From every last ounce of Natty Light consumed on college campuses, to the hop-impregnated IPAs sniffed and sipped by the elite, beer is a staple of the American diet.
In fact, Americans consume an average of 6.3 billion gallons of beer annually.
Thankfully, beer by itself doesn’t contain any natural cholesterol. (But the chicken wings or bacon cheeseburger you’re having with it is an entirely different story.)
So that’s cause for celebration, right? Not really.
How Beer Affects Cholesterol
Some cholesterol is made in your body, and the rest comes from your diet. And when your doctor talks about your cholesterol, he’s actually talking about two types of cholesterol, along with triglycerides, which are a type of fat. While a cold brew may raise your spirits, beer raises triglyceride levels, which isn’t a cause for celebration. When we refer to total cholesterol, it is actually a combination of HDL and LDL cholesterol plus triglycerides.
Your body takes any food it doesn’t need right away and converts it into triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells.
Beer raises your triglyceride count because it contains carbohydrates and alcohol, two substances that raise triglycerides quickly. And people who are more sensitive to the effects of beer can experience higher levels of triglycerides. So, if your triglycerides increase, your total cholesterol will increase as well, since triglycerides are part of the total cholesterol count.
Ideally, your triglyceride level should be below 150 mg/dL.
Thankfully, regular exercise and a diet that’s low in simple sugars and alcohol are the best ways to lower cholesterol.
Beer Contains Cholesterol-Binding Sterols
Beer has long been called “liquid bread” because it contains barley malt, yeast, and hops. These all contain phytosterols, plant compounds that bind to cholesterol and help get it out of your body. Some phytosterols, also known as plant sterols, are added to foods and drinks and marketed as cholesterol-reducing foods.
So, if beer naturally contains these sterols, can beer lower your cholesterol? Unfortunately, no.
The sterols found in your average beer — sitosterol or ergosterol — are at such low levels that even a whole-grain beer contains too little of them to have much of an impact on reducing cholesterol.
Some research on mice, however, has indicated that moderate consumption of beer can reduce cholesterol in the liver and cholesterol deposits in the aorta. The researchers in that study noted that some unidentified components in beer may alter how lipoproteins are metabolized and reduce the risk of heart disease.
What those are and how they work continue to be a malted mystery.
Is Wine a Better Option?
We’ve all heard the news that a glass of red wine a day can be good for you, but it turns out that beer may be just as beneficial.
First off, beer contains more protein and B vitamins than wine, so that’s a big plus for a cold one versus a glass of red.
Secondly, beer has about the same amount of antioxidants as wine, but the specific ones found in barley and hops are different than those found in wine grapes.
According to Harvard University, it’s how often and how much you drink, not what you drink, that really protects your heart. Large studies have shown that moderate drinkers (one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) were 30 to 35 percent less likely to have a heart attack when compared with people who didn’t drink at all. And men who drank every day had a lower risk as compared to those who drank only once or twice a week. This includes men who drank wine, spirits, and, of course, beer.
But don’t kid yourself: Your doctor isn’t going to be prescribing you PBR anytime soon. (Although some experts argue that “dietary alcohol” intake should be positively discussed during doctor’s visits.)
Consuming large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can actually weaken the heart over time, as well as lead to an inactive lifestyle, obesity, and alcoholism. These can all create health problems that would greatly outweigh any added benefit.