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Tips for Cutting Back on Alcohol Consumption

Drinking alcohol is overwhelmingly prevalent in everyday life. From after work drinks and dinner parties to promotions and birthdays, there are endless occasions that offer alcohol as anything from a social lubricant to an outright assumption – imagine an anniversary without champagne.

That said, the National Institutes of Health recommendations for alcohol intake can take many people by surprise: no more than two drinks in a day for men and no more than one for women. And yet, the majority of Americans who report drinking more than their recommended quantity do not report the symptoms of dependence and alcoholism. But addiction is a spectrum and can affect people even before reaching the level of DUIs and job loss. At minimum, cutting back on alcohol consumption can help solidify healthy habits. 

Many people that fall into the low-risk or mild end of the spectrum describe their alcohol consumption in ways that identify it more as a habit than a compulsion. Still, the health effects – and the benefits of cutting back – are just as real. Those who successfully reduce their alcohol intake often report increased energy, better sleep, weight loss, reduced stress and, of course, fewer of the hallmarks of hangovers: upset stomachs, indigestion and headaches. Not to mention a better outlook for long-term health and more expendable income.

Moderation also fills a treatment gap that can support people looking to reduce their alcohol intake for whatever reason – health, money, relationships – without asking for total abstinence. For those who may be developing dependency, moderation can be the first step to getting more serious help.

How to Cut Back

The first step to drinking less is to spend some time thinking about why and how you drink. Is it something you look forward to at the end of the day? A reward for a long week? A conduit to release? Liquid courage in social situations? Understanding your habits can help you form strategies that recognize where you’re coming from. “Triggers” can be a loaded term, but even something as small as a reality show can be a trigger if you’re in the habit of accompanying it with a glass of wine.

The results may require you to explore new activities and social circles. Think positively about it and focus on starting something new, rather than giving something up. While you may be passing on drinking games and regular happy hours, you may find yourself equally if not more engaged with your new communities and commitments. 

If your habits and triggers do skew toward drinking as a coping mechanism for changing moods or personal problems, finding alternatives is even more important. Many people finding working out to be a particularly beneficial resource in lieu of drinking and talking to an emotional health professional may help guide you to appropriate options.

Here are a few additional tips for cutting back on drinking – and remember, whenever and wherever you’re drinking, never drink on an empty stomach and alternate with water or soft options as much as possible.

  • Set Goals, Both Big and Small: Establish a clear target for yourself and your drinking habits, but also set parameters for the day-to-day journey. Decide how many days a week and which days you will allow yourself to drink as well as how many drinks you can have when you do. Setting hard and fast alcohol-free days are a helpful way to safeguard against increased tolerance and psychological dependence.
  • Chart Your Progress: Once your goals are set, keep track of your habits. Whether you’re using an app, a diary or marking a calendar, recording how much and when you drink can help you monitor your progress and identify further triggers or temptation areas.
  • Get Alcohol Out of the House: In considering your drinking habits, you may have realized that glasses of wine with dinner or beers during a ball game add up to a lot of empty bottles at the end of the week. Try to not to keep alcohol at home and make an effort to cut back on what you drink at home if these are habits of yours.
  • Recognize the Standard: The easiest way to cheat yourself of progress is to ignore standard sizes for drinks. Make sure you’re measuring out any liquor and passing when a server or friend offers to top your glass off. A standard drink is a 12 oz. beer, 5 oz. glass of wine or 1.5 oz. of spirits. A standard bottle of wine is 5 drinks and a fifth is 17 drinks.
  • Take the ABV Down a Notch: Every little effort helps, and in some cases, that can be as simple as choosing wine over liquor, or a shandy over an IPA, to mitigate the affects of alcohol on your body. So be aware of the alcohol by volume (ABV) on your order and use it your advantage. But remember: ABV has no bearing on your drinks per day, so it’s no excuse for a larger serving or extra round.
  • Be Bar Ready: For whatever reason, it may be hard for you to completely avoid the bar scene – and you may not want to either. It doesn’t have to be an obstacle to cutting back on alcohol. Avoid participating in rounds – it can force you to drink at the speed of the fastest drinker or compel you to have as many drinks as there are people in the group – but moreover, be prepared to say no. No to another round, no to a shot, no to whatever isn’t in line with your goals. Be polite, but leave no doubt. You may want to have prepared a brief response if someone asks why you’re not drinking, but that’s at your discretion – you don’t owe anyone an explanation.
  • Make and Reference Your Reasons Why: No matter your motivations – and whether you have any intention of sharing them – having an easy-to-access list of why you’re looking to cut back can help you stay on track when tempted to go off course. Keeping a list on your phone or in your wallet is a subtle way to remind you why you’re on this journey when temptation or triggers are unavoidable.
  • Enlist Help: This may depend on your personal situation, but many people find it helpful to tell their friends and family about their goals to cut back. Not only will this reduce the number and frequency of questions about why you’re turning down drinks or trips to the pub, but your loved ones can also support you in your efforts to find alternate activities and avoid triggers.
  • Join a Support Group: Whether you’re not finding the support you need from your social circles or you’re looking for something more structured, there are various support groups for people looking to cut back on alcohol consumption. Moderation Management is the best known, and recognized as an evidence-based program by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  • Treat Yourself: People spend a ton of money on alcohol. When you cut back, you’re getting a significant amount of that back. So, after a successful period of time – perhaps when you’ve reached one of your goals or benchmarks – treat yourself to new clothes, a spa day, or a movie. The celebration can help motivate you to keep going.

When It's Time to Quit

Moderation does not work for everyone and in the course of addressing your drinking habits, you may discover your personality or drinking profile may call for more serious steps. There are a number of resources both online and through your physician that can help you gauge your alcohol consumption and the best course of action. Learning about your triggers and urges as well as how to avoid them will all carry over if you decide you want to try giving up alcohol completely for a week, month or ongoing period of time. 

In these situations, Alcoholics Anonymous and abstinence groups may be a more appropriate resource and you should be prepared for symptoms of withdrawal such as tremors and twitches, cold sweats, anxiety and difficulty sleeping, eating and concentrating. Depending on your tolerance and body’s dependence, medical support may be necessary to help you quit. Addiction is a disease, not a choice, so if you discover that your alcohol consumption is closer to compulsion than habit, you should feel no stigma in seeking help.


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