The fact that alcoholic drinks are full of empty calories and have no nutritional value is bad news for your waistline. But, what many people don’t consider is that they can also be full of sugar.
A pint of cider can contain as many as five teaspoons of sugar – almost as much as the World Health Organisation recommends that you do not exceed per day1. What’s more, alcohol can negatively alter blood sugar levels, putting heavy drinkers at increased risk of developing alcohol-related diabetes.
Too much sugar is bad for your heath in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s very high in calories, and excessive consumption can lead to unhealthy weight gain. Being overweight can make you more susceptible to long term health problems, including life threatening illnesses such as heart disease. A high-sugar diet can also lead to type 2 diabetes, which occurs when a person’s blood sugar levels are too high.
Quite apart from the damage it can do to your body, sugar is also the main cause of tooth decay, which can lead to cavities if left untreated.
Alcoholic drinks account for 10% of 29 to 64 year olds in the UK’s daily intake of added sugar, and 6% for over 65s.2 Despite this, many people forget to factor in what they drink when calculating daily sugar intake. All alcoholic beverages contain some sugar, but Dr Sarah Jarvis, a member of Drinkaware’s medical panel, identifies fortified wines, sherries, liqueurs and cider as being particular causes of excessive consumption. It’s also important to consider what you’re mixing your drinks with, as the carbonated drinks popular with spirits are often very high in sugar.
However, it’s not only the high sugar content of alcohol that can affect your body – drinking to excess has also been shown to have a negative effective on blood sugar.
When a person drinks alcohol, the body reacts to it as a toxin, and channels all energy into expelling it. This means that other processes are interrupted – including the production of glucose and the hormones needed to regulate it. This is most noticeable is in heavy drinkers, as over time drinking too much alcohol decreases the effectiveness of insulin, which leads to high blood sugar levels.
Alcohol also affects blood sugar levels each time it’s consumed, which means occasional drinkers can also be negatively impacted. Alcohol consumption causes an increase in insulin secretion, which leads to low blood sugar (otherwise known as hypoglycaemia). This causes light headedness and fatigue, and is also responsible for a host of longer-term alcohol-related health problems.
The effects of alcohol on blood sugar, in particular hypoglycemia, can make excessive drinking very dangerous for anyone with diabetes. Alcohol can also make hypoglycemic medications less effective, meaning those with diabetes need to take extra care when drinking.
In addition to this, Dr Jarvis warns that alcohol with high sugar content can lead to ‘hypoglycemia unawareness’. In other words, people with diabetes sufferers who have been drinking won’t notice the warning signs of low blood sugar. “This results in a much higher risk of the most dangerous kind of hypos in which blood sugar is very low and there are significantly higher risks of cardiac arrhythmia, brain damage (and) myocardial infarction,” says Dr Jarvis.
If you’re concerned about the amount of sugar you’re consuming through alcohol, or about the effect of alcohol on your blood sugar, there are ways you can cut down on alcohol. Some tips you could try are:
- Alternate each alcoholic drink with a glass of water. This helps keep you hydrated and clear-headed, so you can keep track of how much you’re drinking.
- Try switching to low alcohol drinks. These are often lighter, healthier alternatives to your favourite beverages, and can help you keep your sugar consumption in check.
- Never drink on an empty stomach. Food helps slow down the rate at which your body absorbs alcohol, meaning glucose production isn’t affected as dramatically.
(1) World Health Organization, ‘Guideline: Sugars Intake For Adults And Children', 2015. Available at: http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/guidelines/sugars_intake/en/ and