Is Light Beer a Healthier Choice?

Will choosing a light beer keep that beer gut in check, or is it only a tease?

Want to imbibe, but don’t want the extra calories? Next best option is to grab a light beer… right? Not so fast— before cracking open that ice cold Natty Light, consider this lighter option may not really be a healthier choice.

The New King of Beers — Why It Matters

Photo by Marissa Angell

When Coors Light knocked Budweiser from it's place as the second most popular beer in America, for the first time, light beer held the top two spots in the best-beer competition (Bud Light is still numero uno). Created out of people’s concern that beer makes them fat, light beer boomed onto the scene in the 1970s when Miller Brewing Co. developed a low-calorie brewing method. Now, light beer makes up almost half the total market share. Re-named Miller Lite and marketed alongside the slogan “great taste, less filling,” light beer was promoted as the answer for avoiding that beer belly.

But the medical community isn’t ready to raise a glass to that just yet. Instead, they're concerned people may be confusing low-carb with low-alcohol beers, or they believe light and low-carb beers have fewer health risks (thus drinking more). Others may drink even drink light and low-carb beer when they shouldn't be consuming any alcoholic beverages The growing popularity of "low-carb" beers: good marketing or community health risk? Miller, P.G., McKenzie, S.P., de Groot, F.P., et al. The Medical Journal of Australia, 2010 Feb 15;192(4):235..

No Beer Is Created Equal — The Answer/Debate

Before ordering a light draft over regular, it’s important to note the differences between light, low-carb, and low-alcohol or non-alcoholic beers. Light beer has been brewed to be lower in alcohol, lower in calories, or lower in both (depending on the brand), while low-carb beer has only been brewed to remove carbohydrates (but could have the same alcohol content). And since higher levels of alcohol means more calories, there is little difference in calorie content between low-carb and regular beers The growing popularity of "low-carb" beers: good marketing or community health risk? Miller, P.G., McKenzie, S.P., de Groot, F.P., et al. The Medical Journal of Australia, 2010 Feb 15;192(4):235.. Similarly, if a light beer is lower in alcohol, people may knock a few more back than if they'd stuck with the original— in the end, consuming more calories and possibly more alcohol.

In addition, light beer— albeit lower in calories— is only lower in comparison to a brewery’s leading brand of regular beer. Even when comparing Bud Light to Coors Light, Bud Light has 110 calories and 6.6 grams of carbohydrates per 12 oz. versus. Coors Light with 102 calories and 5.0 grams of carbohydrates. So the meaning of “light” varies between brands.

Similar to wine, a moderate consumption of beer may have some health benefits, but those pluses might not all extend to light versions. Studies have linked the highest antioxidant activity to lagers and dark ales, as opposed to light or non-alcoholic beers, so looks like we’re out of healthy luck Phenol antioxidant quantity and quality in foods: beers and the effect of two types of beer on an animal model of atherosclerosis. Vinson, J.A., Mandarano, M., Hirst, M., et al. Department of Chemistry, University of Scranton, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2003 Aug 27;51(18):5528-33.. Likewise, dark beers also contain more iron than light colored or low-alcoholic beers Free iron in pale, dark and alcohol-free commercial lager beers. Sancho, D., Blanco, C.A., Caballero, I. et al. Dpto. Ingenieria Agricola y Forestal (Area de Technologia de los Alimentos), E.T.S. Ingeniarias Agrarias, Universidad de Valladolid, Palencia, Spain. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2011 Apr;91(6):1142-7..

So while research has yet to show specific health benefits in choosing a low-carb beer, the jury is also out on light beer The growing popularity of "low-carb" beers: good marketing or community health risk? Miller, P.G., McKenzie, S.P., de Groot, F.P., et al. The Medical Journal of Australia, 2010 Feb 15;192(4):235.. But at the end of the night, a moderate consumption of regular beer is probably (okay, definitely) still a safer bet than a 12 pack of the "light" stuff.

The Takeaway

Well, not necessarily. While light beer can be lower in calories, carbs, and alcohol, that slightly smaller buzz may cause drinkers to consume even more (and thus more calories) than if drinking heavier beer!

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