BEER CLINIC :: Part 2 — Why does beer make me fat if the calories are so low?

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on June 22, 2011

In the previous blog, we discussed how beer has a lot fewer calories than you think. So why do so many people get fat drinking beer? Let’s take a closer look at beer as a food.

The nutritional components of beer come from malt (see, YourBeerNetwork, 3/15/2011, The Beer Clinic: The Beer Doctor Makes a House Call). Malt contains starches, sugars, protein, B vitamins, sodium and potassium. After fermentation, all the sugars are converted by the yeast into alcohol, leaving behind starch, protein, B vitamins and salts. What’s left is the equivalent of white bread. An average 12-oz beer has about the same nutritional value as a slice of white bread.

Even better than white bread, beer contains no fat, no cholesterol and no sugar. The major source of calories in beer are carbohydrates, specifically starches. A 12-oz average beer contains about 10 to 15 gm of carbohydrate, depending on how much malted barley or other grain was used to produce it. Maltier beers, such as lagers, have more carbs. High alcohol beers and barley wines also start with more malt, but very high alcohol beers have added sugar which is used up by fermentation with proportionally less carb content, especially if served in a small glass.

What does this mean to your diet?

1) Beer is fat free.

2) Beer is sugar free. The only exceptions are milk stouts, which have lactose, added for sweetening, which yeast can’t digest, and neither can many humans.

3) One average beer is equivalent to drinking a jigger of bourbon (40% ABV) and having a slice of white bread, no butter.

4) BUT: beer is high in carbs. One 12-oz pour of Sam Adams lager has 18 g carbs, one 12-oz pour of Guinness has 10 g. If you are sensitive to carbs, or following a low carb diet (South Beach Diet, Atkins Diet) you will probably gain weight drinking beer, just the same as you would eating bread. So skip the bread, skip the beer, and drink a bourbon instead.

It’s really hard to integrate beer into a low-carb diet. One option is to drink a low-carb beer. For example, a 12-oz bottle of Michelob Ultra has 95 cal and 2.6 g carbs, and is 4.2% ABV. Compare it to a 12-oz pour of Sam Adams (18 g carbs) or Guinness (10 g carbs). You will note this beer is very low on hops, and has almost no malt flavor, but at least you can drink it on a low-carb diet. You may end up drinking 3 or 4 to feel as if you really had a beer, and then you’re really not ahead of the game. Another alternative is to drink a barley wine. That is, a very strong beer with a high alcohol content. Most bartenders will give you a small pour rather than a pint. For example, a 6-oz pour of Bell’s Hopslam, 10% ABV, has 44 “true calories” and 6 g carbs. Very satisfying if you sip it slowly.

Why, then, why does beer make you fat? It’s not the beer, it’s everything else you eat when drinking beer. Hops are an appetite stimulant, as is alcohol. After a couple of beers I find it hard to resist the salty popcorn that every bar seems to provide gratis. That’s 200 calories for a small basket. A slice of pepperoni pizza, 300 cal. An 8-oz bag of potato chips—over 1,000 calories. And if you are pairing beer with bacon and charcuterie, all bets are off (see, YourBeerNetwork, April 8, Beer+Bacon Crawl). It takes moderation and will power.

Yes it is possible. I drink beer and I’m not fat.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

ankit hastir December 1, 2011 at 12:47 am

thanx for letting me know about the facts of beer,,a lot of questions got cleared in my mind…ur posts rock..

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Mavirek November 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Great article. I was especially interested in your comments about barleywines, which I have acquired a taste for. In spite of being on a low carb, low calorie diet, my one beer a night seemed to stymie any weight loss. If anything it was a slow backslide up the scale. I increased my exercise and truly ate less, but the 20 oz. bottle every other night of barleywine (as my reward) was apparently overwhelming my system. Wish there was a magic wand to make Stone Old Guardian or even W. Double Simcoe safe pours for me, but seems if I want to reduce the visceral fat gain (the only place stubbornly resisting the diet whereas the rest of me is lean and muscular) I have to give up the reward system. 🙁

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Neelesh April 6, 2017 at 10:15 am

Hi this is Neelesh, I am currently a patient with ankylosing spondylitis , and on a low starch diet. Is there room for beer in my low starch diet ? Please advise?

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Dr. Carol Westbrook April 6, 2017 at 10:26 am

You will probably want to avoid beer. It depends on your daily carb restriction, but if you are supposed to remain below 20 – 30 g carb, you can go over. Although it has fewer carbs than sugared soft drinks, and no sugar, there are still about 8 – 12 g of starch in a beer. Wine has more carbs. If you want something alcoholic you will have to stick with distilled spirits, but avoid sweetened cocktails (margaritas, fruit martinis etc.) because they contain a lot of sugar.

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