Originally written for the The Washington Post, May 2nd, 2016.
I have learned a lot about people’s habits while working as a dietitian. What continues to amaze me is how easily things become a habit. Unfortunately, not all habits are healthy. There’s a new, hot “superfood” that becomes part of your breakfast for the next 10 years, and you can’t remember why you eat it every morning. You need a break mid-afternoon, so you grab a small coffee as a pick-me-up — which turns into a daily large mocha and pastry without you even acknowledging the change. Even when we are being mindful, there are countless things that become incorporated into our daily routine without us realizing anything is happening.
Drinking alcohol is a habit that sneaks into people’s lives and can have a huge impact on health. It’s a big culprit when it comes to weight gain, and difficulty in losing weight, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it healthfully. Here’s how.
→Take an honest look at your routine. Calculate how many servings of alcohol you drink in a week. One serving is 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol or 12 ounces of beer. Pour your chosen serving into a measuring cup, and see what that looks like in a glass. It might be less than you expect.
→Pick a number of drinks that you will allow yourself per week. If you are having 10 drinks per week, maybe you will agree to six. Or three. It has to make sense for you, or it is not sustainable.
→Decide how you are going to spread these drinks out.Will you have one drink most evenings? Or do you want to save all your drinks for the weekend or one specific night? Think in advance of how you want to make it happen.
→Think about what kind of experience you most value. Do you enjoy sitting at a bar with good company and conversation? Or do you really enjoy drinking with specific foods? At home after a long day? Or at a sporting event? Don’t drink simply out of habit; instead, drink when you really want it.
→Remember to drink water. Often, we are simply dehydrated. Water would solve the problem, but we drink more alcohol. Hydrate before a social event, between alcoholic beverages and before you go to sleep. This will also help ease the symptoms of a hangover the next morning, leaving you refreshed and more likely to make smart food choices or even get some exercise that day.
→Avoid added sweeteners. A major cause of weight gain from alcohol is the sugar in the sodas and juices we mix with it. Order wisely. Sometimes when we get a mixed drink, we tend to drink it fast because it is so sweet. When we order a drink neat, on the rocks or in a martini, we tend to drink slower and therefore less overall. If you do want a mixer, soda water with lemon or lime is a good choice.
→Be mindful of how mindless you are about to be. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions and increases our food cravings. Not only does alcohol lead to weight gain, but so does all the food you eat during a night of drinking. Eat a balanced plate of food before a social night and try to avoid dangerous trigger foods while out.
→Think twice before trying to quit drinking 100 percent. I have yet to tell a client that they have to quit alcohol entirely; for many, that might not be sustainable. Instead of going through periods where you force yourself to abstain, and then over consume and gain the weight back, try to find a way to enjoy alcohol more healthfully. (This advice assumes you are merely trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight, not suffering from alcohol addiction, which may require totally abstaining. But this is a question for a qualified addiction counselor.)
→Don’t try to trade food calories for alcohol. Calories from alcohol are devoid of nutrition compared with calories from real whole foods. Try and swap 100 calories of alcohol for 100 calories for food and you will be missing out on important nutrients — as well as the satiety that comes from eating real food.