Alcohol Use and Health: Helpful Guidelines

As April draws to a close, I am wrapping up the “trigger foods” theme, and I hope that you have gained some insight on how to organize your life, so that your willpower gets a break and you can build a healthier – and more peaceful – relationship with food.

I would be remiss in closing this topic, however, if I did not discuss a hot topic that many of my clients ask about: what are the guidelines for incorporating alcohol into a healthy lifestyle? 

First of all, it is possible to enjoy adult beverages in a healthy, balanced way. When I offer recommendations, I base them on the sensible CDC guidelines, which offer a balanced outline for moderate enjoyment of alcohol.

I have learned over time that when my clients stick with the CDC guidelines, the sky is the limit for fitness progress. Once someone starts consistently creeping over the hedges of the CDC guidelines, however, all bets are off.

Alcohol is a tremendous variable in someone’s diet – you can be doing everything else “right,” but if you are drinking excessively on a regular basis, you will not see the results you want to see. This is not only because of the calories and nutritional qualities of alcohol, but also because – as you probably know – food choices become uninhibited under the influence of alcohol.

Most of my clients decrease their alcohol intake as a byproduct of working with me, because becoming more attentive to overall health often brings excessive alcohol use into focus.

Speaking of “Normal”…

Here’s how I look at it: how do we define “normal” for anything? If we compare ourselves only to other people, it’s possible to be extremely permissive in creating a “normal” standard. Living in the U.S, it would be fair to say that you “eat normally” if you eat out 5+ times per week, overeat at every meal, and subsist mostly on processed and prepared foods. Is “normal” an appropriate standard, then?

Maybe not. If we are using external comparison to set our expectations of ourselves, we may find that our fitness goals are out of step with “normal” American culture. Our lifestyle strategies must be in proportion to our desired outcomes.

I hate to resort to cliches, but here it is:

If you want to have something different, then you need to do something different.

I say this because, when I share the CDC guidelines, many of my clients are shocked at how low the threshold is for “heavy drinking” or “binge drinking.” If you take the guidelines seriously, you may realize that much of what you perhaps thought was moderate drinking was actually binge drinking or heavy drinking. It seems a bit harsh, but this is why I emphasize the idea that just because something is “normal” doesn’t mean it’s good.

Here is an important distinction, though: the CDC makes it clear that binge drinking and heavy drinking do not equal alcohol dependence (alcoholism). However, excessive use is unequivocally not good for your health – or your waistline. Especially for women, the risks of disease (heart disease, all kinds of cancers, mental health problems, etc.) increase disproportionately as alcohol use increases – not to mention the short-term risks of binge drinking, such as injuries.

Plus, my experience with clients is that consistent, excessive alcohol use becomes more and more taxing on your system with each passing decade. My clients who enter their 40’s, and then their 50’s, often spontaneously reduce their drinking simply because it does not feel good anymore. 

Is this a call to teetotaling? Not at all. As always, the poison is in the dose. Just as with foods, how much and how often you indulge is critical. In fact, there is an observed correlation between moderate alcohol use and positive health markers. This doesn’t mean that alcohol makes you healthier, but in moderate amounts, it is not harmful – especially in conjunction with a bigger picture of regular physical activity, a moderate and nutritious diet, and smart stress management.

Now, onto the official guidelines…

Guidelines for Healthy and Balanced Enjoyment

First, we need to define a “drink.” One drink equals:

  • 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 (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)

In other words, a half bottle of wine is 2-3 “drinks.” Plus, it’s also worth noting that cocktails often contain multiple drinks in each serving. 

Then, here are the guidelines (for women) for the recommended number of servings per week:

  • No more than one “drink” per day, or (not “and”)…
  • No more than three “drinks” at a time…
  • For a total of seven “drinks” per week, however you slice it

What does this mean in reality? This means that if you enjoy a 5-oz glass of wine per day, you are within the CDC guidelines. If you don’t drink at all during the week but have 2-3 glasses of wine per day on the weekends, you are still within the guidelines.

However, where many people start fudging, nutritionally, is that they will “save up” drinks during the week and then binge (4+ drinks) on the weekends, much like they do with food. However, this is harmful to health in the long run. 

Alcohol Dependence and Abuse

Again, binge drinking a few times a month, or drinking 2-3 glasses of wine a day, does not mean that you are an alcoholic. Most of my clients who start a coaching program with me easily reduce their alcohol intake from this level to meet the CDC guidelines, without a problem.

Only a very small percentage of the population struggles with alcohol dependence or abuse. The formal diagnosis of alcohol use disorder requires that you meet certain criteria, and that is outside the scope of this post. However, if you are concerned about your drinking, you can read the diagnostic criteria here, and if you feel that it’s an accurate description of your drinking, I urge you to contact a health professional to get treatment.

Practical Takeaways

Most of us live with alcohol in our lives to some degree, and if one of your goals is moderating your intake to improve your health, here are some tips that I give clients to make reduction easier:

  • Treat alcohol like you would treat a dessert, instead of as a beverage like water or tea. Think of it like a square of dark chocolate – healthy in moderation, but damaging in excess. It is a treat.
  • When you are at a social function, drink water or seltzer between every alcoholic drink that you have, and nurse all of your beverages slowly.
  • Another strategy is to minimize (or eliminate) weekday drinking in favor of 2-3 drinks on weekend days, if you know you are brunching.
  • When you do drink, try to avoid complicated cocktails and stick with simple drinks.
Peer Pressure and Sub-Cultures

Finally, I want to point out that – like social media can create echo chambers – our own social circles can also create mini-cultures. I find that “mommy” events, as well as many networking events geared toward women, tend to normalize not only heavy drinking, but also the feeling that women simply cannot make it through the day without a half bottle of wine.

For perspective, it is helpful to remember that a full 30% of Americans do not drink at all, and about 40% drink very moderately (less than one drink per day, typically without binges). People who binge drink at least once a month make up about 30% of the population, and people with alcohol use disorder make up about 6% within that number.

This means that anytime you go to a large function, the great likelihood is that – while some people will be binge drinking – most of the people at the event are having one drink, or are not drinking at all. If someone is pressuring you to drink excessively, it is their problem, not yours.

Just as with fitness sub-cultures where the “normal” can start shifting away from what is truly healthy, stay aware of how you interpret what you see, and remember that sometimes you may be interacting with a sub-culture, rather than the culture at large. It’s easy to get into a bubble, and you may want to reevaluate the bubbles that you inhabit.

Follow-Up Questions from Last Week

If you want to jump into this free healthy living project, all you have to do is start today by shooting me an e-mail to let me know you’re “in!” I e-mail strategies to my mailing list at the beginning of each week. If you would like to be on this list, please scroll down and sign up!

Last week in “Confronting Your Boogeymen: Practical Strategies for Preventing Overeating,” we talked about how using a simple green light, yellow light, and red light system for understanding your personal tendencies can help you eliminate unnecessarily challenging situations from your daily life.

Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s post:

  • Question 1: What foods did you list as “green light” foods?
  • Question 2: What foods did you list as “yellow light” foods?
  • Question 3: What foods did you list as “red light” foods?
  • Question 4: What did you learn about yourself from doing this exercise?

E-mail these answers to me! 

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Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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