Is beer a healthy drink?

A saint's blessing

The patron saint of brewers in Belgium is St Arnold, who lived during the 11th century. When Flanders was being ravaged by plague, he plunged his crucifix into beer that was being brewed and declared that all should drink nothing but that. And –  lo and behold! – a miracle cure! A more prosaic explanation would suggest that beer was safer than water because the production process involves boiling (which wopuold have killed off any plague bacteria in the water).  For such reasons, beer was the most widely-consumed drink until the arrival of safe piped water in the 19th century –  which explains the huge quantities of beers and breweries in the past. (In 1850 there were more than 750 breweries in the UK; today there are some 450, but only 70 or so sizeable ones.)  


To protect beer from adulteration, the Germans introduced the Reinheitsgebot (purity law) as long ago as 1516, forbidding any other additive besides barley, hops and water. Although other ingredients are permitted by law today, purity is still the guiding principle of fine German brewing today, as indeed it is of all good brewers.

Positive benefits

So beer can be seen as a healthy drink. It contains vitamins (especially Vitamin B), useful minerals (magnesium, potassium, calcium), carbohydrates (all that starch/sugar/maltose), and protein. Alcohol in moderate quantities is thought to reduce the risk of heart disease; and some people use beer's well-known soporific qualities to help them sleep.

Beer belly

Beer is relatively low in calories, about 180 kcal per pint for ordinary-strength lager, 200 kcal per pint for stout. The recommended total calorie intake for adults is somewhere between 2000 and 2500 kcal per day. Weight-gain associated with beer will clearly be related to a broader scenario of eating, drinking and lifestyle. But basically, those who drink a large quantity of the stuff also should take a large quantity of exercise –  and, let's face it, those two images don't always coincide. Alas, once established, the 'beer belly' is an obstinate attribute, because this is the place where fat has found it easiest to accumulate, and consequently the place from which it is most difficult to dislodge.

Men are advised to drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week (over the week, and not all on Saturday night) to stay healthy; women 14 units. A pint of standard lager is about 2.3 units; a pint of strong lager (8% ABV) is 4.5 units or more. (Drink-driving regulations, by the way, are based on alcohol in the blood, which does not translate easily into units; in the UK the limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. Most people would be over the limit with two units.)

Because it contains alcohol, all beer comes with a health warning: alcohol may pleasurable in moderation for some, but for others it is a demonic and lethal addiction. If you are worried about this, visit

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