It feels like every week there is a new article extolling the virtues of drinking beer. “A pint a day keeps the doctor away” screams out from a newspaper headline. But how accurate are these claims? Can beer be good for you? Let’s find out.
There is strong evidence that the occasional beer can contribute to good health. Studies have shown that beer drinkers are less likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and some cancers than people who don’t drink. However, moderate to heavy drinking can negatively affect health.
In this article, I am going to take a closer look at some of the most common health claims about beer. I will also assess some of the negative effects of beer drinking. This will give you a better idea of whether that Friday night pint is going to improve your health or not.
There are so many aspects to good health. You’ve got heart health, your immune system, cognitive health, bone density, body fat percentage, and many others. So the question “can beer be good for you?” is quite an open one. I will approach this by taking a look at some of the most common claims and assessing each one in turn. I thought that I would start with longevity. Do people who drink beer live longer on average than people who do not?
The idea that drinking beer could help you to live longer must infuriate people who don’t drink “for health reasons”. But there does seem to be some pretty big evidence to support this hypothesis. A 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal, tracked the health and diet of 380,395 men and women across ten European countries for 12 years.
The objective was to analyse their lifetime alcohol use and to see how it affected mortality. The study found that those who drank moderately actually had a lower risk of death than people who had never consumed alcohol. The study also found that people who drank heavily were much more likely to die. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone!
The most likely reason for this could be that moderate alcohol intake can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. But what other benefits are there to drinking beer?
Bottom Line: Beer drinking can increase your lifespan, provided that you stick to sensible limits. One drink per day of around 12g alcohol (1.5 units) or 10.5 units per week. The UK guidelines are to drink no more than 2 units per day (14 per week).
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the most common causes of death in the world. There are many forms of CVD, heart attacks and strokes are the most common. One of the biggest causes of CVD is heavy drinking, so please bear that in mind. There does appear to be quite a lot of evidence that drinking beer moderately can reduce your risk of CVD.
A 2016 study looked into the effects of moderate beer consumption on health and disease. It analysed hundreds of studies, which is known as a meta-analysis. It found that:
consumption of low-moderate doses of beer are protective against cardiovascular risk in an adult healthy population
Gaetano et al 2016
One thing should be noted, there is a potential for conflict of interest in this study. It was funded by the Italian Association of the Beer & Malt Industries. As you can imagine, they would certainly have hoped for such a positive interpretation of the results.
So why would I include it? Firstly, there are hundreds of studies that show that moderate alcohol consumption lowers CVD risk. This just happens to be the biggest. Secondly, just because a study is funded by a biased party does not mean that the results are invalid.
Bottom Line: Light to moderate beer drinking appears to reduce your risk of CVD. However, if you don’t drink, there isn’t any particular reason to start. Heavy drinking is associated with an increased risk of CVD.
Hypertension is a condition where your blood pressure is high for a prolonged period. It can lead to many health issues (heart attacks, strokes etc). There is some evidence that alcohol may help to reduce your blood pressure. But a lot more evidence that alcohol consumption can increase it. A 2008 study found that:
light-to-moderate alcohol consumption decreased hypertension risk in women and increased risk in men.
Bottom Line: There is a small possibility that beer drinking could lower your blood pressure. But on the whole, it is much more likely to increase it. Make sure that you are exercising regularly, and that your diet is otherwise healthy and you should be safe.
You are probably beginning to sense a theme here. Low to moderate alcohol intake may reduce the risk of diabetes, but heavy drinking can massively increase diabetes risk. Many studies have found that moderate alcohol intake is associated with reduced risk of diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower prevalence of the MetS, DM, PAD, CHD, and overall CVD but not stroke compared with no alcohol use in a Mediterranean population
Another study, in 2009, found that moderate alcohol intake had a protective effect against type II diabetes. But probably the most famous study (the one that was in all the papers) was a 2017 study by Holst et al that examined the effect of moderate alcohol intake on type II diabetes in Danish men and women. The study involved 70,551 participants and also found that alcohol protected against diabetes. As the NHS website puts it:
frequent consumption was associated with the lowest risk, even after taking into account the amount people drank on average during a week.
NHS Website 2017
But the NHS website was at pains to point out that there were certain weaknesses with the study, and that though the findings were “interesting” it did not provide a strong enough reason to start drinking. Heavy drinking is much more likely to cause diabetes.
How does alcohol prevent type II diabetes? The theory is that alcohol (and polyphenols found in certain drinks) may improve blood-glucose control. But there is no concrete answer, and there is always the chance that there are other reasons (or it is just correlation).
Bottom Line: Light to moderate beer drinking may help to reduce the risk of type II diabetes. Possibly due to its ability to improve blood glucose control. Heavy drinking can increase your risk of type II diabetes and other metabolic diseases through increased body fat from empty calories.
There is some evidence that drinking beer can improve bone density as well as protect your teeth. An NHS article helps to shine some light on the study (they’re good at shouting down sensationalist headlines):
Men who consumed one to two drinks a day of total alcohol or beer had greater bone density at the hip (4.5%) than the non-drinkers (3.4%). Postmenopausal women who drank more than two drinks a day of total alcohol or wine had significantly greater bone density at the hip and spine (8.3%) than non-alcohol drinkers (5.0%).
NHS Website 2009
However, before you all rush out to start drinking it should also be pointed out that alcohol can harm your bones too! Chronic drinking can affect the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients and can lead to your body not absorbing as much calcium as it should. This can lead to a weakening of the bones. Check my article on beer and gut health to find out more.
There are a few articles that talk about beer as beneficial for teeth as it may help to prevent gingivitis. However, there is a lot more evidence that beer can damage your teeth. My advice would be to keep brushing them regularly!
Bottom Line: Beer appears to help strengthen bones, provided you drink sensibly. It appears to do more harm than good to teeth though, so please don’t skimp on the toothpaste.
If you’ve read my article on whether beer kills brain cells, you’ll be aware that heavy drinking can seriously harm your cognition. However, there is some evidence that drinking beer may help with creative thought. A 2012 study gave a variety of creative tests to both drunk and sober people.
Intoxicated individuals solved more RAT items, in less time, and were more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight
RAT stands for Remote Associates Test by the way. What is a Remote Associate Test? No idea! Sorry.
But what about the longer-term effects? As with all of these benefits, too much drinking will negatively affect your cognition. But drink sensibly and you may see some benefits. A study in 2011 looked at the relationship between alcohol intake and Alzheimer’s disease. The study found that moderate drinkers were 23% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of cognitive impairment than non-drinkers.
Bottom Line: Moderate drinking not only appears to improve your cognition in the short term, but it can also help to reduce the risk of cognitive impairment in later life.
When it comes to reducing cancer risk, wine appears to be more effective than beer. As one study points out:
Moderate beer consumption has also been associated with these effects, but to a lesser degree, probably because of beer’s lower phenolic content. These health benefits have mainly been attributed to an increase in antioxidant capacity, changes in lipid profiles, and the anti-inflammatory effects produced by these alcoholic beverages
As always, there is not enough evidence that alcohol can prevent cancer to recommend that a teetotal person should start drinking. But if you are already drinking moderately, you will be pleased to know that your chances of developing certain cancers are slightly reduced.
Bottom Line: Moderate drinking may reduce the risk of certain cancers, but beer is not as effective as wine.
I covered this topic in full in my article on how beer affects kidney stones. As the article points out, this is by no means a clear cut answer. Heavy beer drinking may increase your chances of developing kidney stones, but light to moderate beer drinking does appear to reduce your risk. This is possibly due to beer’s effect on a hormone in your body that stops you from needing to urinate (called an anti-diuresis hormone). One way to reduce your risk of developing kidney stones is to urinate frequently during the day, so beer is great for achieving that.
Bottom Line: Moderate drinking can help to reduce your risk of developing kidney stones
If you’ve read this article all the way through, then you are hopefully aware that heavy beer drinking is a bad move healthwise. Even moderate to light beer drinking can be harmful if your lifestyle is unhealthy.
Think of beer as an exaggeration of your diet and lifestyle. If you typically lead a healthy life, with regular exercise, fruit and vegetables, adequate-protein, and good sleep. Then drinking beer can help to contribute to a healthy lifestyle (thanks to all the benefits listed above).
However, if you typically lead an unhealthy life, then beer drinking can contribute to that. Remember, a pint of Stella Artois contains 227 calories. So ten pints of Stella over a weekend is an extra 2,270 calories. Or the average daily calorie intake for a man. Beer drinking can lead to obesity, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, strokes, certain cancers, and many other diseases. Heavy beer drinking can also lead to brain damage.
There is definitely something there. Way too many studies have found positive health benefits from moderate drinking for this to be ignored. Sure, these studies are often exaggerated by the media, and it is important that websites such as the NHS website are there to remove the sensationalism and ground us all in reality. But, I feel confident enough to say that drinking beer can be good for you.
Please remember though that context is important. Many of the studies that found alcohol intake beneficial for health were performed in certain countries such as Italy and Denmark. Where diet and drinking habits are healthier and more balanced than in the UK. The way that Italians drink is very different to us. A glass of wine with their lunch, or a small beer with dinner. Which is not the same as 12 pints of Carling every Friday.
Binge drinking is certainly not healthy. The idea that you can “save up” your daily rations of beer for a Friday or Saturday is also not healthy. If you want the health benefits of beer, then you will have to look at how you approach your drinking.
I sometimes get asked how I can promote fitness and good nutrition alongside beer drinking. This right here is my answer. Beer drinking can be healthy, but it needs to be taught to a lot of people. Just like you teach them about food or exercise. Maybe taught is the wrong choice of words, because everyone knows what they should be doing.
I’m not saying that you can’t have the occasional crazy day or night. I certainly plan on spending my upcoming stag do with a pint of beer in my hand from dawn till dusk. But I know that too much of that will affect my health in both the short and long term.
Enjoy your beer, spend time finding the ideal one for you. Savour it. Get this right and you could live a long and healthy life.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.