Can You Really Enjoy a Beer Without Gaining the Belly?

When temperatures soar past the nineties and sometimes hundreds during summer in North Texas, reaching for a cold beer can almost seem like second nature. With all of the barbecues, lake trips, happy hours, pool parties and copious other outdoor activities, summer is also rife with opportunities to pop the top on a cold one. But beer doesn’t exactly get the best reputation for being a waist-friendly beverage. We spoke to a hospitalist and a personal trainer to see if you can really enjoy a beer this summer without gaining that notorious beer belly.

For decades people have placed blame for weight gain on the consumption of beer, but it turns out beer itself isn’t an inherently fattening beverage, especially compared to some sugary mixed drinks and cocktails. In fact, beer is fat-free, cholesterol-free and generally low in carbohydrates.

For instance, if you take a look at the nutrition label of Deep Ellum Brewery Co.’s Dallas Blonde, a North Texas favorite, one 12-ounce can contains 156 calories and 13 grams of carbs. The same serving size of Bud Light, America’s most popular beer, serves up 110 calories and 6.6 grams of carbs. For comparison, one 12-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola® Original contains 140 calories, 39 grams of carbohydrates and 39 grams of sugar, while 12 ounces of a standard margarita contains roughly 225 calories, 45 grams of carbohydrates and 58.5 grams of sugar.

So beer might actually be one of the “healthier” options you can reach for when you’re looking to imbibe some adult beverages. But if that’s true, where’s the beer gut coming from?

“Beer can be a healthier alternative and some even claim it has antioxidant effects,” says Minh Nghi, D.O., a physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth. “However, this is all relative as beer, much like most alcoholic beverages, contains basically empty calories, meaning the ratio of calories to protein, vitamins and other nutrients is low. So a night of beer drinking will end with a net positive in calories over, say, water.”

Adding insult to injury, Nghi acknowledges that a night of drinking often encourages many to snack on calorie- and salt-heavy foods such as chips, chicken wings, pretzels, nuts, pizza and queso.

“Together, they conspire to cause both increased weight from extra calories and water retention from salt,” he adds.

So what can you do if you know you’re going to be drinking more often than usual this summer? Both Nghi and Eric Samaniego, a certified personal trainer and manager at Texas Health CityLine Fitness Center, suggest the following:

Keep It Light and Read Labels

Samaniego says when it comes to beer, calorie counts can range anywhere from 90 calories all the way up to 300, with light beers being notoriously low-calorie and heavy IPAs holding a correspondingly heavier calorie count. A self-professed IPA connoisseur himself, Samaniego admits if you’re concerned about calories, light beer is what you should be reaching for instead.

“For most people who enjoy the taste of beer, light beer may not be as robust as heavier beers, but quite a few of the light beers are pretty flavorful,” he explains. “Drinking light beer is going to save a ton on calories, so maybe you won’t feel as guilty when you eat and you won’t be consuming as many overall calories as if you went with a heavier beer.”

If you can’t go without an IPA, try drinking one or two at the beginning, then switching over to lighter beers to help conserve calories.

Think of Food and Beverages as Your Body’s Fuel

You’ve probably heard before that food is fuel because anything you consume, your body is going to metabolize into energy. Normally, your body uses fat as a source of energy, but when alcohol enters your system, Nghi says your body switches its priorities to burning off the alcohol instead.

“When we drink or eat too much, our body will store the extra calories as fat. It is very good at this!” Nghi explains. “Our bodies are also very good at using the alcohol for fuel and will burn this first (instead of fat), but can be overwhelmed by the amount consumed.”

That means any fat you consume in addition to alcohol gets stored as adipose tissue, or body fat. To counteract this, opt for low- or no-fat foods and high-protein options. Lean protein will keep you full longer without adding a ton of fat, which may lessen the chance of your making unhealthy food decisions as the day or night goes on.

Moderation is Your Friend

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that men consuming an average of 56 grams of ethanol per day (four beers) took in 16 percent more total calories than a matched group of non-drinkers. The two groups — drinkers and non-drinkers — had identical amounts of physical activity. So you’d assume that the drinkers ended up gaining more weight than the non-drinkers, except here’s the kicker — they didn’t. Both groups had the same body-mass index, despite all those excess calories for the drinkers. The main difference between the two groups was the fact that the non-drinkers consumed far more carbohydrates than their drinking counterparts.

Both Nghi and Samaniego admit it’s an easy trap to fall into, but a good takeaway is that almost anything can be healthy if consumed in moderation.

“I enjoy a nice fatty brisket (with burnt ends please!) but know that I can only eat a small portion of this wonderful dish,” Nghi says. “However, for those extremely health-conscious people, I would suggest smoked chicken with a good rub and little to no sauce, vegetable kebabs and perhaps non-mayonnaise cole slaw. Avoid sausage, as it tends to be high in both calories and salt, and BBQ sauce, if a must-have, should be used sparingly as it often contains hidden carbs and fat.”

While the beer belly may not have beer entirely to blame for its name, both Nghi and Samaniego admit that any extra calories can lead to weight gain, whether consumed with beer or not. Breaking the habit of eating unhealthy foods while drinking can be hard, and you’re bound to slip up every now and then, but keeping these tips in mind can help you make better choices, so as you’re waving goodbye to summer in the fall you won’t also be saying hello to that notorious gut.

Looking for more information about our nutrition services? Call 1-877-THR-WELL (1-877-847-9355) to find out what nutrition services your local Texas Health location offers.

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