Beer is primarily a man’s drink. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 54% of men list beer as their favorite alcoholic beverage, versus 23% of women. Bonding with other men over a beer is part of the male culture, and the growth of craft breweries in recent decades has helped to ensure there are varieties for every palate. Men who love their beer also take heart when occasional studies point to the potential health benefits of drinking moderate amounts of beer. But, physicians caution that it’s all too easy to cross over the fine line into heavy consumption, which carries many significant health risks.
DRINKING IN MODERATION
It’s important to accurately define what constitutes moderate drinking, said Sabina Fink, M.D., an addiction psychiatrist and physician in charge of the Northwell Health Garden City Treatment Center in Garden City.
“The current standard for moderate drinking is no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men,” she said.
In terms of beer, 12 ounces is considered a standard drink – not 16 ounces or more.
“If you’re drinking one 40-ounce container of beer a day, that’s not one drink – it’s more than three drinks,” Dr. Fink said.
Alcoholic content of beer factors into the equation, too.
“The standard is based on about 5 percent alcohol by volume,” Dr. Fink said. Beer, especially certain craft and imported brews, can range up to about 13% alcohol by volume (ABV) and higher. Beer drinkers should consider that the standard is two beers at about 5% ABV, and if they’re north of that, they’re over the standard for moderate drinking.
But the general guidelines are just that – general.
“Two beers a night might be okay for one person but not for someone else,” said Jarid Pachter, D.O., a family medicine and addiction medicine specialist who serves as medical director of Stony Brook Medicine’s Quannacut Outpatient Services in Riverhead. “It really is based on the individual. The big picture matters.”
For individuals with certain underlying comorbidities — two or more diseases or medical conditions at the same time — doctors advise against any alcohol use, and individuals should discuss their own situation with their primary care physician, Dr. Fink said.
Beer drinkers love to hear that beer has some healthy qualities.
“Beer has a small amount of micronutrients, like niacin, riboflavin and magnesium,” said Andrew Patane, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at NYU Langone Huntington Medical Group in Huntington Station. But beer is not an efficient source of these nutrients in the way that whole foods such as fruit and vegetables are. “You would have to drink massive amounts of beer to reach the daily requirement,” Dr. Patane said.
There have been some findings linking light to moderate beer intake to certain health benefits.
“Some studies suggest drinking small amounts of beer may be associated with lower risks of heart disease, that it may increase HDL (good) cholesterol, that it can reduce insulin resistance and increase bone density and strength,” Dr. Patane said.
RISKS OF ALCOHOL USE
But any possible benefits of moderate drinking pale in comparison to the risks associated with heavier alcohol consumption, which can have detrimental effects on every organ in the body, and beer drinkers must be cautious that they don’t cross the fine line into heavier use, Dr. Fink said.
Drinking higher than recommended amounts of alcohol increases the risk of serious health problems, including liver disease; certain cancers, including breast, esophageal, mouth, throat and liver; heart disease, including heart-muscle damage, high blood pressure and stroke; alcohol use disorder; depression; suicide; and accidental serious injury or death.
Increased alcohol use is also associated with weight gain and sleep problems.
“A lot of people tend to drink late in the evening, and even though some people think it helps them fall asleep, it has been shown to have a terrible impact on quality of sleep and contribute to sleep apnea,” Dr. Pachter said.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
In the early stages, alcohol use disorder can be difficult to detect, Dr. Patane said.
“Clues that you could have a problem include that you’re looking forward to drinking too much or that you’re drinking because you have to drink, not because you want to,” he said.
“If other people are annoying you about your drinking, you may have a problem,” Dr. Pachter said. “If you’re drinking and driving, that’s a clear indicator. If you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you wake up in the morning, that’s the clearest indicator.”
While drinking beer in moderation is fine for many healthy adults, Dr. Pachter said, “You must be aware of your reasons for drinking – whether you are using it as a way to deal with anxiety or depression; and be aware of your family history – if your father or mother had a problem with alcohol.” Family history is the single most reliable indicator for risk of future alcohol or drug dependence, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
“The bottom line is, you need to be aware of your habits and be willing to address them if they become a problem,” Dr. Pachter added.