fat.
“Moderate beer consumption does not lead to weight gain or abdominal fatness and the perception that drinking beer results in a beer belly is not supported by the scientific evidence to date.” – Nutritionist Dr Kathryn O’Sullivan (PDF link)
The way we drink is important as well as the amount. Binge drinking exacerbates the problems that alcohol can cause. Instead aim to enjoy your beer in smaller portions. Also, why not sometimes have it along with a proper meal?
When you take the time to pair beer with food and pay attention to what you’re drinking, you will often find you drink less, you drink more slowly, and you appreciate what you drink much more.
If you are on a night out, say, and will be having a few drinks, make sure you have some water too. This will hydrate you and also help to suppress some of the appetite that the alcohol is stimulating.
Drinking beer in moderation is fine – in fact it can even be good for you.
“While the health benefits of wine in moderation generally are accepted, there is a perception amongst consumers that beer has only detrimental effects on diet and health, in particular on weight control. This is contrary to evidence that moderate beer consumption is associated with beneficial effects on health” – Nutritionist Dr Kathryn O’Sullivan
You have probably heard that drinking a glass of red wine a day is good for your heart. This is because of the antioxidants contained in the wine.
Beer contains antioxidants too. It sits somewhere between white and red wine in terms of the number of antioxidants typically found. But, importantly, the antioxidants found in beer are smaller and may therefore be easier for your body to take up than those found in wine.
Research by Dr Henk Hendricks, of the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute, the Netherlands, suggests that two to three units of beer a day (around one pint) lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke.
But there’s more. Further studies suggest that beer may have unique health benefits that are not associated with other alcoholic drinks.
A new study by the Department of Food Science & Technology at the University of California, Davis suggests that beer is a significant source of dietary silicon, a key ingredient for increasing bone mineral density.
Based on these findings, some studies suggest moderate beer consumption may help fight osteoporosis, a disease of the skeletal system characterised by low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue.
The silicon in beer could even keep your hair, nails and skin looking good too!
Over to you
Do you know someone who blames their belly on the beer? Or someone who avoids drinking beer you know they’ll enjoy because they’re scared it will make them gain weight? Why not share this post with them and encourage them to share a beer with you – in moderation of course!