Are you ringing in the new year with the “new year, new me” mentality?
Two weeks ago during the celebrations, you were thinking “enjoy it while it lasts”, and “have another glass of wine”, after all you are doing a dry January.
Does the idea of a dry January sound like a way to start the year off strong, even virtuous?
I’m going to discuss 3 reasons why a dry January may NOT be the best fit for your long-term relationship with alcohol, or even virtuous, as you may have been led to believe. A damp January may be a better fit…or no change at all may be best.
To be clear, this blog is not pro-drinking (or pro-NOT-drinking). As a Registered Dietitian, I’m pro-you making informed decisions for your body. I want to help inform your decision.
And before we dive in: different from food, alcohol is an addictive substance, and everybody has a different ability to tolerate it. If you are in substance abuse recovery, or have a family history of addiction that makes the intuitive approach to alcohol I teach inappropriate – that’s okay! Help is available. Or, you can always talk to your primary care provider about your concerns.
My hope is that when you read this article, you consider a few things, and can affirm your choices about alcohol:
- Why do you choose to drink or not to drink?
- What impact does it have on your life?
- What feels good for you?
To help you get started thinking about how alcohol fits into your life, let’s take a look at what a dry January (and a damp January) even means.
what is ‘dry january’?
Dry January means giving up alcohol for the entire 31 days of January.
The Dry January campaign started in the UK, where one person dies every hour as a result of alcohol-related issues (liver disease, mental health, cancer, and many more)(1).
A non-profit group, Alcohol Change UK, started Dry January in 2013 to raise money for alcohol abuse awareness and treatment.
The campaign has grown and the trend has caught on all over the world.
It seems that many are adopting the trend as part of their new year’s reset mentality to “be better”, and “eat clean”. But after the 31-day reset, are you just going back to your old ways? What does it mean if you have to “white-knuckle” through the whole experience?
Have you learned anything about yourself and what “living your best life” looks like around alcohol? Would a damp January better help you on that path to intuitive eating, and drinking?
what is ‘damp january’?
Damp January is kind of what the name implies. Instead of no alcohol at all, it allows some alcohol.
Dry is clear cut – no drinks at all. But “damp” leaves a little more to the imagination. Is it one drink a week? Is it having a drink when you want, but only one? You make the “rules”.
The intention is still to reduce your alcohol intake. But setting your own definition of damp will help you be more mindful about how you choose to include alcohol in your life – and possibly increase the likelihood you change your habits sustainably.
For example, that first weekend in January, your good friend gets a promotion and invites you out for a drink to celebrate.
Instead of having to strictly opt out for the sake of the rule, you can evaluate why you’d like to join your friend in a toast. And if you choose to have a beverage to celebrate, you don’t feel guilty for failing your plan but can share in the joy with your friend in a more mindful way.
You’ve started off the year by learning about yourself and growing to trust your decisions about how to make your body happy and not with guilt and shame over “failing” your first goal of the year.
BUT – It’s not just a free for all! So how damp is a damp January before it becomes soaked?
how much alcohol is OK?
Here’s the thing – our bodies don’t NEED alcohol to function. But there are reasons outside of need that we may choose to drink and different people have different abilities to tolerate alcohol.
You may struggle with alcohol addiction and avoid alcohol entirely. Perhaps you have a medical condition and drinking alcohol is not safe or healthy at all for your body.
The choice is completely individual – it’s OK to drink, and it’s OK NOT to drink.
If you choose to drink, then there are some health guidelines that help guide what is safe.
First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what constitutes “a drink”.
A standard drink as defined by the CDC contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol.
This amount of pure alcohol translates to:
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (2)
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting intake to “2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed”(3).
And no, it’s not like a bank and you can’t save them up for a Friday night out! This is because of the way alcohol is metabolized in the body.
Saving up for a Friday night out could be considered binge drinking if you drink 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more for women. Men who have 15 or more drinks per week and women who have 8 or more drinks per week would be considered heavy drinkers (4).
The thing is that more than half of US adults report drinking alcohol in the last 30 days. And a pretty good proportion binge drink (17%) or report heavy drinking (6%)(4). So you’re not alone if you are someone who drinks fairly regularly.
Creating a healthy relationship with alcohol can have real benefits (5): improved mental health, healthier skin, better sleep, and improved long-term physical health.
In my practice working with those with a history of generational diet trauma and disordered eating, I often see how alcohol misuse and disordered eating overlap, and the stats back up that 50% of those with eating disorders use alcohol or illicit drugs. This is 5 times higher than the general population (6).
I’m not saying that if you drink, that you have an eating disorder or vice versa. But examining your relationship with alcohol is very important if you have a history of disordered eating as well. This can be complicated and hard to do on your own.
Seeking out help from a professional to sort out what place alcohol holds in your life is completely OK and even encouraged.
If you have decided to include alcohol in your life, but you want to do so more intentionally and mindfully for the health benefits, then I’m here for you.
3 reasons dry january may not be for you
In my practice as an Intuitive Eating Dietitian, I’m a big fan of you taking space to figure out what YOU need and want for your life.
In this blog post, I’m presenting 3 reasons why Dry January may not be for you. My hope is that they may help you untangle whatever may be holding you back from having a happy healthy relationship with alcohol long-term (which might include being dry!).
reason #1: not addressing our bigger alcohol culture
Generational diet trauma is something I talk a lot about in my work, which is how our caregivers’ or parents’ relationship with food influences our own.
I hear from clients often about lessons they’ve learned about alcohol growing up, and how it becomes intertwined with generational diet culture. Because alcohol contains calories, we are sometimes taught to think about the alcohol’s impact on our weight, instead of its impact on our overall well being and how it fits according to our personal values.
I’ve had a client tell me that she “used to do dry January with my diet as a way to lose weight”. Unfortunately, when her diet failed, so too did her abstinence from alcohol. Every year, she repeated the cycle – never really evaluating how alcohol made her feel – until she addressed her relationship with food and fears of weight gain in my program.
Something else I hear often is the concept of “saving up to drink my calories”. Meaning you will not eat much all day so you can drink at the party later.
Not only are you putting internal pressure on yourself about food and alcohol, taking so much mental bandwidth from the fun – but you may also feel outside pressure from others about drinking.
If you opt-out, do you have FOMO or do you think there’ll be social consequences? Many people don’t have strategies to listen to their bodies in social situations like these:
- If you’ve had a tough week, maybe your coworkers will invite you out to the bar for a drink after work. If you decline, or you go and have a ginger ale instead of an alcoholic beverage, are you questioned?
- When you go to a friend’s new years party, are you handed a glass of Champagne at midnight without question?
- Do you have a hard time coming up with fun things to do with friends without alcohol?
Why do we need a social movement for an “excuse” to say no to drinking? This is a problem!
Changing the culture around drinking may not happen with you alone, but consider how you can change your own approach to social situations with alcohol so you can be more authentic with yourself.
Think about what groups you can be yourself in. Can you surround yourself with people who respect your choice to drink or not to drink? If you want to, start a new trend with a fancy mocktail or seltzer that everyone wishes they were drinking!
reason #2: reinforcing all-or-nothing thinking
It’s OK to drink and it’s OK not to drink, and there shouldn’t be a moral attachment to that choice.
Dry January restricts you from having alcohol for the entire month – yes, 31 whole days of abstaining. What happens if you have just one drink? For many who struggle with all-nothing thinking around food – these thoughts extend to alcohol.
When the goal is “no drinks for 31 days” and you break the rule, you may automatically think “that’s bad, you cheated”. Your bad choice may have you feeling guilt and shame.
Then, on a “cheat” day do you drink more than you want to because “what the heck”, you failed already anyway?
This inner narrative sounds a lot like how you might talk about your food rules. It tends to lead to extremes.
So now our bodies aren’t feeling good because we had more drinks than we wanted to and we’re down on ourselves because we couldn’t stick to the plan.
This all-or-nothing attitude is part of the diet cycle that so many get caught in and can be dangerous. It can lead to disordered eating, weight cycling, and poor mental health due to all the guilt, shame, and fear.
Instead of us learning why we choose to drink in certain situations, we become disconnected from the experience.
Dry January has disabled our trust in ourselves to make choices for our own bodies and what may feel good for them.
If it didn’t have to be all or nothing, then maybe it would leave space to figure out what is truly right – and sustainable – for you.
reason #3: dry january doesn’t help you practice moderation
As an Intuitive Eating Dietitian, I help you develop skills so you can hear your thoughts, emotions, and body cues and make choices that align with your health values.
With the process in hand, you gain trust in your ability to make food decisions confidently and (finally!) get to feel freedom.
But dry January takes away your freedom to decide whether to drink or not. The decision has been made for you. No drinks for 31 days.
You aren’t able to ask questions about when, why, or how much because we know the answer is simply yes or no. Maybe you’ve never really been given the space to consider your relationship with alcohol in the same way you haven’t been given the space to figure your relationship with food.
Have you ever arrived at a party where there is alcohol and even questioned whether you are going to have a drink, or do you just have one because it’s what you usually do?
For those without addiction, when you are able to ask more than yes or no questions about alcohol, you can find and practice moderation from within. No need to force it.
Ask yourself: Why do I want a drink right now? Will it make me happy? Will it taste good or satisfy my thirst? How will I feel after I drink it? If I have more, how will I feel in the morning?
Asking more questions will help us work on developing a satisfying relationship with alcohol.
what would a satisfying relationship with alcohol look like?
When you work with me, we come up with a vision for your future self. Once you have a vision of your future self, we work backward to understand how different foods (or alcohol) can fit (or not!) and to what degree.
Check out my podcast episode called What does future you want? where I delve deeper into this exercise and you can hear it in action. It will help you to avoid future feelings of regret, by asking yourself important questions and getting you to your future happy self.
Think about what will make your body feel good, what will bring you joy in your life, and how past choices have influenced your life.
Here are a couple of questions to get you started:
What is the purpose of alcohol in your life and is it the only tool you have to get the benefit you seek?
Let’s say alcohol provides you camaraderie. After a rough week at work, maybe you join your coworkers at the bar, but choose a mocktail. This time just going out and talking about what was rough and sharing good company feels good.
What kind of alcohol do you like? In what settings?
For this, you can use a skill from Intuitive Eating I teach called Discover the Satisfaction Factor by asking “what sounds good”?
- If you’re on a beach vacation, does an icy Pina Colada refresh you and deepen your cultural experience? Maybe so, or maybe an icy mocktail will suffice today.
- Your best friend’s birthday is tonight, an outing that includes having a drink or two because it feels good to join in celebrating. It made the moment better for you today.
The point is that the answers can be different for you depending on your values. And how you feel today may be different than tomorrow.
Each time you are in a situation, you know you have this set of questions. You gain confidence in listening to the answers because you notice that you’re making decisions based on what makes you happy and feel good.
Being mindful about how to include, or not include, alcohol will likely bring you more satisfaction beyond 31 days of abstaining because of a social movement.
The choice of whether to drink alcohol is an individual one. One that I encourage you to make mindfully and not purely based on a social movement like Dry January.
If generational diet culture and social pressures are clouding your mind and you need help finding out how to let go of guilt and shame so you can have a satisfying relationship with food and maybe even alcohol…I can help.
Apply to work with me 1:1 and we’ll work on improving your whole health by addressing current and past struggles with dieting and disordered eating recovery so you can make peace with food, feel your best and let go of guilt, shame, and fear. Truly live your best life and experience food freedom.