If you’re a runner, Sunday is often long run day. Rain, snow, or shine, runners brave the elements and head out the door. Forty-five minutes, an hour, heck, maybe two-plus and you’re done — sore, tired, and thirsty. So does a performance-minded athlete reach for a sports drink? How about chocolate milk? Protein shake? Surely not a beer? Actually, more and more gym rats and runners are reaching for exactly that, minus the alcohol. Non-alcoholic beers are the new Gatorade for a certain sect of athletes. But is non-alcoholic beer good for you?
Before you get too excited, know this: The beer being touted as the new recovery drink is not your classic Budweiser, Heineken, or even Montauk Wave Chaser IPA. For starters, it’s non-alcoholic. That may sound like an oxymoron — wine without fermentation, after all, is just grape juice. But we’re betting that there are a fair number of you who have come to the realization, as you get older, that you really like the taste of beer. You just wish it didn’t come with quite as many calories or as big a hangover.
That’s the gamble non-alcoholic beer companies are making: that there is an audience for a brew that provides the bitter, hoppy taste minus the buzz. The popularity of these drinks is being egged along by another growing trend — runners, triathletes, and other recreational sports enthusiasts who believe non-alcoholic beer just might be the latest and greatest recovery drink after a tough workout.
But that’s no exactly true. “Non-alcoholic beers could serve as a complementary aid in the athlete’s tool belt as a way to increase fluid intake, especially for those who do not like drinking plain water, sports drinks, or who are exercising for shorter durations,” says New York City-based sports nutritionist Tamar Kane, who spent two years overseas as a combat fitness instructor for the Israel Defense Forces. However, non-alcoholic beers are missing several key ingredients that your body needs after a hard sweat session, she says.
So what’s the bottom line? Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of using non-alcoholic beers for exercise recovery.
The Good About Non-Alcoholic Beer
First, you won’t get sloppy drunk or hungover, and you won’t feel the frequent urge to pee since it’s the alcohol in beer that makes it a diuretic. “Plus, if athletes enjoy what they are drinking, they are likely to drink more, which will aid in hydration,” Kane points out.
And don’t forget, the stuff tastes great. Athletic Brewery’s Free Wave Hazy IPA and Brooklyn Brewery’s Special Effects Hoppy Amber Lager are Fatherly staff favorites. This is thanks to newer methods of alcohol removal that spare the hoppy notes while removing the buzz.
To qualify as “alcohol-free,” federal law requires beer to have less than 0.5% alcohol by volume. Traditionally, this was achieved by heating the beverage to ultra-high temperatures to burn off the alcohol or by using a system of filtration. Unfortunately, both of these methods compromise flavor. A new method known as vacuum evaporation, however, removes ethanol at lower temperatures, preserving much of the beer’s flavor.
Another bonus of no-alcohol brew is a lower sugar content relative to some sports drinks, juices, and sodas. But beware, corn syrup may be added to your alcohol-free beer. Also, the non-alcoholic beers of certain brands have higher sugar content than their alcoholic counterparts, so check the label. Assuming your alcohol-free beer does not have added sugar, the sweetness you taste is typically naturally sourced from malted barley — a healthier version than the processed sugar added to sports drinks.
And there are some health benefits to drinking non-alcoholic beers. Research shows beer contains a naturally high amount of compounds known as polyphenols. “Polyphenols are part of a family of naturally occurring plant compounds that provide us with various health benefits such as helping to reduce inflammation,” says Kane. “Reducing inflammation in your body after hard bouts of exercise can help you recover more quickly.”
Polyphenols also play a role in supporting your immune system. A study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that when male runners drank 1 to 1.5 liters a day of non-alcoholic beer for three weeks leading up to a marathon, and then again for two weeks following the race, they had lower overall levels of inflammation in their bodies and fewer respiratory illnesses than those who drank a placebo beverage. Of course, you can get polyphenols through your diet as well — namely, by eating lots of fresh vegetables. But if you’re able to up your daily dose through beer, well, why not?
The Bad About Non-Alcoholic Beer
Alcohol-free beer (or any beer, for that matter) cannot match sports drinks in one key area: electrolyte replacement. When you sweat, your body loses key electrolytes. This is a problem because these minerals help send signals from your brain to your muscles and organs about actions they need to perform (say, contract and relax muscles to propel your body forward while running).
“One of the main purposes of using sports drinks is to replace electrolytes lost in sweat, including sodium along with smaller amounts of potassium, magnesium, and calcium,” explains Kane. “Non-alcoholic beers do not contain these electrolytes, or only contain them in small amounts.”
According to a study in Current Research in Nutrition and Food Science, non-alcoholic beer falls short of providing sodium replacement when compared with a traditional sports drink. “Sodium helps the body hold onto water, which is why athletes engaging in strenuous exercise for 60 to 90 minutes or more might consider using a sports drink to rehydrate more quickly,” says Kane. “This is especially true for athletes exercising in the heat.” The authors of the study suggest mixing the beer with another high-sodium beverage for better rehydration results.
Here’s another point to consider: While your classic sports drink contains upward of 120 calories per 12-ounce bottle, alcohol-free beer has about 40% fewer calories (about 70 calories per 12-ounce can). Wait, we hear what you’re saying — isn’t that a good thing? Yes, and no. If you’re trying to lose weight, fewer calories are ideal. (At which point, you might also consider water: It’s 100% calorie-free.) But if you’re using beer to recover, you’re trying to replace what your body has lost during exercise. That includes the energy you’ve expended. In which case, you could consider having your beer along with a small meal, suggests Kane.
The Ugly About Non-Alcoholic Beer
The point of a sports recovery drink is that a long, hard workout depletes your body’s carbohydrates. Carbs are the most readily available form of energy for your body to use. This is why sports drinks load them into their recovery beverages. Beer? Not so much.
“To recover after a hard workout, athletes need carbohydrates and protein,” says Kane. “While non-alcoholic beers contain carbohydrates, the level varies from around 5.6 grams to 16 grams, which may not be enough.” They also have zero protein content — which brings us to the next point.
Traditional sports drinks like Gatorade are packed with carbs with virtually no protein as well. When researchers discovered that the optimal way for muscles to recover after a workout was a roughly 4:1 mix of carbs to protein, a new crop of recovery drinks was born. Skratch Labs, Accelerade, and Endurox all offer a mix of carbs and protein. So does good old-fashioned chocolate milk. But like classic sports drinks, non-alcoholic beers come up short. “Athletes should pair these drinks with whole food sources to ensure they’re adequately recovering,” says Kane.
The bottom line? “Athletes’ carbohydrate needs will differ based on the type, duration, and intensity of exercise,” says Kane. “So they should be sure to also refuel with a carbohydrate- and protein-containing meal.”
Still, say you’re a beer-obsessed guy craving a cold one (or three) after a long workout. How much buzz-free beer would you need to adequately recover fluids lost during your workout? “The amount of fluid lost can vary from around 16 to 64 ounces per hour,” notes Kane. “Sweat rate varies and depends on factors such as fitness level, genetic predisposition, clothing worn, exercise intensity and duration, and environmental conditions.”
You’ll know you’ve properly replaced those lost fluids when your pee is a pale yellow color. If you’re hell-bent on getting there with non-alcoholic beer, you probably won’t do a ton of damage. “Trying to replace all fluids lost over two hours of running with only non-alcoholic beer won’t necessarily cause GI distress,” assures Kane.
Still, to rehydrate the right way, don’t pound them down — and add a salted pretzel or two. “Fluid should be consumed over time and with sufficient electrolytes to maximize retention.”
Looking for a few non-alcoholic beers to try? Here are some solid options.
While its recovery properties are suspect, there’s no questioning how refreshing Weihenstaphener’s NA Wheat Beer is after a hard workout. Winner of multiple taste awards, this beer is light on bitterness and even lighter on alcohol. Which is good news, because at 75 calories a bottle, you’ll need to throw back a few to replenish your energy after a workout.
Peeled grapefruit and zesty hop aromas highlight this hoppy amber ale from Brooklyn Brewery. Available all year, the Special Effects Hoppy Amber finishes the citrus and hops with a clean bitter edge. The crisp flavors and 0.5% ABV are the results of a combination of the brewery’s special fermentation method and hefty dry hopping to emphasize the hop notes and clean finish.
If you’re looking for a light, refreshing summer beer, Clausthaler has you covered with its Original NA Beer. Moderate carbonation and nearly nonexistent ABV make it ideal for tossing a few back for some quick refreshment. The clear golden color and white head frame sweet grainy malts, hay, and sweet honey notes, while the semi-dry finish provides excellent balance.
If you’re looking for a Japanese lager, look somewhere else. Suntory’s All-Free Non-Alcoholic Sparkling Malt & Hops Beverage has the light and sweet taste of an American pilsner. The sweet and fruity notes are balanced with a lightly toasted finish that keeps it from tasting overly saccharine. Not only is it light and refreshing after a workout, it’s zero calories means you can throw down a four-pack without any guilt.
Craving a Heine, but don’t want the hangover? Then you’re going to love Heineken’s 0.0 NA Beer, because it is a spot-on mimic of the traditional Heineken. Fruity notes sit on top of a slightly sweet malty base, while a smooth mouthfeel and generous carbonation highlight the flavors.
One whiff of Lagunita’s IPNA gives you the classic pine needle nose. It’s a good preview of some of the best flavors you’ll find in a non-alcoholic beer, with bitterness that’s more pine-forward than citrusy. It’s significantly lighter than a regular IPA, but it never breaches the “watery” threshold. All in all, it’s a great beer for hopheads who need a break from the hard stuff.
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