The ‘Beer belly’ myth: A Q&A with beer sommelier Crystal Luxmore

Ever heard of the beer belly? Though Canadians adore downing beer by the pint, can or bottle, it has a nasty reputation as an unhealthy and fattening beverage.

Now, a British nutritionist has conducted a review of the scientific literature on beer, and come up with some pretty interesting findings.

Nutritionist Kathryn O’Sullivan claims in her report that the beer belly is a myth, and that replacing wine with beer may actually help you lose weight. The Telegraph reports she also claims beer has myriad health benefits, and that it is generally misunderstood to be bad for you.

Before we go any further, we should note that O’Sullivan was commissioned to write the report on behalf of the beer industry, and if that’s not a conflict of interest then Guinness isn’t delicious (Editor's note: Guinness is delicious).

That being said, O’Sullivan makes some interesting claims that we thought would be worth fact-checking, so we got in touch with Crystal Luxmore, a Canadian Prud’homme beer sommelier and beer columnist. She gave us the down-low on whether the ultimate Canadian beverage is helping or hurting us.

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Yahoo! Canada: Do you agree with nutritionist Kathryn O’Sullivan that the “beer belly” is totally a myth?

Luxmore: Yes. There have been numerous studies in recent years that do not find a direct link between beer consumption and a big tummy. The real problem is pigging out — if we eat more calories than we burn off we'll gain weight, and our bodies like to store that weight front and centre, in our bellies.

But beer — or any alcoholic bevvy — can help us pack on the pounds in another way. A few drinks in, and the willpower drains, so we don't tend to turn away fatty wings, nachos or cheese as easily as we might when sober. Our bodies get busy burning off the ethanol from the booze, because it can't be used, and store the fat. So it's not the wine that makes you fat, it's the cheese.

The good news? A 2010 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found women who drink two drinks a day don't gain as much weight as those who abstain totally or those who binge drink on weekends. Instead their bodies use more energy to metabolize and digest the booze, burning more calories than non-drinkers or weekend warriors.

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Yahoo! Canada: Is it true that the higher the alcohol content, the higher the calories?

Luxmore: It’s a pretty good rule of thumb, yeah. In beer, the more alcohol there is, the more sugars were converted into booze to make that alcohol, so you get more calories overall.

The trouble with O'Sullivan's research is that a serving of beer consists of a light, four per cent beer and a half-pint measure. While that's good news for Coors Light and Bud Light lovers, the same can't be said for craft beer drinkers who are popping open 750 ml bottles of an eight per cent tripel-style Belgian beer, or who are downing pints of six per cent India Pale Ales at the bar.

Yahoo! Canada: Does beer have health benefits as O’Sullivan claims?

Luxmore: Yes! Beer has a ton of health benefits — at least as many as wine, if not more. The wine industry has done a great job of spurring health studies around the benefits of wine and getting that message out to the public. The beer industry is way behind on this front, which perpetuates the myth that beer is bad for you and wine is good.

Almost all beer contains hops, for example, which aren't present in wine. Hops, a cousin of marijuana, are little miracle workers. They help burn fat, can help prevent breast and ovarian cancer, have high amounts of osteoporosis-preventing silicon and might even help with menstrual cramps.

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Yahoo: Do you think beer is misunderstood by Canadians as unhealthy?

Luxmore: I do. A bottle of beer or two a day is just as healthy as a glass of red wine. Canadians are a beer loving nation, we deserve to drink it with relish and free of guilt. I tend to choose beers that are made from all barley, rather than corn or rice, because of barley's high silicone content and other health benefits, and because I find them more flavourful. Most North American lagers, like Bud or Coors Light, or Molson Canadian are made with a high amount of corn or rice plus barley.

I also like to keep in mind the amount of beer I drink at a time so I don't pack on the pounds — one or two a day is about right — and I often reach for a beer instead of dessert, not with it.