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Is there a 'best' beer for people with diabetes?

Summer has arrived and for many this means extended holidays and travel, time off work or study, and spending quality time with family and friends. This time of year for many involves celebrating, unwinding and relaxing, at functions and events, holiday destinations, and at home in front of the cricket.

 

This season marks a period where alcohol consumption increases and beer, despite a reduction in overall consumption over the years, is on par with wine as the most popular way to consume alcohol in Australia.

 

Beer has changed a lot over the years, driven by market forces to appeal to new generations of beer drinkers who are more health conscious, including females. These days selecting the best beer for your health (or least-worse beer depending on how you see it) has become as difficult as selecting the best yoghurt with many brands offering an array of products that vary in alcohol and/or carbohydrate content, and a promise that lighter equals better for you. So which one is the best for people living with diabetes?

 

Low carb beers

A 375ml can of regular strength beer contains roughly 10g of carbohydrates, or approximately 3g per 100ml. Low carbohydrate beers vary between 0g-7g in a 375ml serve, equating to 0-2g per 100ml. So, if you buy the right brands you can save up to two-thirds the carbs. Sounds amazing? While this sounds like a substantial saving, it is worth considering that regular beer at 3g of carbohydrate per 100ml is not terribly high in carbohydrates to start with. In comparison, soft drink has 11g carbohydrate per 100ml.  The per can saving in carbohydrate, by choosing low carb over regular, is equal to half a slice of bread, at most.

 

Most people assume that lower carbs means lower energy, but this is not the case with some low carb beers. For example, 375ml Carlton Draught contains 581kJ (139cals) and 10.1g carbohydrate; the 'lower carb' Carlton Dry contains 521kJ (125cal) and 7g of carbohydrate. That's a saving of 60 kilojoules - equal to two Sakata rice crackers. Even when you compare an 'ultra-low carb' beer such as Pure Blonde which contains 409kJ (98cal) and 2g carbohydrate in 375ml, the energy or kilojoule saving compared to Carlton Draught is 172kJ - the equivalent of six Sakata rice crackers.

 

Furthermore, at 409kJ (98 cals) Pure Blonde Ultra-low carb is still a kilojoule-dense beverage option. The average slice of bread contains about 420kJ (100 cal) - so the belief that you can drink more low carb beer without weight gain is false. Every low carb beer drunk is equal to consuming a slice of bread in terms of additional energy intake, which adds up quickly when overindulging.

 

Will low carb beer be better for my blood glucose levels?

Alcohol can have a confusing effect on blood glucose levels because it prevents the liver from producing glucose while it prioritises detoxifying the blood of alcohol. In people who take insulin and certain diabetes tablets, the consequence of this is that hypoglycemia (hypo) can occur after a night of drinking. Alcohol can also make it harder to recognise the symptoms of, and to treat, a hypo.

 

So although you would expect drinking a regular carb beer to result in higher blood glucose levels than a low carb beer, due to the effect on the liver, that is not always the case. Furthermore, drinking alcohol can affect your judgement when looking after your diabetes. High blood glucose levels when drinking beer will more often than not be caused by the food consumed with the beer e.g. chips, snacks and large portion sizes.

Alcohol does affect different people in different ways so, if in doubt, test your blood glucose to see how alcohol affects you.

 

Light and reduced alcohol beers

Light (low alcohol) beer holds about 2.7% of alcohol (compared with about 4.6% in a standard beer), has the same number of kilojoules as a low-carb beer, and has a similar amount of carbs to a standard beer. The 30% energy reduction is due to the lower alcohol content. Drinking large amounts of alcohol can be extremely dangerous. It can affect many different parts of the body, including your brain, nerves, liver and pancreas. Drinking too much alcohol can also increase your risk of developing heart disease and some cancers. For this reason, light or reduced alcohol beer would be the best choice healthwise - but not if you drink double the number!

 

Ciders and shandies

Ciders and shandies will increase blood glucose levels in the short-term due to the high sugar content. A 330ml bottle of Somersby Apple Cider contains about 30g of carbohydrate - equal to eating two slices of bread, along with 12g of alcohol. A shandy of the same volume, made with half-regular beer and half lemonade, is lower in alcohol as the beer is diluted, but contains a whopping 45g of carbohydrate due to the lemonade - equal to three slices of bread. This can be reduced by using a no-sugar mixer in a shandy. Given both ciders and shandies contain higher levels of carbs and alcohol, they contain nearly double the kilojoules of regular beer and as such are not waistline-friendly.

 

The verdict: it depends how much you are drinking

Moving to either low carb or light beer will result in substantial savings in carb and energy intake only if you are drinking a lot, which, from a health perspective, is not recommended anyway. Light beer is the best choice due to its lower alcohol content; however, it will only benefit you if you drink the same number or less than if you were consuming regular strength beers. As with other discretionary foods, like cheese and chocolate, it makes sense to drink what you like, even if this is the full strength, higher kilojoule option, but drink it less often and in smaller amounts.

 

How much alcohol is recommended?

The Australian Guidelines recommend healthy adults should drink no more than two standard drinks on any day to cut the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. They also recommend consuming a max of four standard drinks on a single occasion to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury. One standard drink of beer is 285ml (middy or pot) of full-strength beer, including low carb beer, or one 375ml (can) of mid-strength beer, or a schooner of light-strength beer.

 

How can I cut down my beer and/or alcohol intake?

  • Build in your alcohol free days per week
  • Decide on a number of beers per day - and only put this many in the fridge
  • Reduce temptation - don't keep alcohol in the house
  • Delay drinking until as late as possible in the day
  • Do something else when you would usually be drinking, eg, go for a walk or join a group program or class. Keeping busy will pass the time and distract your mind
  • Swap alcoholic for non-alcoholic beverages

 

What can I drink instead?

  • Unflavoured sparkling mineral water
  • Soda water - add ice and a slice of lemon or mint leaves
  • Ice tea - no sugar versions
  • Diet or no sugar soft drink or cordial

 

Where to get help?

Whether you are having issues with alcohol or other drugs, are concerned about someone else's alcohol or other drug use, or just have general questions about alcohol you can call ADIS any time of the day or week for support, information, counselling and referral to services.

 

National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline: 1800 250 015

You will be automatically directed to the ADIS in the state or territory you are calling from.

 

Written by Kate Battocchio (APD)

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