From the beginning, light beer has been a marketing gimmick. That isn't to say that the information regarding the calorie count or other nutritional information about individual beers broadcast from the breweries producing light beer was either true or false. It means that the formulation, brewing, marketing and selling of light beer was and is an exploitation of the desire of beer drinkers to live a healthier lifestyle.
In truth, there is little difference between light beer and what one might call regular beer. Anheuser-Busch recently came out with their new Bud Select 55 at 55 calories, calories being the focus of most light beer claims. For comparison, let's use a couple of common beers, Heineken as a representative of the regular category and Guinness for heavy, as opposed to light. According to Bob Skilnik's Does My Butt Look Big in this Beer? Heineken contains 142 calories. Guinness Extra Stout has 176 calories per 12 oz. serving. (By the way, Guinness Draught clocks in at 125 calories. Confused? More about stout styles here.) But what do these numbers really mean?
The difference between the super diet beer, Select, and Heineken is 87 calories. According to the handy little chart in the back of my 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking, that's roughly the same calorie count as one cup or 8 oz. of skim milk. The difference between Select and the Stout is a little more, 121 calories. In real food, that's one cup of cottage cheese. That's it; that's the big difference that beer drinkers are saving themselves when they choose the light beer over beer.
Beer drinkers often choose light beer because they want to drink without the guilt of consuming too many calories. They want to relax, hang out with friends, perhaps get a little buzz and generally enjoy themselves without having to worry about their waistline. This is where light beers are really deceiving. One of the most caloric things in beer is alcohol. It's simply a fact that alcohol is high in calories. Therefore, when brewers want to produce a low calorie beer, they have to cut the alcohol content, especially for beers that dip below 100 calories per 12 oz. serving.
So drinkers who want to enjoy the effects of beer without the calories are doing themselves a disservice by opting for light beer. Going back to the Heineken/Select comparison, Heineken contains 5% abv while Select only has 2.5% abv. See, Anheuser-Busch Inbev had to cut the alcohol in half to get the calorie count down. This left behind the other calories in the ingredients required to call it a beer. In order to ingest the same amount of alcohol, the beer drinker would have to down two Selects. That's 110 calories compared to 142 in Heineken giving us a whopping difference of 32 calories. In real food, this saves one about one tangerine.
Do you really want to control how much you're drinking? Try beer that tastes good; not tolerable diet beer. Slow down and enjoy your beer. On a per beer basis, it may be a bit higher in calories than a so-called light beer but odds are you will drink it slower and enjoy it more. If you are in a situation where you plan to drink more than one beer, have a glass of water between each one. This will slow down your caloric and alcohol ingestion and leave you feeling generally better later.