Diabetes and Alcohol: Does it Mix?

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If you've recently been diagnosed with diabetes, you may be feeling deprived because you can't eat unlimited quantities of so many of your favorite foods. And you may be wondering whether you can still enjoy a beer, glass of wine, or margarita with friends from time to time.

Happily, the answer is often "yes."

"The risks for drinking alcohol if you're diabetic are the same as they are for anyone else," says Stephanie A. Dunbar, RD, MPH, director of nutrition and medical affairs at the American Diabetes Association in Alexandria, Virginia. "The guidelines are the same whether you have diabetes or not: no more than one drink a day for women, and two drinks a day for men."

Alcohol has been shown to have a protective cardiovascular effect, Dunbar notes, but if you have diabetes, consider whether you are in good control before popping the cork on that bottle of wine. "If you're not, you probably shouldn't drink," Dunbar says. "Throwing alcohol into the mix when your blood sugars are out of control is not a good idea."

One risk diabetics face with drinking is the danger of a hypoglycemic episode hours later. "Your blood sugar can drop too low up to 24 hours after drinking," Dunbar says. "So we always recommend that you consume food when you drink alcohol."

Additionally, since the symptoms of too much alcohol and hypoglycemia can easily be confused, it's important that people know you have diabetes. If you suddenly start acting disoriented and confused, those around you could believe you've had too much to drink when in fact, your blood sugar is too low.

Here are more tips on how to drink smart, if you choose to drink: 

  1. Discuss with your health care provider whether it's beneficial for you to consume alcohol or not.
  2. Women should limit daily alcohol consumption to one drink, which equals a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1 ½ ounces of distilled spirits such as vodka, whiskey, or gin. Men should consume no more than two drinks a day.
  3. If your doctor is considering prescribing a diabetes pill, be sure to inform her if you consume alcohol several times or more per week.
  4. Test your blood sugar before you drink. If it's lower than 140, have a snack to raise it.
  5. Drink alcohol with food. Ideal snacks include crackers, popcorn, pretzels, and baked chips, or crudités served with a lowfat yogurt dip.
  6. One easy way to decrease the amount of wine in a drink is to make a spritzer. Combine equal parts seltzer and white wine. Make gin and tonic with diet tonic water, and use diet colas for a rum-based drink.
  7. Drinks to stay away from are those that involve a lot of cream and sugar. For instance, drinks that end in "tini" often tend to be high in sugar. Also to be avoided are the sugary liqueurs such as coffee, chocolate, and raspberry.
  8. Wear an identifying bracelet or necklace that says you have diabetes.
  9. Keep a no-calorie beverage (water, seltzer, diet soda) close at hand in case you get thirsty.
  10. To savor your drink, sip it slowly. You'll enjoy it more and it will last longer.

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American Diabetes Association: Food and Fitness: Alcohol.