Identify your limit and use these 5 tips to harness the power of healthy habits to cut down on drinking
Headlines about alcohol consumption can be confusing. One day you may see a headline stating that a glass of wine is associated with positive benefits for health and the next day you may see a headline stating that any amount of alcohol can hurt your health. Which perspective should we believe?
First, regardless of the studies that show that a glass of alcohol may have positive benefits for our health, we do not need to drink alcohol to be healthy. The real question that is more difficult to assess is how much alcohol is too much.
…regardless of the studies that show that a glass of alcohol may have positive benefits for our health, we do not need to drink alcohol to be healthy.
How much alcohol is too much?
The answer to that question depends. If you have certain medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or a mental health issue, you should avoid alcohol altogether because of the potential consequences to your health. If you don’t have a medical condition, it may be harder to tell whether the amount that you’re consuming is harmful. In this case, the first thing to do is to check how much you’re drinking and compare that amount to official guidelines, and with your doctor because they can provide more specific guidance, whereas I’m only providing general (nonmedical) advice 😉.
Standard Definitions of Alcohol Consumption
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a division within the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), moderate alcohol consumption is defined as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. Heavy alcohol use is defined as 3 or more drinks on given day for women and 4 or more drink for men. Binge drinking is defined as 4 drinks of more for women and 5 plus drinks for men, when consumed within a span of 2 hours or less.
What is considered a standard drink size? The answer is 5 ounces of wine (1 standard glass), 12 ounces of beer (1 can), and 1.5 ounces of liquor (1 shot).
If you find that you fall into any of the excessive drinking categories after reviewing these definitions, there’s no shame in reaching out for support. If you need resources, or know someone who does, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website to learn about treatment options near you. There are also directories that provide a list of trained professionals who focus on diverse populations like Inclusive Therapists or TFBG. You should also consider reaching out to a trusted family member, friend, or your pastor or spiritual leader to talk about what you’re going through. Help others shatter the stigma and break the silence by speaking out.
Are There Risks to Moderate Drinking?
More and more studies are finding that even moderate amounts of alcohol consumption can have affects on our health. For example, this study analyzed the drinking behavior of almost 600,000 people and showed that moderate drinking was associated with shorter lifespans and higher rates of cardiovascular disease.
It’s important to keep in mind that alcohol is a toxin. Our body will prioritize metabolizing this toxin over other substances and nutrients in our system to ensure that the alcohol does not accumulate and cause damage to our vital organs. This includes fat, which is why excessive alcohol consumption can lead to a condition known as fatty liver disease, which affects the vast majority of people who drink daily, even if they do so in moderate amounts.
Also, a sobering fact about alcohol is that it is an addictive substance. The more often you drink, you risk turning the behavior into a habit. Those small repeated behaviors may not seem like a big deal, but as we’ve discussed before, they can have a surprisingly big impact — for better or worse. So, let’s use the powerful effect of habits to magnify the positive benefits and crowd out our negative tendencies.
But before I share my 5 tips for cutting down on drinking, it’s important to do these 3 steps first:
- Take some time to reflect. In addition to thinking about the amount that we drink, we should also consider when and why we drink. For example, maybe we have a tendency to drink to unwind after a stressful day of work or as a way of socializing. Maybe another driver is the taste and the way that it makes us feel. Gaining a better understanding of our triggers and internal motivations for drinking is the first step toward changing those environmental cues that cause us to make the decision without really thinking more about what and why we’re doing it. It also helps us re-examine our motivational drivers to see if there’s something deeper that we’re not addressing, like anxiety from doom-scrolling or feeling dissatisfied with our job. If there are deeper underlying issues, it’s important to get those resolved to improve aspects of our well-being that reach far beyond our drinking habits.
- Conduct a self-assessment. Everyone’s risk of alcohol use disorder is different and there are certain factors that may place someone at higher risk than others, such as a family history or chronic feelings of unhappiness and worry. It’s generally a good idea to check in with yourself often and see if it’s time to reach out. Here’s a list of signs and symptoms provided by the NIAAA. You don’t have to submit the form if you don’t want to. Know that if you feel like any of the symptoms apply to you, especially as you move toward the bottom of the list, it is a good time to take action by telling someone you trust. You can also visit this website that I provided earlier to find resources near you, or you can look through directories that provide the contact information for trained professionals who focus on diverse populations like Inclusive Therapists or TFBG.
- Make the habit visible. It can be easy to lose sight of how much we’re really drinking when we’re not keeping track. For example, if you drink a glass of wine 3 times a week for an entire year, that’s 156 glasses a year! If money is a big motivator for you, then that’s about $485 a year (assuming 5 oz glasses and an average size bottle of 750ml at an average price of $15.66). Over time, this can take a serious toll on your health and wallet.
We need to go through these steps first in order to lay down a strong foundation for our health. Without a strong foundation, it will be a lot more difficult to make behavioral changes.
5 Tips for crowding out those drinking habits
1. Drink a full glass of water before any alcoholic beverage.
Get into the routine of drinking a full (preferably 8 oz) glass of water before pouring a glass of wine or making that cocktail or opening that can of beer or cider. You can drink the glass of water slowly or quickly, just so long as you drink it entirely. This will hydrate your body, which has its own health benefits, especially when you’re drinking. It may also make you will feel fuller and want to drink less or crowd out the desire entirely.
Drinking can be fun because it’s often an opportunity to try a new beverage. When we cut down on drinking, we may feel like we’re giving this up, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, look at this as an opportunity to explore something new. Have you ever tried making a mocktail? Some are really good (check out some of these recipes on delish)! Companies are also getting a lot better at making great tasting non-alcoholic drinks. This article on Forbes and this one on Refinery29 describes some of the latest drinks to hit the market. By making a habit of exploring alternatives, you can make the goal of cutting down on alcohol more fun.
3. Make it social.
Inviting others to cut down on drinking with you can help reduce the temptation by giving them an incentive to find alternative activities that you all can do. It will reinforce a sense of solidarity and provide a system of accountability. You can also make it fun by turning it into a challenge. Put money into a pot and see who can go the longest without drinking!
4. Do a little less.
We’ve talked about this before on our blog (see this post), starting an entirely new routine or stopping something all at once may feel demotivating. That’s why we recommend taking the approach of doing a little less. Instead of going completely dry, ask yourself if you can cut out one glass a month. Then see if you can cut out a glass a week. Going back to my suggestion of making behaviors visible, cutting out a single glass a week amounts to 52 glasses a year. That can result in a big boost to your health — and lead to more savings in your bank account!
5. Celebrate any and all progress.
Did you tell someone that you’re cutting down so that they can do it with you or hold you accountable? Did you avoid adding alcohol to the grocery list? Did you pour that glass of water to drink before pouring a glass of wine or opening that can of beer or cider? Even if you don’t quite achieve the goal of drinking less that day or week, celebrate that accomplishment (like crazy) because it means you’re one step closer to establishing that healthy habit.