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Beer—Is it Good for What Ales You?

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

For the past several years, wine enthusiasts have been toasting to their health—literally. No doubt you’ve heard about some of the benefits of wine—especially red—which are touted to reduce the risk of heart disease as well as some types of cancer. Plus, some research shows that it can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. With all those benefits, it’s easy to see why wine seems to be the sole elixir of health. But you may be surprised to discover that, actually, it’s not just wine that can give your health a nudge in the right direction. Studies show that moderately drinking alcohol—that’s no more than 2 drinks per day for men—of any kind has been shown to have health benefits, too, including raising HDL (good) cholesterol, and reducing the blood clots that can result in heart attacks and strokes. Even better, two large, hot-off-the-press studies confirm that moderate drinking can help you live longer.  

Moreover, if the world’s oldest drink is your libation of choice, it will come as good news to you that beer holds health distinctions all its own, some of which, researchers say, make it just as deserving as wine (if not more so) of the health accolades. To see for ourselves, we’ve done a mini bar review on some of the latest and greatest beer research to find out how a brewski can benefit your health. As if anyone needed another reason to reach for a cold one. . . .

 Beer and Bones: Catching a Break? 
Is it too much to ask that beer be on the same playing field as milk? Well, yes; you won’t be adding it to your Corn Flakes anytime soon. However, beer might be a good way to add just a little extra brawn to your bones. In a recent study reported in the February 2010 issue of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, scientists examined 100 commercial beers for silicon, finding the content to range (from 6.4 to 56.5 milligrams per liter) among types of brews. Beer, it suggested, especially pale ales and those made from malted hops and barley (as opposed to wheat), is a rich source of silicon, a mineral that helps increase bone mineral density. And while this study simply examined silicon content in beer, not its impact on bones, it does help build the case for the frothy drink being a significant contributor to dietary silicone, as well as helping to uncover which types of beer are the best sources. Plus, it adds weight to earlier studies that suggest a link between beer consumption and bone health.  

And as for who’s drinking up the suds, it probably comes as little surprise that men generally have a significantly higher intake of silicone than women—with one of the main sources being, you guessed it, beer.  

Beer Still My Beating Heart
Even though alcohol in general can give heart health a leg-up, beer, specifically, is staking a claim on keeping your ticker kicking. Several studies indicate that beer, since it’s a source of B-vitamins and folate (although not the best source—those are beans and leafy greens), can help break down dangerous homocysteine, an amino acid found in blood. And that’s a great perk to drinking beer, since high levels of homocysteine are associated with an elevated risk of heart disease and stroke. Plus, there’s truth in numbers:  a large-scale Kaiser Permanente study suggested that men who drank beer had a statistically lower risk of coronary artery disease than men in the study who drank other types of alcohol. Plus, in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study, researchers found that women who drank one beer had less trouble with hypertension than study participants who drank other types of alcohol. 

Though the research seems to point to another reason to order another round, it’s prudent to point out that depending on good foods like kale, spinach, lentils and pinto beans for your folate and B-vitamin fix instead of beer is a much better idea.   Overindulging in beans and greens just leads to more fiber and vitamins for your diet (instead of a hangover—or worse)! 

The Buzz on Antioxidants
When you think antioxidants, fruits, vegetables, and yes, red wine, probably come to mind. But happily for beer drinkers, Canadian research suggests that even though red wine has 20 times more polyphenols (a type of antioxidant), good old beer nonetheless contributes just as much protective power with an equal serving. How so? It appears that the polyphenol antioxidants in beer are better absorbed by the body than those in wine. And that’s good news, since those antioxidants go to work controlling the oxidation that can contribute to health issues like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.   

And speaking of cancer, wouldn’t it be great if preventing it were as easy as taking a chug? Unfortunately, no dice. Though research turns up xanthohumol, an antioxidant found in beer that has been shown to slow prostate cancer growth, there’s a pretty important hitch:  you’d have to drink more than 17 beers to get any therapeutic benefit. Obviously, at that point you’d be doing more harm than good for your body (and you probably wouldn’t care, either). The bottom line on beer and antioxidants? Think of your drink as one more way to sneak in a few extra antioxidants to your diet—not as a primary means to provide them. 

  To Chug or Not to Chug?
Before you tap the keg in the name of nutrition, keep in mind that as with any alcohol consumption, it’s important to point out that if you don’t drink now, you shouldn’t start drinking for health’s sake. And don’t subscribe to the mindset of “if two drinks are good, four drinks are better.” Studies prove that more than two drinks a day doesn’t help your disease risk additionally—and, not surprisingly, make a big mess of your health. 

Also, don’t forget to factor in the calories from what you’re imbibing, too. It’s easy to develop the dreaded “beer belly” if you’re taking in more calories than you use, and beer calories are like any other source of calories (perhaps a little sneakier, since it’s easy to forget the calories you drink verses those you eat). And if it’s the dark beer you love, keep in mind that while it tastes great, it packs more calories than the light stuff—sometimes twice as many!   

So when it comes down to the bitter end, whether you reach for fine stemware or a big clunky mug, it really makes little difference in the larger picture of total health. While wine comes by its teacher’s pet rep honestly, since it does contain helpful antioxidants, it’s the lifestyle profile of wine drinkers that helps keep the positive press going. When wine drinkers' general health habits are profiled, and compared to those of beer and liquor drinkers, the wine swillers come out on top. But that’s not likely from the wine, but from the other health-based choices that those enthusiasts make. Think about it: when was the last time you went out for wine and wings? Nachos and a nice big glass of pinot noir? The olives, crudités, crackers, slivers of cheese and nuts that wine drinkers enjoy pack lot less belly busting fat and calories than traditional beer fare does. Perhaps that’s good motivation to rethink what you eat when you drink.  

Nonetheless, beer drinkers can raise a mug to unsung health benefits of the frothy stuff. But just as with wine, don’t get caught up in drinking for the sake of health. Rather, choose healthy antioxidant and vitamin-rich foods to accomplish your dietary goals. And then relax and enjoy your beer in good conscience.   

Besides, isn’t that the point of a drink?