We know beer isn’t exactly calorie-free — hello, phrases like “beer belly” and “beer gut” — but is it unrealistic to think we can stay healthy while drinking a beverage that’s used to describe a gut?
First, let’s get one thing straight. “Beer belly” is a misnomer, according to registered dietitian, food scientist and Master Brewers Association of the Americas beer steward Joy Dubost.
“The notion of the beer belly is not scientific. Beer doesn’t contribute any more caloric input than any other food or beverage item,” she said.
If you’re drinking beer in moderation along with eating a healthy diet and leading an active lifestyle, a few cold ones aren’t going to give you a gut. And if you’re drinking beer and not eating so great, the brews aren’t solely to blame for weight gain.
The second thing to note is a concept that applies to any food or drink: balance. You don’t have to decide between your beers and your body goals. That’s why there’s a whole movement that combines beer drinking and fitness, which we’ll talk about later. But first, let’s talk about making informed decisions.
You need to understand how many calories are in beer
Two or three beers can go down easily in a sitting, and you can just as easily forget that one craft brew can pack as many calories as a small meal. Exactly how many? That’s often unclear.
Right now, brewers in the U.S. aren’t required to disclose their beers’ calorie count on labels.
Under increasing pressure for transparency, the Beer Institute — a trade group representing the likes of Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Heineken USA and Constellation Brands — unveiled a voluntary disclosure initiative in July 2016. The breweries represented by the group (which produce about 80 percent of the beer sold in the U.S.) have committed to listing nutritional information on their bottles by 2020.
Taking such measures, however, can be extremely costly and in many cases unrealistic for smaller breweries. Now that the FDA has made printing calorie counts mandatory for food outlets with 20 or more locations, any brewery that wants its beers on those menus will have to comply.
As more information trickles out during this transition, we have at least enough facts to understand the calorie ranges of different beer styles. Lagers, pilsners and sometimes amber ales ring in lowest, with 100 to 150 calories per 12-ounce serving. Those hazy India pale ales that are so popular have 200 to 400 calories in the same size serving. Something like a barrel-aged stout can pack a real punch: Just a 6-ounce pour of the Bruery’s barrel-aged imperial stout contains 500 calories.
Here’s where those calories come from
Why such a difference in calories among styles? Let’s take things back to where calories in beer come from: protein, alcohol and carbohydrates, according to Mark Eurich, the technical committee chairman for the American Society of Brewing Chemists.
The bulk of these three components come from the malt, typically made of barley or wheat. The malt starts as a starch, and during brewing its natural enzymes convert that starch to sugars. Added yeast then converts most of the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Brewers use various recipes for distinct styles, with different malts and yeasts resulting in varying levels of alcohol and remaining sugars.
“Take a light beer, for example,” Eurich explained. “People wonder how they have fewer calories and are lighter in carbohydrates. Well, the alcohol is much lower ... An average IPA will have around a 7 percent ABV [alcohol by volume], compared to a light lager of 5 percent or lower.”
If you don’t know an exact calorie count, keep in mind that the more alcohol, the more calories. That’s why Dubost recommends checking your beer’s ABV (if you’re in a state where listing ABV is allowed).
Drinking mindfully has benefits beyond keeping you safe
Once you feel informed about the beer you’re drinking, you don’t have to stress about numbers, as long as you maintain that healthy balance by drinking mindfully.
“We live in a society where people are driven by numbers and hope that counting calories will give them a sense of control about their health, but it actually creates more stress,” said registered dietician nutritionist Hannah Turnbull. “I’m a huge fan of healthy intuition, which means listening to your body to decide what works for you.”
She said that every person is different and needs to find his or her balance, which includes healthy eating, being active and thinking about your beer: Do you still feel good after one? After two?
U.S. dietary guidelines define moderate alcohol consumption as one drink (for beer, a 12-ounce pour at a 5 percent or lower ABV) per day for women, two for men. Turnbull said we don’t need to beat ourselves up for having a drink or two more than that at times, as long as we’re being mindful.
Drinking on an empty stomach isn’t likely to prevent weight gain in the long run
Turnbull stressed the importance of eating balanced meals — consisting of proteins, fats, carbs and fiber — especially when we’ll be drinking. It’s never a good idea to drink on an empty stomach because the alcohol enters your bloodstream quickly and you’ll feel drunker (and feel it faster) than you normally would.
Feeling full when drinking can also help prevent that urge to load up on junk later. Men’s Health cites a Northwestern study that found we can come to associate greasy food with fun, friends and alcohol after too many nights out end up at a diner or drive-through. A Purdue University study found that alcohol consumption enhances the taste of salt and fat.
According to the Mayo Clinic, drinking without eating may stop your liver from releasing stored glucose into the bloodstream, causing low blood sugar, which can make us crave foods that will quickly bring that level back up — foods high in sugar and other carbs.
#EarnYourBeer: How the beer community is encouraging healthier habits
Lately, inspiration for healthy balance has been coming directly from the beer community. Search the hashtag #EarnYourBeer on Instagram and you’ll find craft beer professionals, bloggers and fans demonstrating how they indulge while staying fit.
One such Instagrammer is Mikaelaa Crist, a Santa Rosa, California, native who is the head of local sales and education at Alvarado Street Brewery in Monterey. She had planned on being a firefighter but was sidelined by a broken back. With an appreciation for craft brews, she used her recovery time to post what she was drinking and found herself on a new career path. As soon as she could get active again, she was back to the gym and outdoor activities.
“When you’re younger, you can drink whatever you want and not gain weight, and then it catches up,” she said. “I took two years off from drinking beer in my 20s, but then I realized if I cut some carbs from other places in my diet, I could drink beer.”
Lindsay and Paul Chavez, married personal trainers behind Brewery Boot Camp in Centennial, Colorado, echoed the importance of maintaining an overall sense of well-being in an active lifestyle.
“My husband has a motto,” Lindsay Chavez said. “You cannot be physically fit if you’re not mentally fit.”
They were hosting workouts in parks for friends who lived too far from gyms and noticed that afterward, people wanted to go get beers together. Also brewers, the Chavezes decided to combine exercise with craft beer and socializing. Their program has grown to partnering with 40 breweries in Colorado (including destination workouts) and doing hourlong total-body classes four days a week. After classes, breweries offer attendees discounts or free first beers.
“If at the end of working out, you can’t have that beer you want or if you have that beer without having felt fit, it just doesn’t feel as good,” Lindsay Chavez said. “I think sometimes people get stuck on this fact, like, ‘I can only eat healthy’ or ‘I have to work out,’ and they do it for two weeks, and then they get discouraged and say, ‘Well forget it.’ Let’s try to create something you can do for the rest of your life. We believe in clean eating, but it’s those fun things in moderation that make working out feel more worth it.”
Breweries offering their own workout programs are becoming increasingly common. Dark City Brewing in Asbury Park, New Jersey, hosts a Bottoms Up beer and yoga event every Sunday, and Danish brewery Mikkeller has a running club that has taken off on an international level.
From dietitians to brewers, the consensus seems to be that we can enjoy our beers but those beers should be part of a lifestyle balanced by healthy eating and exercise. If you think that beer tastes good now, think how good it will taste after a hike or a Spin class.