Beer: it does a body good
Published: Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Updated: Sunday, March 20, 2011 18:03
I was feeling anemic the other day, so, naturally, I decided to head to the nearest bar for a Guinness-because there's nothing like a good dose of iron to stave off anemia. Before I made it out of the door, however, my annoying science-y side got the better of me, and I did a little research. I regret to inform you that Guinness is not a good source of iron (although it is a reasonable source of folate and other B-vitamins). A pint of Guinness only has 0.3mg of iron, and the USDA recommended daily allowance is 11-18mg (27mg for pregnant women). Fortunately, I was planning to supplement the Guinness with a cheeseburger.Understandably, Guinness is believed to have a range of sustaining and curative properties, especially in and around Ireland where Guinness has been recommended as a good source of iron for pregnant women. It has also been offered to patients after surgery and to blood donors along with the usual post-donation juice and cookies.
All of this has fostered the notion that Guinness is not only a good source of iron, but that it also promotes red blood cell formation. (My family is from Georgia and attributes similar properties to Coca-Cola. We gave the hospital no end of grief when they refused to let my grandfather drink Coke during his terminal hospital stay.) These notions were not discouraged by the "Guinness is Good for You" ad campaign that began in the 1920s. The ads were inspired by a survey of Guinness drinkers in which they indicated that they felt good after drinking a Guinness, and not by any measurable health benefits. Currently, these ads only appear in countries without legislation regarding verifiable health claims in advertising.
So Guinness is not a panacea for the iron-deficient, but it may have other health benefits. The health benefits of red wine regularly make headlines, but current research suggests that beer confers some of these same benefits, including an increase in HDL cholesterol (the "good" kind) and a decreased risk of blood clots that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Beer has also been associated with a reduced risk for dementia and an increase in bone density. Moderate consumption of beer or other alcoholic beverages, which the American Heart Association defines as one drink per day for women and one or two drinks per day for men, is associated with these health benefits, but so are other factors such as a balanced diet, exercise, and not smoking. Because of this, and because of health risks associated with drinking alcohol, people who do not drink alcohol are not usually encouraged to start purely for health reasons. Also, drinking beer itself is not enough to counteract an unhealthy lifestyle. Much like your favorite breakfast cereals, it should be incorporated as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
Note: People under the legal drinking age of their respective countries should not try to get away with using potential health benefits as an excuse to drink alcohol. These benefits overwhelmingly relate to diseases or conditions that manifest much later in life. Missing out on a few years of drinking early on is not likely to reduce any positive impact that drinking may ultimately have. Furthermore, typical underage drinking is not characterized by the sort of moderation and restraint that leads to health benefits. (My apologies to the responsible underage drinkers out there.)
While people may find irony (if not iron) in health benefits from beer, beer has not always been cast as a dietary villain. The deliberate fermentation of grains for beer dates back to the early days of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago. It was celebrated in excess as an intoxicant, but was also consumed throughout the day as a source of energy and nutrients, fueling the daily lives of such diverse groups as the laborers on the pyramids in Egypt, serfs in feudal Europe, and early American colonists. Trappist monks drank beer during their fasts, calling it "liquid bread." Prior to modern water-treatment facilities, water supplies around large cities were often teeming with infectious diseases, such as cholera and other gastrointestinal maladies. The water used in making beer had been boiled and contained enough alcohol to kill unfriendly microbes making it a much safer hydrating choice than plain water.
Although PETA recommends beer as a healthier (no fat or cholesterol), and kinder (only yeast cells are harmed in its production) alternative to milk, I doubt that beer smoothies will be the next great health craze. Beer has many associations in this country, but despite studies showing that people who drink more also spend more time exercising, a healthy lifestyle is rarely one of them. It's not beer's fault that it tends to be regularly abused by a range of obnoxious and irresponsible people. Beer should be celebrated for its good qualities and not vilified by association. Salud!