Beer in moderation won’t give you a “beer belly”. In fact, according to various studies, beer may be the answer to some of your health problems.

You might already be aware of the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, but did you know that your favourite pint (around 470ml) may actually have some amazing health benefits you probably weren't aware of?

This could be really good news if you’re a beer drinker, but before you get too excited about that next drink and order a keg, remember that alcohol is a double-edged sword, with moderation and responsibility being the key to a healthy balance.

According to South African dietician Ashleigh Caradas, research shows that people who consume alcohol moderately live longer than those who don’t drink at all.

“While some of the health benefits associated with moderate beer drinking can be attributed to the ether portion of alcohol itself, some of the benefits can be uniquely attributed to your favourite beer,” explains Caradas.

Regardless of your alcohol choices, Caradas warns that, in excess, alcohol can raise blood pressure and triglyceride levels, thus increasing heart-disease risk. It may also leach calcium from the bones, increasing osteoporosis risk, and could lead to liver and kidney damage.

“The key to enjoying beer’s health benefits is moderation. And what is moderation? It means no more than two to three 340ml cans of beer per day for men and no more than one to two for women,” she says.

For those who manage to practice moderation, these are some of the health benefits you may enjoy...

1. Increased intake of protein, B vitamins and antioxidants
From a nutritional standpoint, beer contains more protein and B vitamins than wine.

According to a 2001 antioxidant food review in Nutrition Reviews, beer contains around double the amount of antioxidants as white wine, but half of that of red wine. The specific antioxidants in beer are different because the barley and hops used in the production of beer contain flavonoids different from those in the grapes used in the production of wine.

2. Healthier bowel function
Beer is a good source of soluble fibre, which is derived from the cell walls of malted barley. One litre of beer can contain up to 6g of soluble fibre, which is a third of the recommended daily intake. Soluble fibre aids in healthy bowel function, and also helps mop up excess cholesterol and sugar in the digestive system.

A 230ml can of beer contains about 5.7g of total carbohydrates. Of those, just 2.5g will be residual sugar and the rest dietary fibre. In comparison, a standard (175ml) glass of wine contains 5.9g of carbohydrate, but 5.6g of that will be free sugars and wine has no dietary fibre.

3. Reduced risk of heart disease
The topic of heart disease and alcohol is controversial because it can be both a protective and a causal factor, explains Caradas. It really depends on the mechanism of action and what the individual is going to benefit from most – either moderation or abstinence. It’s long been known that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of heart disease (that is, compared to heavy drinkers and even teetotalers).

The main mechanisms by which beer lowers heart-disease risk is by increasing our levels of HDL, or good cholesterol, and by preventing clotting (by lowering clotting factors like fibrinogen) and therefore thinning the blood. However, people with high triglycerides or hypertension are still encouraged to exercise caution when drinking alcohol, which exacerbates these two risk factors for coronary artery disease.

4. Stronger bones
Beer is high in the mineral silicon, which can act as a powerful bone strengthener. In fact, beer is the only natural source of silica for post-menopausal women. According to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, moderate beer drinkers had a higher bone-mineral density when compared to people who drank more or fewer beers.

Pale ale tends to have the highest silica content of all the beer types.

“Just don’t use beer as your anti-osteoporosis plan. High intakes of calcium, lots of vegetables and weight bearing exercise are key to a healthy bone density,” advises Caradas.

5. Reduced cancer risk
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are carcinogenic compounds produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Marinating meat or chicken in beer or wine has been shown to reduce the formation of carcinogenic HCAs by up to 88%, with beer being the more effective HCA-reducing marinade, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

At the same time, high alcohol intake has been linked to certain cancers, like those of the mouth and digestive system, as well as breast cancer.

6. Reduced risk of diabetes
“Contrary to what you might think, alcohol actually lowers blood sugar rather than raising it,” says Caradas. A large 2011 Harvard study of about 38,000 middle-aged men found that those who drank moderately (around two drinks per day) had a 25% lower risk for diabetes.

However, beer has a very high glycaemic index, which means it can cause spikes and then drops in blood-sugar levels. In moderation, however, the effect is not severe because beer has a moderate glycaemic load of 6 (this is due to its relatively low carbohydrate content).

7. Improved cognition
“In high amounts, alcohol can cause brain damage. However, in moderation it can actually sharpen the mind and even prevent dementia,” says Caradas.

Results from the Nurses Health Study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005, which looked at the health of 11,000 older women, showed that moderate drinkers (those who consumed about one drink a day) lowered their risk of mental decline by as much as 20%, compared to non-drinkers. In addition, older women who drank moderately were found to benefit the most from moderate drinking.

Can beer be used as part of a calorie-controlled diet?
The term “beer belly” is somewhat of a myth, explains Caradas. “We can’t blame our size on just one thing. The real reasons for increased weight gain are too many calories relative to the amount of energy burned off,” she explains.

While beer may contribute to this calorie intake, it’s only a small part of the equation. Beer drinking is often accompanied by heavy eating, which could cause issues with weight gain.

Moderate consumption in conjunction with a healthy diet and sufficient activity levels shouldn't lead to weight gain, provided calorie and carbohydrates are controlled elsewhere in the daily diet.

What’s in beer?

    • Beer is traditionally made from natural ingredients, namely malted barley, cereals, hops, yeast and water.

    • Beer is a nutritional substance in which vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can all be identified.

    • Yeast contains a rich array of nutrients and beer can contain significant amounts of magnesium, selenium, potassium, phosphorous, biotin, chromium and B complex vitamins.

    • Hops (the flowers of the hops plant) have been revered as a herbal medicine for centuries. Some studies have pointed towards the use of hops in preventing heart disease, cancer and diabetes, although it’s not known whether the amount found in beer is enough to illicit major health benefits. Hops flowers are also known for their calming effect, which could aid in stress management and helping to boost the effects of a relaxing drink after a stressful day at work.

If you’re a habitual beer drinker, do so always in moderation. If you have hypertension or any pre-existing heart condition, always consult your doctor about your drinking habits, especially if you tend to drink in excess.

About the expert:
Ashleigh Caradas holds a Bachelor’s degree in Science from the University of the Witwatersrand and a Medical Honours degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Cape Town. She has been in private practice as a nutritionist and dietician since 2000.

Image via Thinkstock.