How to Be a Healthier Drinker

7 minute read

The science is clear: from a health perspective, the less you drink, the better. But alcohol is a cornerstone of nearly every personal and professional gathering, so you may not always want to abstain.

Nor do you always have to. Most people can make drinking in moderation part of a healthy lifestyle in a variety of ways, experts say.

Here’s how to do it.

Take inventory of your habits.

Becoming a healthier drinker starts with getting real with yourself. Have you had a problem with alcohol in the past, or do you now? “Reflecting earnestly and honestly is an important first step,” says Dr. Aakash Shah, chief of addiction medicine at Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey. Those with alcohol addiction issues are usually advised to abstain from drinking. Not sure if that’s you? Consider whether you’re increasingly snapping at or arguing with your loved ones about how much you’re drinking, showing up late or not performing well at work, or unable to think of anything but your next drink. If that sounds familiar, talk to your primary care doctor or search online for an addiction medicine specialist. “Not only is this a disease, but it’s a disease for which we have medications that work well,” Shah says.

Even those who haven’t struggled with alcohol use disorder can benefit from this type of reflection, Shah adds. Do you tend to drink more during celebrations? When you’re sad or in the middle of an argument? Taking stock of your triggers can help you better prepare for the times when you tend to overdo it.

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Stick to the recommendations.

Experts agree it’s essential to follow federal guidelines to limit intake to two drinks per day for men, and one a day for women. A standard drink means 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. Binge drinking—defined as having five or more drinks per occasion for men or four or more drinks for women—is especially dangerous, because it’s associated with serious injuries and diseases, as well as a higher risk of alcohol use disorder. “Spread out your alcohol over the week,” advises Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Don’t have it all Friday or Saturday night.”

Make a plan before going out.

If you tend to overindulge, decide in advance how much you’re going to drink, and enlist a friend to help you stick to your goals—maybe reminding you that you only wanted to have two drinks before switching to water or soda. “Tell so-and-so that if they see you behaving in a certain way, they should let you know, and you’ll head out early and call it a night,” Shah says.

It can also be helpful, he notes, to figure out how you’ll say no if your friends start pushing you to have another. You could even rehearse potential scenarios with someone you trust. “Practicing is so important,” Shah says. “If you leave it up to yourself to find the words in the minute, especially if you’ve already been drinking, it’ll be much more difficult.”

Don’t drink on an empty stomach.

You’ll typically order a drink first at a restaurant, then figure out what you want to eat. But that can amplify the negative effects of alcohol. “It would be much better to get your appetizers first, and after they’re delivered, get a drink,” Rimm says. That way, you won’t spend 20 minutes or so drinking on an empty stomach. Food slows down the rate of intoxication, research suggests, by interfering with how quickly alcohol is absorbed into the small intestine. Meals high in fat, carbs, or protein are particularly effective.

Choose your drinks wisely.

Know the concentration of alcohol in your drink—and if possible, dilute it, Rimm advises. That’s not necessary with wine, which is about 14% alcohol by volume (ABV), or beer, which is usually about 5-7%. “But spirits have a huge range that can be as low as 30% or as high as 70% alcohol,” Rimm says. One shot could deliver as much or more alcohol than a large glass of something else, so cutting it with water or another mixer—and reading labels carefully—is a good idea.

Healthier drinker still life
Jo Whaley for TIME

Make an effort to cut back.

The healthiest thing most people can do is figure out a way to drink less, says Dr. Timothy Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. “Less is better when it comes to health,” he says, noting that heavy drinkers will get the most out of reducing their intake, even if they’re not yet able to drop below recommended daily limits. “If you're somebody who drinks five or six drinks a day, and you can cut down to three a day, you're going to get a tremendous benefit.”

To stick with it, first name your motivation, Naimi suggests. Do you want to drink less so you don’t have trouble waking up in the morning before work, or because your relationships are suffering? Then, set a goal, like the number of drinks you’ll stick to each week. Consider enlisting support from your close friends and family members, or tapping into online or in-person communities. It’s also key to arrange alternative activities so your social life and free time don’t revolve around alcohol. “Maybe going for a walk instead of going to the bar, or hanging out with people who tend not to drink much,” Naimi says.

Want to learn more about how we eat and drink now? Get guidance from experts:

Take a break.

You’ve probably heard of Sober October or Dry January—month-long endeavors to give up alcohol. Research suggests that people who quit drinking for even short periods experience long-lasting benefits. In one study, moderate-to-heavy drinkers who gave up alcohol for a month lost about 4.5 pounds and improved their insulin resistance and blood pressure, while also experiencing a reduction in cancer-related growth factors. Other research has found that people who participate in Dry January still drink considerably less than they used to by the time August rolls around.

You can start this sort of challenge at any time of the year, says Dr. George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). If a month feels too long, embark on a shorter trial run. “I always tell people, if you stop drinking for a week or two and feel better, and you’re starting to sleep better and your interactions with your family are better, then listen to your body,” he says. “It’s trying to tell you something.”

Practice mindful drinking.

Tapping into meditation-inspired strategies can help you become more aware of how much you’re drinking, and why—potentially making it easier to cut back. “When you take a sip, don’t think about other stuff that’s going on,” Rimm advises. Instead, savor the flavor. When your glass is empty, spend a few moments reflecting on whether you truly want another. Slowing down—instead of mindlessly chugging—can help ensure that you make clearheaded decisions about what and how much you drink, kickstarting a healthier relationship with alcohol.

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