Pour Some Sugar on Me (or not)

By / Magazine / October 29th, 2007 / 2

Over two million Canadians have diabetes.

For thirty-two years I’ve been a card-carrying member of the no-sugar-tonight club. The thing that always surprises people when they find out I’m diabetic is the significant part that food and wine play in my life. Reactions range from the somewhat curious (“How do you manage to do that?”) to the utterly admonishing (“Diabetics shouldn’t drink!” — to which I typically reply: “To your health!” before draining my glass). While the medical world has pretty much conceded that diabetics need not abstain from fermented fruit juice (or other potent potables), the question of what to drink and how much remains an issue.

The following personal observations are those of a wine lover living with diabetes. As such, they are in no way intended as medical advice nor should they be construed as recommended conduct for other diabetics. If you have diabetes, consult your doctor for more information on drinking wine.

Ups and downs: who to believe

For example, the Canadian Diabetes Association website states that diabetics should “avoid fortified beverages such as brandy, port, Icewine and liqueurs, which all have a high sugar content.” Hello? I’m with them on the port, the Icewine and the liqueurs, but brandy? Last I heard, brandy was a spirit (containing little if any residual sugar), a “fortifier” rather than a “fortified,” if you will. (Technically, the only truly fortified beverage in that list is port — a wine fortified with brandy.) In any case, a little common sense needs to be exercised. The guidelines governing non-diabetic consumption of alcohol are as good a rule of thumb as any for diabetics (keeping in mind the type of drink enjoyed: for a non-diabetic, two glasses of Icewine equals two drinks; for a diabetic, it equals two drinks plus a corn syrup chaser).

Diabetics are repeatedly cautioned about the blood-sugar-lowering effect of alcohol. It’s a caution worth heeding. Indeed, alcohol is a unique little beast when it comes to how it is metabolized. I’m not going to go into a lengthy scientific dissertation on how alcohol lowers blood-sugar levels (that’s why God invented Google), suffice to say that it does.
Wine lovers with diabetes should probably get into the habit of more frequent blood testing when they are imbibing, at least until they develop a good understanding of how it affects them. I tend to disagree with those who say that diabetics should always have food when they drink. This is too general a prescription. How high are your blood sugars to begin with? If they are on the high side, a drink or two without food is probably not going to send you into a hypoglycemic tailspin. Just be careful, ’kay?

Bad diabetic, bad!
That being said, if you’ve overindulged the night before and are obviously worse for wear the next day, you need to be especially careful. The stores of glycogen in your liver (which serve to regulate blood-sugar levels) will have been severely compromised as your liver struggled to rid your body of the copious amounts of alcohol. This makes low blood-sugar levels a real concern.

While most non-diabetics can go ahead and eat as much or as little as they can tolerate the day after the night before (including breakfasts with oozing levels of vitamin G — as in “grease”), you simply can’t. Moreover, diabetics may find their body reacting to even the smallest amount of food in rather unpredictable ways, with blood-sugar levels shooting through the roof seemingly at the mere thought of eating. It’s going to be a long, painful, unproductive, yo-yoing kind of day. That oughta learn ya! 

The upside is: if wine lowers blood-sugar levels, moderate consumption may act as a bit of a stabilizer. (Massive disclaimer: this is just my theory — possibly my delusion or wishful/hopeful thinking — though it is backed somewhat by wine guru Jancis Robinson in her book The Demon Drink. Diabetics should, naturally, consult with their physician blah blah blah — if you’re “one of us,” you’ve heard it all before). And, yes, I used the “M” word: moderation … Now I’m pretty much in deep mulch no matter what I say.

One to four litres,  daily … Sounds good to me
When it comes to the demon drink, How much is too much? is the $64,000 question. Nineteenth-century French physician Bouchardat, in his seminal work De la glycosurie ou diabète sucré, recommended diabetics quaff one to four litres of Claret or Burgundy (of proper maturity … and not #$%#@ Aussie Shiraz) daily. Daily. I repeat: daily. Maybe alcohol wasn’t the answer, but this type of treatment would no doubt have gone a long way in helping you forget the original question.

And I guess, back in the good doctor’s days when there was no such thing as an old diabetic, being pissed as a newt most of the time wasn’t a bad way to spend your limited life. This treatment is rather impractical for today’s diabetic — have you seen the price of good Claret or Burgundy lately? At the end of the day, as a “wine guy,” I probably knock back more than the average diabetic (probably more than the average non-diabetic, but that’s our secret, right?). Yet my regular checkups suggest that I’m in rather good health.

To my fellow diabetics: yep, it’s a bitch (and you had no choice in the marriage and you can’t ever get a divorce — I trust my female readers will forgive this quip … you get my drift). The bottom line? We need to be careful, but we also need to live. So here’s a toast to you. If you want to chat more about this, drop me a line at [email protected].


Tod Stewart is the contributing editor at Quench. He's an award-winning Toronto-based wine/spirits/food/travel/lifestyle writer with over 35 years industry experience. He has contributed to newspapers, periodicals, and trade publications and has acted as a consultant to the hospitality industry. No matter what the subject matter, he aims to write an entertaining read. His book, 'Where The Spirits Moved Me' is now available on Amazon and Apple.

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