From every last ounce of Natty Light consumed on college campuses, to the hop-impregnated IPAs sipped by the elite, beer is a staple of the American diet.
In fact, according to Gallup polls, beer is the preferred alcoholic beverage of 43 percent of Americans who drink alcohol.
Thankfully, beer by itself doesn’t contain any natural cholesterol. So that’s cause for celebration, right? Not so fast.
How beer affects cholesterol
Most cholesterol is made in your body, and the rest comes from your diet. When your doctor talks about your cholesterol, they’re actually talking about two types of cholesterol — HDL and LDL — along with triglycerides, which are a type of fat. When we refer to total cholesterol, it’s a combination of HDL and LDL cholesterol plus triglycerides.
While a cold brew may raise your spirits, beer raises triglyceride levels. This is because beer contains carbohydrates and alcohol, two substances that raise triglycerides quickly. And people who are more sensitive to the effects of beer can experience even higher levels of triglycerides.
Since triglycerides are part of the total cholesterol count, this means that if your triglycerides increase, your total cholesterol increases as well. Ideally, your triglyceride level should be below 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
Beer contains cholesterol-binding sterols
Beer has long been called “liquid bread” because it typically contains barley malt, yeast, and hops. These substances all contain phytosterols, which are 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 suggested that moderate consumption of beer can reduce both cholesterol in the liver and cholesterol deposits in the aorta (the largest artery in the body). The researchers in that study noted that some unidentified components in beer may change how lipoproteins are metabolized and reduce the risk of heart disease. But what those components are and how they work isn’t fully understood.
Is wine a better option?
We’ve all heard the news that a glass of red wine a day may be good for you, but research suggests that other forms of alcohol may also be beneficial.
Red wine has been extensively studied. In moderate amounts it’s been shown to reduce cancer, heart disease, depression, dementia, and type 2 diabetes. Moderate intake of beer has also been shown to reduce heart disease and stroke risk.
While beer does contain some antioxidants like red wine, the specific ones found in barley and hops are different than those found in wine grapes. It’s still unclear if beer antioxidants offer the same benefits that those in red wine do, though preliminary research is promising.
Overall though, it’s how often and how much you drink — not what you drink — that really seems to affect your heart.
One large study showed that men who were moderate drinkers (two drinks per day) were 30 to 35 percent less likely to have a heart attack when compared with people who didn’t drink at all. (Moderate drinking for women is considered to be one drink per day.) And men who drank every day had a lower risk compared to those who drank only once or twice a week. This included men who drank wine, spirits, and, of course, beer.
Drinking beer in moderation may have some benefits to your heart health. But that may not extend to your cholesterol, as drinking beer can increase your triglyceride levels.
In addition, it’s important to note that consuming large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can actually weaken your 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.
To find out if drinking some beer or other type of alcoholic beverage is safe for you, talk to your doctor. And keep in mind that if you really want to improve your cholesterol levels, getting regular exercise and following a diet that’s low in simple sugars and alcohol are proven ways to do just that.