A Drink to Your Health

Commentary by Pete du Pont

"This is grain, which any fool can eat, but for which the Lord intended a more divine means of consumption. Let us give praise to our maker and glory to his bounty by learning about...BEER!"

While many beer enthusiasts humorously recite this deferential axiom from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, it turns out Ol' Friar Tuck may have been more divinely connected than previously thought. Just ask the researchers.

For many years medical journals and "wine snobs" alike have heralded the numerous health benefits of red wine. Yet according to a recent study by Dr. Margo Denke of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, the same case can be made for beer - wine's proletarian cousin. This is truly welcome news to beer lovers across the country who are preparing to down a couple of cold ones during the biggest beer-drinking holiday of the year, Independence Day.

According to Dr. Denke, the operative word there is "couple." Like the good qualities that are attributed to red wine, beer's beneficial properties are linked to moderate consumption -- say, a beer or two a day. Dr. Denke's study "Clinical Research on the Health Effects of Beer," takes a close look at the special properties of the world's oldest alcoholic beverage, and confirms what more than 100 studies have shown us over the past decade: moderate consumption of alcohol can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.

"The majority of more recent, large, population based studies," she writes, "have observed that moderate drinking in the range of 1-3 drinks daily is associated with a 30-40% lower rate of coronary disease compared to non-drinking."

Several studies offer a variety of explanations why this could be true. Moderate alcohol intake raises the level of HDL cholesterol ("good" cholesterol). It increases bleeding time, acting as a natural blood thinner that decreases the chance of coronary thrombosis. Other researchers speculate that alcohol lowers insulin levels, which in non-diabetics could mean a reduced chance of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Why is all of this so important? Despite the achievements of modern medicine, cardiovascular diseases still rank as America's No. 1 killer. According to the American Heart Association, CVDs "claim more than 41.5% of the more than 2.3 million American's who die each year." Additionally, it is estimated that American's will pay close to $300 billion in 2001 for CVD-related medical costs, including $26.9 billion in Medicare payments -- a truly heavy burden on America's checkbook.

So why is beer better than say a margarita or martini? Beer contains a vastly greater volume of nutrients per serving than other alcoholic beverages. For example, it's rich in protein, B vitamins and certain minerals like magnesium, cadmium and iron. Studies have found that based on consuming one to two beers a day, beer provided 14 percent of needed calories, 11 percent of dietary protein, 12 percent of dietary carbohydrates, nine percent of dietary phosphorus, seven percent of dietary riboflavin and five percent of dietary niacin.

Beer also has some non-alcohol based benefits. It contains components, called phenols, which appear to have anti-oxidant properties that reduce LDL cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol) oxidation. Beer also contains isoflavanoids, which have been found to inhibit test-tube growth of prostrate, breast, and colon cancers. Welcome news for millions of beer drinkers worldwide.

While scientifically confirmed by Dr. Denke, the benefits of beer have been argued for hundreds of years. In fact, Benjamin Rush, an 18th-century physician and friend of Benjamin Franklin, famously ranked beverages from those with the worst effects to the most felicitous. At the bottom was heavy consumption of gin, brandy and rum, with their attendant vices ("swindling, perjury, burglary, murder"), diseases ("melancholy, palsy, apoplexy, madness, despair") and punishments ("gallows"). Strong beer was at the top of thermometer: "cheerfulness, strength, and nourishment, when taken only in small quantities and at meals."

Which begs the warning - be careful of getting a little too cheerful for too long and forgoing the needed exercise. Otherwise you might find yourself with another of beer's health affects: doctors refer to it as an "increased waist-to-hip ratio."