Which Is Healthier: Beer or Hard Alcohol?

When it comes to the health benefits of beer vs. hard liquor, it might seem like the kind of problem you’d like to have. Just the idea that beer and hard liquor have health benefits may seem pretty enticing. But like most good things in life, it’s a little complicated.

Beer has more antioxidants than hard liquor, but their overall effect is small. Hard liquor, on the other hand, often has fewer or no carbohydrates. (Image: zmurciuk_k/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

If you enjoy a drink, either beer or hard liquor are fine in moderation. But stick to moderate drinking if you want the health benefits of both, and discuss it with your doctor.

Beer vs. Liquor

Beer contains phenolic compounds, which is where you would think the health benefits come in. Phenolic compounds are antioxidants, which you may think of as cancer fighting. In beer, the antioxidants originate mostly from barley malt, with the rest contributed by hops. The antioxidants in beer do have some health benefits.

But most liquor, beer, spirits and wine contain ethanol. It's this form of alcohol that provides most of the health benefits from alcoholic beverages, as long as you're consuming your adult beverage in moderation. Other than small differences, beer and hard liquor provide about the same health benefits. So it's not really about beer vs. liquor or vodka vs. beer.

One advantage to hard liquor, or distilled liquor, is that many spirits have zero carbohydrates. Vodka, rum, whiskey, gin and tequila in their pure form have no carbohydrates, which is beneficial if you're trying to keep your blood sugar from spiking. The calorie content is typically lower than that of beer.

Rum, however, may have added spices and sugar, and sugar will add to the carbohydrate and calorie count. Any hard liquor, when combined with a sugary additive, takes on more calories and carbohydrates.

Alcohol’s main health benefit is on heart health. That doesn’t mean you should take up drinking to increase your cardiovascular health. The best thing to do is discuss any alcohol consumption truthfully with your doctor.

Moderation Is Key

It should be emphasized repeatedly that moderation is the key to any health benefits from alcohol use. Harvard's Health Professionals Follow-up Study of 38,000 men over 12 years, concluded that moderate drinkers were 35 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack than nondrinkers.

The observation held for beer, hard liquor and wine, and for those who drank alcohol with a meal or without a meal. Interestingly, men who drank light to moderate amounts three or more days a week were less likely to have a heart attack than men who drank once or twice a week.

For women, the Nurses’ Health Study, detailed in the American Journal of Public Health, showed that women who drank one drink per day over four days were healthier than those who drank that same amount in one or two days. For women, any kind of alcohol, whether from beer, hard liquor or wine, was linked to lower heart disease risk, but a higher risk of breast cancer.

So, What Is a Drink?

One beer is considered to be a 12-ounce beer, with 5 percent alcohol content. One serving of hard liquor is a 1.5 ounce glass of 80-proof liquor. Moderate alcohol use for healthy adults is no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.

The Drawbacks of Alcohol

Alcohol isn't a panacea for good health. Moderate drinkers may, in fact, be healthier because they have more healthy dietary and exercise habits than the population as a whole.

Alcoholic beverages can be unhealthy for certain groups of people. You should avoid alcohol if you are pregnant, have a weak heart, have a family history of alcoholism, have liver or pancreatic disease, have had a stroke, or take medicine that interacts with alcohol.

Alcohol use, particularly excessive alcohol use, is also associated with breast cancer and cancers of the liver, esophagus, colon, rectum and larynx.

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