What's the Deal with Low-Calorie Beer?

Having a cold one while still cutting back on calories is possible.

October 23, 2020
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Photo by: M. Okimoto & G. Kaye/Getty Images

M. Okimoto & G. Kaye/Getty Images

Chances are, you’ve been seeing more and more low-calorie beers out there, but what exactly is the difference between light beer and regular beer? Well, a standard beer is considered 12 fluid ounces of regular beer with an alcohol content of 5%. “Your average regular beer contains approximately 153 calories, with 13 grams of carbohydrates,” says Heather Shasa, MS, RDN, CDCES, a dietitian in Rockaway, New Jersey.

On the other hand, the typical light beer contains 104 calories and 6 grams of carbohydrates, per the USDA database — so it has about half the carbs of the regular type.

What Is Light Beer?

When light beer is crafted, smaller amounts of grain may be used — and additional ingredients such as rice or corn may be added to traditional barley, says Shasa. “Adjustments in temperature and pressure during specific steps in the brewing process can help reduce the amount of fermentable sugars, dropping both the alcohol and calorie content,” she adds.

Lower calorie beers also tend to have lower alcohol content. “A general rule of thumb is as alcohol by volume (ABV) increases, so does the calorie content,” explains Shasa. “Therefore, a beer that comes in at 4% to 5% ABV will usually have less calories than a more full-bodied craft beer with an ABV of 8%.”

Which Beer Is Healthiest?

Back many, many years ago, doctors “prescribed” Guinness during pregnancy because it’s a source of iron. Although beer isn’t known for its health benefits as much as wine is, the beverage does boast antioxidants. “Regular beer may be healthier than light beer from the standpoint of its polyphenol content,” says Cindy Dallow, PhD, RD, a dietitian in Greeley, CO. “Polyphenols have anti-inflammatory properties, making them helpful in preventing illnesses caused by inflammation — such as heart disease and diabetes.” In a study in Foods, researchers found that polyphenol content is highest in dark and black beers, versus lighter-colored beers. “To top it off, polyphenols from beer are rapidly absorbed,” says Dallow.

No matter which beer you choose, follow the alcohol guidelines from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: up to one drink, which counts as 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer, daily for for women, and up to two drinks for men. However, the recommendation for men may decrease when the new guidelines come out.

Is Non-Alcoholic Beer a Healthy Choice?

We’ve talked about low-calorie beer, but what about alcohol-free beer? By definition, many of these beers contain a tiny amount of alcohol — up to 0.5% ABV. Because of this, “pregnant women and anyone recovering from alcoholism should avoid these beers,” says Emily Rubin RD, director of clinical dietetics at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia.

“Most non-alcoholic (NA) beer is lower in calories than regular beer because of the lack of alcohol,” says Dallow. This isn’t a far-and-wide rule, though. Some NA beers, like ones from Athletic Brewing, contain as little as 50 calories. Others can be higher in calories in attempts to create more robust flavor. Often, NA beers often have about double the carbohydrate count of light beers.

“Fortunately, NA beer has the same amount of polyphenol content as regular beer,” adds Dallow. “In fact, one study showed that NA beer consumed for three weeks prior to and two weeks after a marathon significantly reduced post-race inflammation.”

Ready to give low-cal beers a sip? Give these a go.

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in the New York City area and owner of the Plant-Based Eats Etsy store, where she sells healthy meal plans and printables. She’s a regular contributor to many publications, including EverydayHealth.com, ReadersDigest.com, NBCNews.com, and more. She also pens a recipe-focused blog, Amy’s Eat List, where she shares easy, healthy recipes. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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