You’re grocery shopping. You’re browsing products. You notice those products tout ingredients like bee pollen, black currant, lemongrass, and buckwheat kasha. And what’s even stranger? You’re in the beer aisle.
Performance beer is one of the latest trends hoping to catch on with wellness-oriented, weekend-warrior types who want to feel a little bit better about their buzz. With these beers, there’s a vague notion of healthfulness, pushed forward by names casually referencing sports and exercise, and labeling that more resembles a sports drink than, well, a beer.
But when you ask beer-loving dietitian Chris Mohr, PhD, RD (and member of the Men’s Health Advisory Board) his thoughts on performance beer and its supposed health benefits, we’re sorry to say he’s going to burst your bubble.
“It’s an oxymoron,” says Mohr. “To be honest, I certainly don’t think of beer and performance in the same vein or the same sentence.”
To help you think before you drink, we asked Mohr to help break down what’s real and what’s hopped-up hype when it comes to the performance beer phenomenon.
MH: What is alcohol’s relationship to athletic performance?
Alcohol itself acts as a diuretic and really dehydrates you. So when we’re thinking about it from a performance standpoint, if you’re taking fluids away—which are much needed during exercise or around exercise—you can add as many electrolytes as you want, but unfortunately, that bigger piece to the puzzle is that you’re going to dehydrate yourself. And that’s going to play a much bigger role in performance or how you feel than adding some electrolytes to a beer.
Can you talk about what role electrolytes play in our overall health?
First of all, electrolytes are things like potassium and sodium, calcium, and various minerals. Essentially, they help us keep our fluid balance, they play a role in muscle contraction, and they play a role in heart contraction.
Now, when we exercise we sweat. Some of those electrolytes are in our sweat, so we’re losing higher concentrations of those. So it’s really trying to keep a healthy balance of those [electrolytes] when we’re exercising, but also when we’re just trying to maintain our health and physical function.
Sufferfest FKT (Fastest Known Time) Pale Ale is an example of a beer that clearly markets itself to runners and athletes, touting the addition of black currant and salt on its label. If electrolytes are in a beer, how effective are they in terms of the process of rehydrating yourself after a workout?
If alcohol is acting as a something that’s dehydrating your cells, I don’t know if just adding electrolytes back is what’s necessary or if it’s in conjunction with the fluids itself. It’s not just the minerals that are being lost, but also some of those fluids that play a role.
You’re pushing yourself more in the direction of dehydration, even if there are electrolytes that appear in the beer.
Right. These things are very well-marketed. I went to the Sufferfest website and the name alone has CrossFit and Spartan Races written all over it. This is giving people what they want, but there are better ways to get electrolytes than through alcohol.
Instead of drinking a beer, what would you recommend if you really were concerned with replenishing electrolytes?
The general rule of thumb is if you’re exercising over 60 minutes or you’re a heavy sweater or you’re exercising in the heat, you need to start to think a little bit more about [electrolytes].
Certainly, you can look to a sports drink, which isn’t as sexy with the population we just mentioned. There are also plenty of electrolyte tablets out there that you could add to your water or your coconut water if you don’t want a sports drink. You have the Nuun tablets and others like that, which do the same job without adding the alcohol piece to it.
If you want to enjoy this alcohol after you significantly rehydrate, I’m all for it. But I wouldn’t use this as, “I’m going to start replacing my sports drink with a beer because it has electrolytes.”
There’s another beer that seems marketed toward performance and functionality, which is Harpoon’s Rec League, which is 3.8% ABV and promotes added ingredients like sea salt, buckwheat, and chia seeds. What kind of benefit, if any, would there be adding those ingredients to a beer from a health perspective?
I’m not sure about buckwheat. Chia seeds are an interesting addition to a beer. They don’t sound very pleasant, but in the sense that if you’ve ever used them, they absorb I think 10 to 12 times the amount of fluid. So if you add them to water, they almost make like a thicker, putty consistency.
It certainly tastes like a beer and the consistency doesn’t seem thicker than what you’d expect from a beer.
So maybe then they’re just putting enough to have a little little window dressing on the label, but not enough to have any physiological benefit. I’d be very curious how much they actually use in there. Because again, that has some potential hydrating benefit. But that said, you need enough of it to actually have some benefit.
There’s this beer called Hop Heart, which they say is light, low-calorie, and it can help reduce the risk of heart disease with vitamin B6. How legitimate is a claim like that?
It’s definitely fantastic marketing hype. Having some quality whole grains that have some fiber would also add B6 over time. But simply having a beer is not going to be your magic answer.
Another element we’re seeing with beers marketed to more wellness-minded drinkers is lower carbohydrates. What role does carbohydrates play in workout recovery, and how does that differ from protein?
When you exercise, your body uses carbohydrates as they’re going to be the primary source of fuel. So when you’re depleting some of these stored carbohydrates known as glycogen in your muscles and liver, the idea is you want to replace that when you’re not exercising.
Protein simply helps recover and repair muscle tissues. So when we’re exercising, we break down muscle tissue. Protein’s job is then to build and repair. So it plays a role after exercise because you’re breaking down muscle tissue, but it really depends on how much is in [a drink], and then the quality of the protein as well.
How many beers would you need to drink for the carb and protein recovery benefits to kick in?
So if it’s like three grams of carbs and one gram of protein just to say that they’re in there, that’s pretty useless. If you’re looking for more of a post-workout recovery drink, it’s like 20 grams of protein and 30 grams of carbs. That’s a little bit different. But I would hardly think it’s that substantial if you wanted it to actually taste like a decent beer.
And if you’re looking in the beer aisle for something to drink after your workout and you’re picking something low in carbs and low in calories, you’re not exactly helping your recovery.
It definitely works against any true recovery. They’re selling a very good marketing strategy that beer is your optimal recovery strategy by sprinkling in some pixie dust. But at the end of the day, enjoy a decent, quality meal, maybe some regular fluids, and then have your beer in the evening or later in the afternoon or what have you.
If I’m going to compete in one of these Tough Mudder events or something like that, I’m not necessarily going to win. So if it’s just a fun event, then yeah, some of this beer afterwards is not a big deal. Really, their marketing is probably for that mid-level person. At the end of the day, it’s not really going to make or break our performance. But the messaging bothers me because they’re trying to sell their their beer as this performance-enhancing thing, when really, it’s not.
The marketing nudges you in the direction of like, “Well, if you just start drinking these beers instead of other beers, then you’ll have some sort of edge,” which feels more disingenuous.
Exactly. And from a marketing standpoint, they want to sell as much product as possible. So, yes, it’s disingenuous. Will it work for them? Probably. Because the marketing is fantastic. But at the end of the day, is it really some magical product? Certainly not.
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