In general, a regular, 12-ounce beer provides about 150 calories and 13 grams of carbohydrate and is about 5% alcohol by volume. A light beer provides about 100 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrate (although some have more) and is about 4% alcohol by volume. A “low-carbohydrate” beer provides about 95 calories and 3 grams of carbohydrate and, like light beer, is about 4% alcohol by volume.
The fact that beers marketed as “low-carbohydrate” have about the same amount of alcohol per serving as regular or light beer is worth noting for people who have diabetes. This is because drinking alcohol, particularly on an empty stomach, can cause low blood glucose (hypoglycemia). Unlike carbohydrate, protein, and fat, alcohol is not broken down through the process of digestion. Instead, it is absorbed into the bloodstream directly through the lining of the stomach and wall of the small intestine. If there is no food in the stomach, alcohol is absorbed quickly; the presence of food slows absorption somewhat. Once in the bloodstream, alcohol tends to make insulin and other blood-glucose-lowering drugs “work” harder, which can lead to hypoglycemia.
Another way in which alcohol raises the risk of hypoglycemia is by interfering with the normal release of glucose by the liver when blood glucose levels are low. The liver metabolizes most of the alcohol a person consumes, and while it is processing alcohol, that task takes first priority. The liver breaks down alcohol at a rate of about half an ounce per hour, so it takes about two hours to metabolize one ounce of alcohol — the amount in about 12 ounces of beer. Not only is the liver not releasing glucose while processing alcohol, but it is also not adding to its stores of glycogen (a storage form of glucose), which can raise the risk of hypoglycemia hours after drinking.
Exercising while drinking also increases the risk of hypoglycemia since physical activity also tends to lower blood glucose levels.
To lower the risks associated with drinking alcohol, diabetes experts offer the following, commonsense guidelines:
- Men should have no more than two drinks per day and women no more than one.
- To lower the risk of developing hypoglycemia, eat carbohydrate-containing foods before and while drinking.
- Don’t drink right after performing vigorous exercise.
- Be aware that the effects of alcohol can be seen up to 36 hours after drinking, and check your blood glucose level accordingly.
- Speak to your health-care provider about a safe level of alcohol consumption for you.
- Check both the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients list for the type of sweeteners used in a product, particularly if you’re sensitive to the gastrointestinal side effects of sugar alcohols.
- To count carbohydrates in a diabetes meal plan, divide the number of grams of sugar alcohols by two.
- Check the Nutrition Facts panel for total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat, and limit your intake according to your meal plan. The less saturated and trans fats you eat, the better for your arteries.
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or simply want to maintain your current weight, don’t forget about calories. No matter where they come from — whether from carbohydrate, fat, protein, or alcohol — if you take in more than you burn off, you will gain weight. When buying and eating packaged foods, therefore, read the Nutrition Facts panel, and make note of the serving size. If you eat a larger portion than the serving size listed, you must increase the nutrient amounts accordingly.
No free lunch
Low-carbohydrate foods and beverages may offer some new options for your meal plan, but they’re not necessarily “free” foods. When sampling new, “low-carb” products, keep these tips in mind: