Is Beer Healthy? The Good, Bad, and Ugly

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Beer is great and does a body good!

Beer is the bane of man’s existence and ruins gains, health, and relationships.

If you’re reading this article, you’re hopping for validation of some sort of either of the above two scenarios. Or, more likely, you’re a fitness savvy individual who enjoys the occasional microbrew. You’re wondering is it possible to still enjoy beer while keeping my gains, or is one pint going to destroy my gains and condemn me to a life of weakness?

Related – Does Beer Make You Fat?

We answer those questions and more ahead as we delve into the good, bad, and ugly of beer!

Is beer good for you?

Drinking Beer

When you drink a beer, your body prioritizes digesting the alcohol (i.e. ethanol) component of beer first. That means, those carbs, and minimal protein in beer are put on hold while your body deals with the ethanol.

Here’s a helpful graph of Ethanol’s conversion in the body for you biochem nerds out there!

Ethanol → Acetaldehyde → Acetate → Acetyl-CoA

Dark BeerAcetate and acetyl-CoA are able to be used as fuel by the body, but it’s an incredibly inefficient form of energy (similar to protein). Due to this, alcohol has about 20% less caloric impact than it’s often stated (7 calories/gram). In actuality, the alcohol component of beer really only yields 5.1 calories due to its high thermic effect. [1]

Additionally, before we get into the benefits/drawbacks of beer don’t believe everything you hear about beer causing obesity and the dreaded “beer belly.” It’s not the alcohol making you fat. Simply put, alcohol is far too “costly” from a metabolic standpoint to easily convert to fat.

However, while your body is dealing with the extra acetate and acetyl-CoA from the beer you just drank, that signals to your cells you no longer need to burn fat or sugar for energy. This means those nutrient then get stored as fat. So, in this way, think of alcohol as a suppressor of fat burning as opposed to a pro-fat gaining compound.

Benefits of Drinking Beer

Now the part all of you microbrew enthusiasts have been clamoring for – the “goods” of beer drinking. There’s quite a few benefits you can reap from beer drinking, provided you consume it in a reasonable manner.

#1 – High Thermic Effect

Similar to protein, beer (alcohol) has a very high thermic effect, meaning the body must expend a considerable amount of energy to metabolize it. Alcohol is said to contain 7 calories per gram; however, due to alcohol’s incredibly high thermic effect the body uses extra energy to break it down. Thus, the resulting calorie impact per gram is 5.1 calories. [1]

#2 – Improves Insulin Sensitivity

Type 2 Diabetes is one of the fastest growing epidemics caused by reduced uptake of glucose in the body, a process known as insulin resistance. Moderate consumption of alcohol has been shown to reduce insulin resistance, helping combat one of the main symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes. [2]

On top of that, drinking alcohol with meals reduces blood sugar by 16-37%. This is compared to drinking water with a meal. [3] Moderation is the key though, as excess consumption has just the opposite effect, something to remember…

#3 – Supports Cardiovascular Health

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a leading cause of death among many populations, headlined by strokes, heart attacks, and atherosclerosis. However, the occasional beer or two is associated a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, while heavy drinking appears to increase CVD risk. [4]

Imbibing occasionally also helps increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.

#4 – Strengthens Bones

Beer contains high amounts of silicon, an element associated with bone health. A 2009 study from Tufts University demonstrated that older subjects who drank one or two beers per day had higher bone than those who didn’t, making them less likely to suffer fractures. But, the study also found that drinking more than two beers per day increased the risk of bone fractures. [5]

#5 – Minimizes Cancer Risk

Xanthohumol is an incredibly powerful antioxidant found in beer. It’s well known to exert anti-cancer actions helping to defend against cancer-causing enzymes in the body. [6] Moderate beer drinking helps combat the development of prostate cancer in men as well as reduces a woman’s chance of breast cancer.

#6 – Prevents Kidney Stones

Research out of Finland noted that daily beer drinking could reduce the risk of developing kidney stones by 40%. [7] This is most likely due to beer’s high water content (about 93%) which assists with toxin removal and supports proper kidney function. Additionally, various compounds found in hops help slow calcium release from bones, which prevents calcium build up in the kidney leading to kidney stones.

#7 – Neuroprotective

Can beer actually improve brain health? According to researchers from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, YES!

A review of several studies showed that moderate beer drinkers were 23% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia. [8] Researchers attribute beer’s neuroprotective benefits to Xanthohumol, a compound found in hops, that also helped protect against a few forms of cancer detailed above.

#8 – Decreases Appetite – Over the Short Term

Yep, indulging in a pre-meal beer may decrease the amount of food you consume. [18] Compare that to red wine which was shown in the same study to increased cortisol and appetite too. Again though, one beer before dinner is helpful, too many and you run the risk of increasing hunger levels, lowering inhibitions and binging on cheese fries, burgers, and hot wings.

Based on all of these benefits, you’d swear beer is actually something you should be drinking as regularly as milk. But we’ve only looked at one side of the coin thus far, now it’s time to flip things over and see what else is brewing…

Is Beer Healthy

Click here to view the complete “Is Beer Healthy” infographic.

 

Drawbacks of Beer Drinking

While delicious, refreshing, and healthy in moderate doses, beer does also come with its negative effects on health too, especially in regards to muscle-building.

#1 – Impairs Glycogen Replenishment

Glycogen is the body’s form of stored energy that it calls upon to power muscle during intense exercise. Consuming alcohol post-exercise has been shown to impair glycogen restoration, spelling trouble for muscle recovery and performance the following day. [9]

#2 – Inhibits Muscle Protein Synthesis

Not only does consuming alcohol affect glycogen restoration, it also negatively impacts muscle protein synthesis following exercise, even if you’re consuming your whey protein along with alcohol too. [10]

#3 – Reduces Post-Exercise Muscle Inflammation

Isn’t inflammation bad? Not in this case. Following an intense workout, acute inflammation is beneficial. The body gets stronger through the inflammatory response by rebuilding and strengthening muscle tissue to deal with the next onslaught of destruction you bring it.

Beer suppresses this acute inflammation which is counter-productive to repairing muscle and producing gains. [11][12]

#4 – Disrupts Sleep

More bad news for exercise performance, recovery and muscle growth. Alcohol is well documented to reduced sleep quality and number of hours sleeping per night. This translates to to impaired recovery and reduced lower body power output the day after following a night of drinking. [13]

#5 – Birth Defects

Though you probably didn’t expect to see this one, it shouldn’t surprise you in any way. A common wive’s tale is that the occasional drink isn’t harmful to a developing fetus. Nothing could be further from the truth. Drinking while pregnant adversely affects growth, development, intelligence and behavior of a fetus [14], effects that carryover throughout their life.

#6 – Increases Risk of Cancer

The severity of cancer doesn’t need much explanation. It’s a horrific disease that claims millions of lives around the globe each year. Consuming even moderate amounts of alcohol (i.e. 1 beer/day) have been shown to increase the risk of mouth and throat cancer by 20%. [15]

But didn’t we state up top beer protects against cancer, yes, but it’s a different form of cancer. Remember, you wanted the good AND the bad of beer. Sorry to burst your bubble…

#7 – Reduces Testosterone and IGF-1 Production

Even more bad news for building muscle and staying lean. When consuming a bit too much alcohol, important muscle-building hormones including testosterone and IGF (insulin-like growth factor) are reduced. [16][17]

#8 – Decreased Fat Oxidation

Due to alcohol taking priority for metabolization in the body, that means all other nutrient processing is put on hold. This means no fat burning while your body is still processing those 6 beers you slammed during the first half of the big game.

The Ugly

#1 – Lowers Inhibitions

We touched on this a bit up top, but consuming alcohol significantly lowers your inhibitions, and this is where the ugly of drinking beer comes into play. With lower inhibitions, you’re more likely to binge eat and drink which sets you up for massive fat gain and hangovers.

But, there’s more.

In your more “liberated” state, you’re also more likely to say something foolish/inappropriate or make a royal goof of yourself in front of a crowd (i.e. company work parties). Plus, we don’t need to mention the number of regrettable one night hookups that have occurred due to excess beer drinking. You know what we’re talking about, the kind of hookups where you roll over in the morning, find a strange person next to you in bed, and wonder, “Who the heck are you?”

Note: These kinds of situations are entirely avoidable!

#2 – How Much Matters

One very important point that needs to be stated is that most of these studies showing negative effects of alcohol were involving rather high intakes, around 1 gram of alcohol per kg body weight. To put that into tangible numbers, that’s 80 grams for an 80 kg person (176 lbs). Considering your average 12oz. beer has about 12-14g of alcohol, this is about 6 beers in a relatively brief period of time.

While that may seem like a lot to some of you, it’s merely “pre-gaming” for others.

Takeaway

As with everything in life, moderation is key, especially in regards to drinking and body composition / performance. Don’t let anxiety ruin a night out with friends. You won’t gain unsightly fat or lose all of your muscle having the occasional beer (or two). Just try to avoid the beer binge where you polish off an entire case in an evening, and all will be fine.

References

1) Suter PM, Jequier E, Schutz Y. Effect of ethanol on energy expenditure. Am J Physiol. 1994;266(4 Pt 2):R1204-12.
2) Facchini F, Chen YD, Reaven GM. Light-to-moderate alcohol intake is associated with enhanced insulin sensitivity. Diabetes Care. 1994;17(2):115-119.
3) Brand-Miller JC, Fatema K, Middlemiss C, et al. Effect of alcoholic beverages on postprandial glycemia and insulinemia in lean, young, healthy adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(6):1545-1551.
4) Ronksley PE, Brien SE, Turner BJ, Mukamal KJ, Ghali WA. Association of alcohol consumption with selected cardiovascular disease outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The BMJ. 2011;342:d671. doi:10.1136/bmj.d671.
5) Casey, T. R. and Bamforth, C. W. (2010), Silicon in beer and brewing. J. Sci. Food Agric., 90: 784–788. doi:10.1002/jsfa.3884
6) Stevens JF, Page JE. Xanthohumol and related prenylflavonoids from hops and beer: to your good health! Phytochemistry. 2004;65(10):1317-1330. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2004.04.025.
7) Ferraro PM, Taylor EN, Gambaro G, Curhan GC. Soda and Other Beverages and the Risk of Kidney Stones. Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology : CJASN. 2013;8(8):1389-1395. doi:10.2215/CJN.11661112.
8) Yao J, Zhang B, Ge C, Peng S, Fang J. Xanthohumol, a polyphenol chalcone present in hops, activating Nrf2 enzymes to confer protection against oxidative damage in PC12 cells. J Agric Food Chem. 2015;63(5):1521-1531. doi:10.1021/jf505075n.
9) Burke LM, Collier GR, Broad EM, Davis PG, Martin DT, Sanigorski AJ, Hargreaves M. Effect of alcohol intake on muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise. J Appl Physiol 95(3):983-90, 2003.
10) Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, Burke LM, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, Coffey VG. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLoS One. 12;9(2):e88384, 2014.
11) Barnes MJ. Alcohol: impact on sports performance and recovery in male athletes. Sports Med. 2014;44(7):909-919. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0192-8.
12) Prentice C, Stannard SR, Barnes MJ. Effects of heavy episodic drinking on physical performance in club level rugby union players. J Sci Med Sport. 18(3):268-71, 2015.
13) Murphy AP, Snape AE, Minett GM, Skein M, Duffield R. The effect of post-match alcohol ingestion on recovery from competitive rugby league matches. J Strength Cond Res. 27(5):1304-12, 2013
14) Giliberti D, Mohan SS, Brown LAS, Gauthier TW. Perinatal exposure to alcohol: implications for lung development and disease. Paediatric respiratory reviews. 2013;14(1):17-21. doi:10.1016/j.prrv.2012.05.005.
15) Pelucchi C, Tramacere I, Boffetta P, Negri E, La Vecchia C. Alcohol consumption and cancer risk. Nutr Cancer. 2011;63(7):983-990. doi:10.1080/01635581.2011.596642.
16) Frias J, Torres JM, Miranda MT, Ruiz E, Ortega E. Effects of acute alcohol intoxication on pituitary-gonadal axis hormones, pituitary-adrenal axis hormones, beta-endorphin and prolactin in human adults of both sexes. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Institute of Neurosciences, School of Medicine, University of Granada, Avda. de Madrid, s/n, 18012, Granada, Spain. Alcohol Alcohol. 2002 Mar-Apr;37(2):169-73.
17) Maneesh M, Dutta S, Chakrabarti A, Vasudevan DM. Alcohol abuse-duration dependent decrease in plasma testosterone and antioxidants in males. Department of Biochemistry, Melaka Manipal Medical College, Manipal 576 104. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2006 Jul-Sep;50(3):291-6.
18)Kokavec A, Lindner AJ, Ryan JE, Crowe SF. Ingesting alcohol prior to food can alter the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2009;93(2):170-176. doi:10.1016/j.pbb.2009.05.004.

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