Healthy beer in moderation (Photo: Tim Dobson)
We have all seen the massive beer belly that we commonly associate with drinking too much beer, as is implied in the name. And we might have first hand experience of loutish behaviour after excessive beer consumption. Both negative aspects of beer drinking. No joke, but there are actually benefits from drinking beer as well, of course only in moderation. If you thought red wine, which we covered in a previous blog, was the healthy alternative, think again. Beer is giving wine a run for its money. Beer in moderation can actually be a healthier beverage choice than soft drinks or sugary fruit cocktails.
Beer has been brewed for just about as long as humans have been cultivating crops and is actually made with some very healthy ingredients. Those ingredients are hops, brewer’s yeast, barley and malt. Several beer brands can trace their origin to monasteries. Trappist monks drank beer to sustain themselves during their Lenten fasts. They called their beer “liquid bread.” Benjamin Franklin probably said it best: “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” But you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the health benefits of beer.
Health benefits of beer consumption
Studies have suggested that, when consumed in moderation, beer has many health benefits. It has long been known that moderate alcohol consumption may lower a drinker’s risk of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes, and can even reduce weight gain. Alcohol can increase good cholesterol and lower the bad, as well as lowering blood pressure. But some research suggests that other specific components in beer may play a role in fending off disease, irrespective of the alcohol content.
Beer is a surprising source of many nutrients. It is packed with B vitamins like niacin, pantothenic acid, folate, riboflavin, and vitamins B6 and B12. The folate found in beer may help to reduce homocysteine in the blood and lower homocysteine levels mean a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
A bottle of beer, usually between 330-375 mL depending on country and brand, can contain 92 mg of potassium, 14 mg of calcium and 48 mg of phosphorus, all minerals that are essential to a healthy diet. It is also rich in silicon, a nutrient that is said to help strengthen bones. A 2010 study by scientists at the University of California’s department of food science and technology suggests that drinking beer moderately may ward off osteoporosis due to the silicon, which is important for bone growth and development.
One of the most effective forms of soluble fibre for lowering cholesterol is betaglucan, which is the predominant form of fibre in beer. One bottle of beer contains around 1-3 gram of soluble fibre. This is equivalent to around 10% of the recommended daily fibre intake. Beers with high malt content like craft beers may even provide up to 30% of the recommended daily fibre intake.
Hops provide healthy antioxidants
Beer contains polyphenolic antioxidants, which help reverse cellular damage and thus help reduce cancer risks. Dark beers tend to have the most antioxidants. Studies suggest that xanthohumol, a plant compound found in hops, may be one of the more important compounds that help prevent cancer. As an antioxidant it is 200 times more potent than resveratrol found in red wine.
If you like to be exclusive, you might up your antioxidant intake even further by selecting microbrews because they are made with more hops than mass-produced beers.
Further proof of health benefits
In a meta-study published in 2011, researchers at Italy’s Fondazione di Ricerca e Cura when reviewing 16 previous studies involving more than 200,000 participants found that people who drank about 500 mL of beer a day had a 31% reduced risk of heart disease. Consuming more alcohol, either beer, wine, or liquor, reversed the benefit.
A 2011 Harvard study of 38,000 middle-aged men showed that consuming one or two glasses of beer a day reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 25 percent. There was, however, no noted benefit from drinking more than two beers a day.
A 2005 study involving 11,000 older women showed that those who had one beer a day had better mental function than those who didn’t. In fact, they decreased their risk of mental decline by as much as 20 percent.
An Emory University study published in 2001 involving over 2,200 elderly men and women discovered that those who consumed at least 1.5 drinks daily had up to a 50% lesser risk of suffering from heart failure.
The other side of beer consumption
If one beer is good for you, it doesn’t mean that three or four beers must be better. Most of the studies cited above point to one beer per day as being beneficial, not drinking all seven beers in one day per week. Drinking more than one beer or any alcoholic beverage per day can put too much alcohol in your system harming the liver. This is the organ that removes toxins from the body. In the liver, enzymes first convert alcohol into acetaldehyde. During this step, a molecule called NADH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) is also produced. Acetaldehyde is further metabolised into acetic acid, and then water and carbon dioxide that we breathe out.
Unfortunately, in people who drink daily, the body might not be able to metabolise the toxic acetaldehyde fast enough. To make matters worse, heavy drinking can elevate the levels of NADH, which can lead to the accumulation of fat in the liver in a condition called fatty liver. A liver clogged with fat is not only less efficient in performing its duties, it can also reduce oxygen and nutrient access for the liver cells. Left untreated, this causes liver cells to die and form fibrous scar tissue leading to liver cirrhosis.
And that’s not all. The energy content of beer can lead to obesity in those who drink excessively. Being obese, in turn, carries a lot of health risks, including heart disease and diabetes.
So as usual the adage “everything in moderation” holds true.