Alcohol is known to be a health risk. Research shows that it’s linked to certain cancers, can damage your liver, is tied to dementia risk and can just make you feel lousy. So, with all of these findings, it’s only natural to think more about your relationship with alcohol.
As the sobriety awareness of Dry January comes to a close, you may feel a pull to go back to your old drinking habits. But it could be worth thinking about your use of alcohol and making a change that lasts beyond January. (And, no, this does not have to mean cutting it out altogether.)
Terms like “mindful drinking” and “sober curious” are showing up in the news and on social media, indicating that folks are taking these research findings seriously. What mindful drinking means for one person might not be the same as for another, but in essence it’s bringing awareness to your alcohol consumption and choosing to drink when you actually want to, not just as a reflex while watching the game or as a crutch to deal with stress. Although some people who follow this lifestyle do still drink, others don’t, making the definition fluid and customizable to what’s right for you.
In the end, your decision to drink or not to drink is up to you. But for those who decide to imbibe, nutritionists say there are some things to keep in mind. Below, they share the alcohol guidelines you should follow if you do choose to drink.
1. The CDC guidelines say women should have no more than one drink per day and men should have no more than two.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines define moderate drinking as no more than one drink for women and two drinks for men each day, said Christine Byrne, a registered dietitian and the owner of Ruby Oak Nutrition in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I think that is a pretty good guideline,” she added. “Those specific guidelines also point out that it doesn’t mean seven drinks in a week for women, it means one drink a day — so not drinking for five days and then drinking six drinks on the sixth day is not the same thing.”
“Alcohol is a lot for your body to process,” which is why you can’t just bank all of those drinks for day six, Byrne said.
“Overloading [your body] with alcohol on one day and not drinking for seven days or more can be more harmful than just drinking one drink for women or two drinks for men on a single day … our bodies are able to process that amount of alcohol,” Byrne noted.
Not be a buzzkill, but one alcoholic drink does not mean a Long Island iced tea (a cocktail that combines gin, vodka, rum, tequila and triple sec).
Instead, the CDC says one drink is equivalent to a 12-ounce beer that is 5% alcohol by volume (ABV), 5 ounces of wine that’s 12% ABV, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor or 8 ounces of malt liquor that is 7% ABV.
But know that alcohol is not beneficial to your health.
″[It’s] really important to know that recently, I think as of last year, the World Health Organization actually came out and said that no amount of alcohol is safe,” said Sumner Brooks, a registered dietitian and author of “How to Raise an Intuitive Eater.”
“We know that alcohol is associated with cancer, it’s a Group 1 carcinogen, which puts it in the same group level as tobacco,” Brooks said. Beyond being a carcinogen, alcohol is a toxin, according to Byrne, who added that “our body prioritizes metabolizing the alcohol because it’s a toxin, so it wants to get rid of it.”
The WHO guidelines say that even one drink per day for women and two per day for men is still associated with these health risks, Brooks noted.
So for people who do choose to drink, “it’s just important [to know] that we’ve moved past the point of that general consensus that drinking offers health benefits,” she added.
Suffice to say that just because the guidelines say you can have a certain amount of alcohol each day doesn’t mean you should.
2. If you do imbibe, drink water after each alcoholic beverage.
It’s not an official guideline, but the notion of following up an alcoholic drink with a glass of water is a good practice to follow, Byrne said.
“Not only does it hydrate you, it also slows you down, and that can be helpful,” she added. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you pee more often and can dehydrate you.
If you decide to drink more than what the CDC guidelines consider “moderate drinking,” following each drink with water is helpful, noted Byrne.
3. Don’t drink on an empty stomach.
You probably have at least one memory (albeit, a fuzzy one) of drinking on an empty stomach.
For more reasons than one, Byrne said, drinking on an empty stomach is not a good idea.
“I do not recommend drinking on an empty stomach. The alcohol can hit you faster that way, and that can be a problem,” she said. Specifically, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, your body absorbs alcohol faster when you don’t have food in your stomach.
“Drinking while eating can help you not get so drunk, which is a good thing,” Byrne said. “It also could help you drink less because you’re not just drinking, you’re also eating — there’s something else to do. And drinking less is a good thing.”
So if you end up at a happy hour with friends, order a few bites to eat, too.
4. Don’t replace meals with alcohol.
According to Brooks, while alcohol does provide your body with calories, it does not provide it with necessary nutrition, like protein, fiber or fat.
“People tend to equate dietary quality with calories, which is really harmful, especially when it comes to alcohol. Because if they’re just thinking about how many calories they’re taking in, then they will replace food calories with alcohol calories and think that’s enough or that’s a healthy replacement,” Brooks said.
“But really, nutrition is about getting what we need: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals and water, and when we’re cutting those things out to maintain calorie balance, then there’s a nutrition risk,” she said. Your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs if you’re replacing a meal with a filling beer.
5. Be aware of what constitutes binge drinking.
Byrne said it’s important to know the official definition of binge drinking. The CDC says having five drinks or more on an occasion for men and four drinks or more for women is considered binge drinking.
“I think it’s less than a lot of people think,” Byrne noted.
Think about it: If you’ve ever been to a wedding where there’s cocktail hour, dinner, dancing and often an after-party, you know how easy it is to have four or five drinks during the celebration.
“What you do with alcohol is completely up to you, and just because you drink more than what’s considered binge drinking on a single occasion doesn’t necessarily mean you have an alcohol addiction or an alcohol problem,” Byrne said. “I want to make that clear, too, but technically speaking, that is the definition of binge drinking.”
6. Pay close attention to why you’re drinking.
For those who do choose to drink, Brooks said it’s important to pay attention to three things:
- The frequency and quantity of your drinking: Use the CDC’s guidelines to assess how much and how often you’re drinking.
- Why you’re drinking: “Ask yourself, what is it that I think this drink will do for me?” Brooks said, adding that if you’re using alcohol to de-stress, let loose or be more social, know that you can do this without drinking.
- Is there something else you can do or drink instead of alcohol? “Because there are actually so many ways that we can achieve those benefits that people think they’re getting from drinking, we can get all of those things without drinking,” Brooks said.
“If you are saying, ‘Well, I just need this drink because I just need to relax’ … that alcohol itself isn’t actually what helps you relax. [What can give you that effect can] be the sitting, taking a break from what you’re doing or going to happy hour and talking to people, connecting to people, getting a change of scenery,” Brooks explained.
You can still relax without a glass of wine. You could take up coloring or take a bath with a seltzer by your side instead of a glass of wine, or you could go out for a walk for an after-work change of scenery, she added.
“If somebody believes that having that drink at the end of the day is their way to relax, then just by default they’re not thinking about other ways that they actually could decompress,” Brooks said.
Beyond thinking about your intention with alcohol, it’s important to look at any red flags, too.
“If you think your drinking might be problematic, ask yourself why you’re doing it,” Byrne said, “and if you’re doing it to avoid certain feelings or numb certain feelings, then that’s something to question and probably a reason to reassess your relationship with alcohol.”
In this case, it’s also a good idea to reach out to a therapist who’s trained in substance use treatment who can support you, Byrne added. The Psychology Today website can help you find a local mental health provider.
Additionally, Brooks noted that changing your drinking habits is not an easy feat. If you are trying to do this, it’s a good idea to lean on loved ones who have a similar mindset.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.