Beer is one of the most popular drinks in Australia, let alone the most popular alcoholic beverages. It is a mainstay of much of our social interaction and a huge part of our national identity. Yet it is also one of the most misunderstood. While wine has managed to wrap itself in an aura of antioxidant-laden wholesomeness, beer is associated with beer bellies and brewer’s droop.
Even brewers have recently been focusing attention on carbohydrates with Australia’s largest brewers, and even some of the ‘craft’ brewers, creating a range of beers that are marketed as being low-carb or lower-carb beers and their sales are going through the roof. The success of these beers – and the belief that they are better for your waistline – highlights just how many misconceptions there are about beer.
As with all alcoholic drinks, the primary focus should be in the effects of alcohol on the body first rather than carbohydrates or other component.
This article sets out to provide the facts about drinking and while, hopefully, it will get you thinking, its aim is not to stop you drinking – in moderation, at least.
Table 1. Comparison of carbohydrate levels in common drinks (per 100ml)
|Drink||Alcohol by volume||Carbs||Fat||Energy (kj)|
|Beer — VB||4.8%||3.0g||0g||165kj|
|Beer — Pure Blonde||4.6%||.9g||0g||126kj|
|Beer — Pure Blone Naked||3.5%||1.4g||0||109kj|
|Cascade Premium Light||2.6%||3.0g||0||114kj|
|Beer — Coopers Clear||4.5%||1g||<0.1g||130kJ|
|Beer — XXXX Gold||3.5%||1.9g||0||121kJ|
|Beer — Tooheys New White Stag||4.6%||.9g||0||126|
|Beer — Carlton Natural||4.5%||1.2g||128kJ|
The myth of the beer belly
As the name suggests, it is a commonly held belief that beer gives you a ‘beer belly.’ However, standard drink by standard drink, beer does no more to cause weight gain than wine or spirits, or for that matter, food.
To sustain a certain body weight you need a certain amount of energy — or fuel. Humans get energy from four sources: carbohydrate, fat, protein and alcohol, which are the carbon components of the food we eat. If you eat more fuel (food and drinks) than you use up (metabolism and physical activity) then the excess energy is stored as fat. As to where the fat is stored depends greatly on individual differences including gender, race and genetics. Males will tend to store the excess weight around their belly, whereas women will tend to store it on the backsides and thighs.
“There is no mystical property of beer that causes weight gain, unless it is consumed to excess.”The amount of fuel that a body needs changes from individual to individual, but in general for the average male, 178cm tall and weighing 70 kilograms, the average daily energy intake to maintain that weight is approximately 10,000 kilojoules. For an average woman of 65 kilograms the maintenance intake is approximately 8 – 9,000 kilojoules. Quite simply, if you consume more kilojoules than this you will gain weight, if you consume fewer you will lose weight.
To put this into perspective, an average full strength beer contains about 550 kilojoules, a reduced alcohol beer about 400 KJs, an average full-strength low-carb beer 460 kilojoules. This means an average low-carb beer contains more kilojoules than the average mid-strength beer and contributes more to your daily intake of kilojoules…even though lower in carbs. So, if you substitute two low-carb beers for your favourite full-strength beer you are saving only about 200 kilojoules from an intake of 10,000…a saving 2 per cent of your daily energy intake — or the equivalent of approximately 4 water crackers.
There is no mystical property of beer that causes weight gain, unless it is consumed to excess and that is true of everything you eat and drink.
While beer isn’t responsible for beer-bellies, this has been interpreted by some to mean that beer isn’t responsible for weight gain. Instead they believe it’s the foods you eat with beer that cause the problem.
While beer doesn’t have a mystical weight-gaining property, alcohol from any source does have an effect on how the body processes everything else you eat. Alcohol is preferentially absorbed, digested and used as a fuel by the body in front of the food we eat because it is toxic – this is the body’s defence mechanism against harm from too much alcohol. This means that your body will use the fuel from alcohol first and from other sources second leaving any excesses of energy from food to be stored as body fat. However, even though the energy from the food eaten is absorbed and metabolised after alcohol and is likely to be stored as fat, the fact is that combining food and alcohol will only put on weight if the total amount of energy from alcohol and food exceeds a person’s fuel requirements.
The mathematicians reading this article might respond by saying, “does that mean if I get 5000 kilojoules in a day from other sources I can have 10 beers and not put on weight?”
Unfortunately, while the maths work out, if you follow this diet you may not need to get a bigger pair of pants but you will need to get a new liver. While in small amounts, alcohol has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the body, once you get over the threshold amount alcohol can have some serious negative impacts on the body.
This is where beer can lead to weight gain. Because of our tendency to drink beer in a “session”, especially the lighter-flavoured beers that lend themselves to drinking more, we can quite easily exceed our ideal energy intake. A six-pack consumed with a barbeque of sausages and steak can easily account for a big part of that 10,000 kilojoule daily intake in one go.
It is ironic that, if their perception of being better for you leads you to drink more of them, low-carb beers would actually be much worse for you than the unmodified, full-strength, full-flavoured alternatives.
“It is ironic that, if their perception of being better for you leads you to drink more of them, low-carb beers would actually be much worse for you than the unmodified, full-strength, full-flavoured alternatives.”This doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy a beer and still maintain a trim waistline. If you want to enjoy a beer but don’t want to put on the weight, here are your options:
1) Make sure the energy from your beer fits within your energy requirement. For example, if you are a 70kg man, you would need around 10000kJ per day to maintain this weight. You could have 9000kJ of this from food and 1000kJ from two standard beers; or
2) Burn the energy off with exercise. One stubby of full strength beer has approximately 550kJ of fuel. To burn the amount of fuel a beer provides through exercise, it would take a 70kg man approximately 35 minutes to walk off or 15 minutes to run. How often have you said to your mate at the pub, “hold my next beer Bill, I am just going to duck out for a 35 minute walk to burn my last beer off before I have my second!”The consequence of exceeding your required energy intake by one stubby of beer per day – and not burning it off – would be that you would gain 5.5kg of body fat over 1 year. A 150ml glass of wine will equally provide around 500kJ, which will have the same effect as a beer on weight gain, as will a shot of spirits with a sugar-based soft-drink mixer (542kJ).
Drinking wine, particularly red, has been promoted as having superior health benefits than other alcoholic drinks but as beer lovers you can take heart that beer is just as good for you! The scientific literature supports this sentiment. Beer provides the same health benefits as wine when consumed in the recommended amounts. It has even been suggested that antioxidants in beer may be more easily absorbed than those in red wine.
What’s more, when compared to non-drinkers, people that enjoy 1 – 2 standard drinks (10-20g alcohol) a day have a lower risk of developing, or dying from, all causes of disease. This level of consumption results in reductions in heart disease, ischaemic stroke, diabetes, gallstones and dementia. Recent studies have also shown moderate alcohol intake may also be beneficial to bone health.
However, the reality check in all of this is that if you are relying on beer (or wine for that matter
Not a lot of studies have looked at the short-term effects of alcohol overuse. However, what has been shown isn’t encouraging when it comes to accident, injury and hospitalisation. As little as one standard drink doubles our risk of injury, three standard drinks increases risk by four times, five standard drinks increases risk by six times, and seven drinks increases risk of injury by 10 times.
The long-term effects of drinking more than two standard drinks are equally not encouraging. Drinking more than 2 standard drinks daily increases the risk of disease and death and with every additional drink the risk increases steeply following a J-curve. Drinking too much has been linked with increased risk of a range of chronic diseases including various forms of cancer, hypertension, haemorrhagic stroke, ischaemic stroke, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, alcohol dependence, alcohol-related brain damage and a range of other problems.
In other words, enjoying a few beers for its finest properties – its taste – will improve health; alcohol consumed to excess can kill; and even worse impacts on your quality of life!
Drink enough beer to keep you happy
Alcohol is a depressant, which is a fact we cannot avoid. Whilst the first few drinks reduce inhibitions, increase libido and desire, induces temporary euphoria, boosts confidence, makes you feel more relaxed, animated, talkative and improves your feeling of wellbeing; this can quickly progress to emotional instability, depressed mood, loss of judgement, co-ordination, impaired balance and slurred speech. If you have been drinking and start thinking that you could beat anybody in the room in a fight or if you start feeling like you are attracted to every person of the opposite sex, you have had too much!
The effects of beer, and alcohol in general, help ease the jitters of an intimate date and have the potential to enhance sexual experience, but they also make alcohol a double-edged sword. The consumption of alcohol to maximise these desirable effects is a high-wire balancing act between having just enough to feel a little more excited than usual and an unfortunate side of effect known colloquially as “brewer’s droop”, or temporary alcohol-induced impotence.
While, like the beer gut, beer is unfairly targeted, this is a genuine side affect too many drinks, leading to that awkward dichotomy between what the male mind wants to do and what the body is capable of doing.
The temporary effects of alcohol on nerves and sensations resulting from occasional alcohol use, can become permanent damage with long-term alcohol abuse. Alcohol-induced impotence (or erectile dysfunction) can become a permanent side effect of heavy drinking and is not something that is guaranteed to resolve itself once alcohol consumption ceases. Additionally, long-term alcohol use can disrupt hormone levels, particularly testosterone, decreasing libido and sexual function. Alcohol abuse can even cause damage to the cells that produce sperm, leading to decreased testicular size, decreased sperm production, infertility and reduced male sexual characteristics (such as reduced facial and chest hair, breast enlargement and a shift in fat from the abdomen to the hip area).
While excess alcohol consumption is directly detrimental to sexual health and performance, the extra body weight associated with excess alcohol consumption also has a major impact on fertility. Excess body fat affects hormonal balance and plays havoc with the reproductive system. Overweight women have more trouble conceiving and giving birth than women of average weight, while overweight men also have reduced fertility, with lower sperm counts and concentration.
It seems the secret to maximising your sexual health is to enjoy a few drinks, but avoid excessive intakes that are likely to negatively impact on sexual performance, fertility and result in excess body weight.
Beer helps me get to sleep
Alcohol can disturb your sleep if you drink too much, magnifying the negative effects of over drinking the next day! The figure below illustrates how alcohol affects sleep (red line). Alcohol may help you get to sleep, but it disrupts the ideal pattern of restorative sleep (blue dotted line), and increases your risk of feeling drowsy during your next waking period. Alcohol will cause an initial extended period of deep sleep (this is why some blokes say that a few beers helps me get to sleep each night), but this can then be followed by regular waking periods due to dehydration, the need to urinate or because of the effects of a hangover. Alcohol starts affecting your sleep after 1 standard drink for females and 2 standard drinks for males.
Beer is a wonderful drink that can have health benefits and importantly, at its best, adds to our enjoyment of life. The best advice to keep enjoying a beer and staying as happy and as healthy as possible is to choose beers that suit your taste and savour every mouthful in the right amount.
If you are uncertain about how to fit a few beers into your healthy diet, seek the advice of an Accredited Practising Dietician.