Sunday 16 January 2011

The beer diet

From The Telegraph (amongst many others):

Moderate drinking of ale and lager can cut the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure...

That much we know. The evidence of a J-shaped mortality curve for alcohol consumption (ie. it's better to drink a little than not at all) is reasonably well-established. I've yet to see a public health campaign take this to its logical conclusion by actively telling teetotallers to start drinking, but then I guess we proles are too thick to be able to handle any more complex message than 'drinking is bad, m'kay'.

...and even help people lose weight, doctors say.

Er, really?

Dr Estruch and Dr Rosa Lamuela tested 1,249 men and women over 57 years old. They found that those who regularly drank moderate amounts of beer were less likely to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure and had a lower body fat content.

This particular study ('Beer, Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular disease') seems not be be available online, and perhaps the surprising association between beer drinking and weight-loss is robust, but this quote from its author makes me wonder:

Dr Ramon Estruch, the lead researcher, said: “Moderate beer consumption is associated with nutritional and health benefits. It does not necessarily mean weight gain since it has no fat and calorie content is low.”

Low compared to what? There are over 200 calories in a pint of lager, which is around 10% of the recommended daily intake. While a pint or two could certainly be incorporated into a 'healthy' diet, it's difficult to argue that weight-loss would not be easier without those extra calories.

A few years ago the British Beer and Pub Association made a scientifically suspect effort to portray beer as being less fattening than other drinks. They did so by comparing the calories in 100 ml servings of beer (41 calories), wine (77 calories), spirits (250 calories) and apple juice (47 calories). See the problem there? The BBC spotted it at the time:

Sceptics will argue that although beer has fewer calories than wine, it comes in pints while wine is served in smaller measures.

Indeed we will, because that's the relevant, real-life comparison. Dr Estruch's study apparently concludes that beer has "a relatively low alcohol content compared to other drinks", which is just another way of repeating the same fallacy. We don't drink pints of spirits and even if we did we'd have bigger things to worry about than getting fat.

The good doctor, from Barcelona University, also has a rather cartoonish perception of British drinkers:

“Beer drinkers here do not resemble Britons, who drink large quantities, almost without moving from one spot, while eating chips and sausages.”

Crisps and peanuts, surely? And, again, it is the quantity of beer that's being drunk that's the issue. Big drinkers may also be big eaters, but that does not absolve all those calories in the beer.

Far be it from me disparage the work of a man who is such a keen advocate of the cheeky pint, but I can't help feel that his fondness for the hop, as well as the usual glorification of the Mediterranean lifestyle, has blinded him to the fundamental importance of calories in weight gain. I wish him well, and I hope he's right, but it does seem a little unlikely.


Curmudgeon said...

It's always difficult to distinguish correlation and causation in such studies - maybe moderate drinkers just have a more balanced and relaxed attitude to life in general than teetotallers, which is reflected in their general health outcomes.

Dick Puddlecote said...

"We don't drink pints of spirits and even if we did we'd have bigger things to worry about than getting fat."

Such as? You know, just in case someone, somewhere likes to save time at the fridge/freezer by pouring a pint of G&T every now and then.

Not that I'd ever consider such a thing, of course.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Dick, it's the "and tonic" bit that will save you there. You soft Southern Jessie.

The witch from Essex said...

That link you gave has offended my eyes !!

Do you realise that the picture half way down the page shows someone holding a glass of beer and....a.....cigarette !!!

What if children are reading this blog ? They may think that having a drink WITH a cigarette is NORMAL...

Leg-iron said...

There's that many calories in whisky?

I'd better cut down a little. Just two pints tonight. After all, three is binge drinking and I wouldn't want to be doing that.

Anonymous said...

Did they control for income?

Every so often, these reports of the benefits of alcohol consumption pop up. I recall reading that while smoking is usually a habit of the poor, drinking alcohol tend to be more of a habit of the more well-off.

No doubt, many people who are far from rich enjoy a drink or ten. But I recall reading that an astounding percentage of income-challenged people are actually teetotalers.

A couple of years ago a study came out indicating that drinkers have higher IQs and Reason Magazine even ran something on it.

I'm not a teetotaler, and I like a drink as much (if not more) than the next guy. I have to confess, though, that I'm always a bit a skeptical regarding claims that liver-challenging, nutritionally valueless liquid carbohydrate calories have health benefits. In other words, I give about as much credence to the idea that two glasses of wine a day will benefit someone as I do the idea that ETS will kill someone. I think it's probably an irrelevance, and more likely attributable to other factors.


Angry Exile said...

I've yet to see a public health campaign take this to its logical conclusion by actively telling teetotallers to start drinking...

I'd find it just as annoying as being told I should stop. "Strength Through Gin!" I mean "joy".

Anonymous said...

Now hold it right there!

Teetotallers are the 'new pariahs' - Health Secretary warns on Britain's drink habit

Don't even think about it.

I have tried and it's not my fault that I fall asleep after a couple of sips.Which is why I had to drink that foul lemonade in pubs, until they started serving coffee.

Don't give succour to the enemy, OK?

Rose :)

Unknown said...

On calories, is it a US study? I'm in the States right now and 'light' beers are pretty huge. I'm told by an American drinker 'light' in Canada means less alcohol content, but in the US it means less calories. Which means that a pint isn't a pint isn't a pint - and if the researcher was looking mainly at 'light' beers then the calorie intake argument wouldn't really exist.

But if he wasn't looking at 'light' beers, then my post is worthless.