Protein Beer: Is It Really All That Healthy?

Whether you’re into stouts, IPAs or sours, the concept of downing beer after your workout isn’t new. Social sports leagues have been doing it for years — just for the pure enjoyment of it. Plus, a 2013 study from the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism showed that a low-alcohol beer could actually be more beneficial than downing a sports drink (albeit with a bit of sodium added to it).

So it was only a matter of time until brewing companies tapped into the trend. The hook: protein. After all, doesn’t a mango-flavored, protein-fortified IPA sound way better than a clumpy protein shake? With up to 21 grams of protein per bottle, these brews claim to be just what you need to help your muscles recover after a grueling workout.

But does it really do your body good? We turned to Molly Kimball, RD, sports dietitian with Ochsner Fitness Center in New Orleans and Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, founder of betterthandieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It, to investigate. Here are six cold hard facts out about protein beer.

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6 Truths About Your Post-Workout Protein Beer

1. It really does have more protein than a regular beer.
When you’re simply comparing beer to beer, yes, the protein brews actually have more of the muscle recovery stuff than your average craft beer. Mighty Squirrel, for example, has four grams, Lean Machine has seven grams, and Barbell Brew contains a whopping 21 grams of muscle-building protein. While your average craft beer does contain protein that’s left behind from the barley used in the brewing process, you definitely won’t find a substantial amount (about two grams or less).

 2. But it shouldn’t be your main source of protein.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “If you’re looking for protein to build your six-pack, don’t grab a six-pack,” says Taub-Dix. “You should be getting that from whole, nutritious foods like Greek yogurt, chicken or fish and eggs.” And if you’re eating all of those foods anyway, you don’t really need the additional protein in your beer. “Most people don’t realize how much they’re getting and how much they really need,” adds Taub-Dix. Of course, the amount of protein you need depends on how long and intense your workout was. But Kimball generally suggests people get between 10 to 35 grams within 30 minutes of finishing your session. The best lean protein sources for building muscles are dairy, eggs, meat, seafood, nuts, seeds and legumes.

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3. It’s calorie-dense.
“Alcohol calories are not free calories,” says Kimball. “Even though they’re low-carb, alcohol calories pack in more calories per gram. So, for example, there are four calories in a gram of carbs, whereas there are seven calories in a gram of alcohol. Unit to unit, that makes alcohol calories nearly twice as dense: You’re getting twice as many calories for the same amount.”

Downing booze also lowers your inhibitions, which can lower your resolve to stay away from not-so-healthy food options typically found in bars. “You may walk in saying you’re not going to have those fries, but after having a few beers you may want them and cave,” says Taub-Dix. 

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4. At the end of the day, you’re still drinking alcohol.
“The reality is that alcohol actually hinders post-workout recovery, so a lot of the protein is negated by the alcohol you’re drinking,” says Kimball. Enjoying a protein beer isn’t really the same as drinking a protein shake after you’ve wrapped your routine.

5. Carbs and sugar content matter, too.
Carbs help our bodies absorb protein more efficiently. And regardless of whether it’s coming from booze or food, the recommended ratio of carbs to protein is 3:1 or 4:1 for promoting muscle recovery, Kimball says. But how are you supposed to know how many carbs are in your beer? Enter nutrition labels, which some major brewing companies will start producing by 2020, according to The Beer Institute.

These new labels will include carb, sugar and protein content, which Kimball says are all important in helping you make any nutrition decision. So having the label on beer is smart. No, it probably won’t stop you from drinking one of your favorite brews, but when you’re trying to choose between two options, it’s helpful to know what you’re getting into.

“If you’re trying to watch your sugar intake and one beer is lighter and the other is an apricot wheat beer, then you may not choose the apricot wheat if there’s more sugar in it,” says Taub-Dix. “On the other hand, an apricot wheat beer could have so much flavor that you may only want one beer instead of two. And that can save you in the long run on your calorie and carbohydrate intake.” It all depends on your goals, Taub-Dix says.

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6. It’s OK for happy hour, just not for post-workout recovery.
“As long as we’re not positioning it to be a resource for us to be healthier or to enhance our recovery after a workout — and not using it as an excuse to have more than we normally would — then protein beer is totally fine to drink,” says Kimball. “It’s a beer first, with the added benefit of a little extra protein.”

That said, if you really don’t care about protein in your beer, that’s cool, too. To make a healthier beer selection more generally, simply evaluate your goals. If you’re focused on keeping things low-cal, a light beer is the way to go, says Taub-Dix. If you’re not, consider a darker brew. “They have more antioxidants and they’re heavier, so they slow down how much you’re drinking overall,” says Kimball. Regardless, enjoy the fact that all beers have flavonoids, which help collect the cell-damaging free radicals that are created while exercising.