Why I’m Trading Dry January for a “Damp” Year

Given Canada’s new health guidelines, cutting back on alcohol is more important than ever. Here’s how I’m moderating my alcohol intake, instead of cutting out my favourite bevvies completely.

I’ve always caught up with friends over glasses of wine or pints of beer. But lately, I’ve been spilling the tea over, well, actual cups of tea instead. Turns out, it’s just as satisfying and much better for me, too.

That doesn’t mean I’ve given up alcohol completely. I decided this would be the year that I drink less. So, instead of starting the year off with Dry January, in which I wouldn’t allow myself to have a single glass of alcohol, I’m doing a Damp Year, where I consciously reduce my alcohol consumption all year long.

I have many reasons for cutting back. First and foremost, the updated guidelines from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) recommend women have no more than two drinks a week to avoid an increased risk of seven types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases and liver disease. It’s a pretty drastic reduction from the 2011 guidelines, which recommended women have no more than two drinks a day to reduce long-term health risks, so I’m feeling a push to modify my habits.

(Related: A Science-Backed, Data-Forward, Awfully Sobering Guide for Women Who Drink Alcohol)

While alcohol is harmful to everybody, it can have worse impacts on some people. I’ve always considered myself a “lightweight”—meaning, I feel drunker, faster than most people. And this is, in fact, a thing. “People respond differently to alcohol,” says Scott Hadland, a physician at Mass General Brigham in Massachusetts. For instance, “people who have a lower weight may have more difficulty tolerating alcohol, as do people who don’t drink much alcohol,” he says, which may lead to more injuries and health issues.

Plus, I’m Chinese and suffer from occasional bouts of “Asian flush.” If I drink too quickly, or too much, my face (and, sometimes my whole body) turns red, accompanied by a quickened heart rate and a headache. According to a 2015 study published in Cancer Epidemiology, the “alcohol flushing response” means I’m at greater risk of esophageal cancer. Turning red is, quite literally, my body’s way of telling me to stop drinking.

So, why am I not cutting out alcohol completely? Banning things I love has never worked for me—I will unapologetically succumb to any cookie or French fry because life’s about enjoying things you love. Alcohol is something I like consuming, so I don’t want to give it up. According to dietitian Abby Langer, I don’t necessarily need to. In her book Good Food, Bad Diet, (which she talked to Best Health about) she says she advises her clients to indulge in food cravings responsibly to reduce feelings of guilt or shame. Also, when you never let yourself enjoy the things you love, you get “miserable AF,” she says. Since I have a healthy relationship with alcohol, I’m not going to let myself feel guilty about enjoying a glass of wine, pint of beer or cocktail once in a while. I don’t have a hard limit of what I can consume each week, but on average it’s one or two drinks—about a third of what I used to consume.

I can’t say it’s easy—I’ve had to change my habits, including how I drink at home and how I make healthy choices when I’m out with friends. And I’ve found that moderate drinking, and being mindful of how much alcohol I’m consuming, takes a little hacking and planning. So, here are the tricks that have helped me reduce my alcohol intake.

At home:

Opt for canned wine: When on my own, opening a bottle of wine compels me to finish it on subsequent evenings, which means I’m clocking four servings of alcohol well before the week is through. A can of wine allows me to have one to two glasses, with zero regrets of wasting any—or drinking more than I wanted.

Stock up on non-alcoholic options: How are you supposed to encourage yourself to opt for an alcohol-free drink when you have no enticing options on hand? Explore the flavoured sparkling water aisle, invest in some alcohol-free spirits and make your choices more appealing.

Find a new way to unwind: If you usually celebrate the end of your workday with a glass of wine, adopt a new habit, like enjoying a bath, a fitness class or a gummy. The trick to actually follow through? “Remind yourself of the reasons you’re moderating your approach to drinking,” says Terri-Lynn MacKay, a registered psychologist and clinical director of Alavida, a virtual care app for substance abuse. “Put stickies on your fridge, record a voice prompt on your phone or write in a journal,” she says.

At a bar or restaurant:

Choose a spritzer or low-alcohol cocktail: Less-boozy options are appearing more often on cocktail menus. If they’re not listed, just ask the bartender, or try a wine spritzer (great for weddings or events with limited choice) or a liqueur and soda (like a spritz but without the sparkling wine). Campari is my go-to liqueur, but vermouth, St. Germain (elderflower liqueur) and Aperol are also great options. If a 142 ml (5 oz) wine spritzer is made with half wine, half soda, you’re only consuming half of a serving of alcohol, according to CCSA guidelines. The same goes for liqueurs—the CCSA says one serving of spirits (whisky, vodka, gin) is 43 ml (1.5 oz) of a 40 percent alcohol spirit. But since liqueurs clock in at 11 to 25 percent alcohol, your serving size of alcohol goes down by a similar proportion.

Order a half-pint of beer or a low-ABV (alcohol by volume) beer: These aren’t always advertised, but most bars will be happy to pour you a smaller serving. And most menus have their beer’s ABV percentage listed. If not, ask your bartender, or go for a radler or session ale, which are lower in alcohol.

Eat before you drink: Having some food, like a fatty, carby snack, before drinking helps you better tolerate alcohol so you can make better decisions, like whether or not you’ll have another drink. “This easy strategy slows down the speed at which alcohol hits your system,” says MacKay. Wait until after the appetizer arrives to order your first drink, or have a snack at home before you leave if you anticipate drinking right away. “Nuts, peanut butter or cheese are handy to put in the stomach before eating,” explains MacKay. “Chips are good too because they have a higher fat content.”

Tips in general:

Experiment with different low or no-ABV brands: If you’ve tried one non-alcoholic beer and weren’t a fan, don’t write off them all—there are many options on store shelves these days, and you’re sure to find one you like. If you need a place to start, try Partake and Libra for beer, Frico and Joiy for canned wines, and Sobrii and Lyre’s for non-alc spirits.

Set weekly consumption goals: “Make choices about when and where you will drink in advance,” says MacKay. If I plan to drink for a friend’s birthday on the weekend, I’ll opt not to drink during the week.

Change your habits: “Try to better understand the function alcohol serves when you want to drink,” says MacKay. “Are you using alcohol to reduce stress, lubricate social situations, enhance your libido, manage negative emotions?” If so, you may want to find other ways to meet those needs. For me, I’ve found catch-ups with friends to be equally enjoyable without alcohol.

How’s my Damp Year going? Well, I’m sleeping better, I feel great having fewer hangovers to contend with, and I’m saving a bit of money when I go out. I still drink on occasion (a friend’s birthday, for example), but I can better appreciate the times that I do drink. Plus, I’m getting more comfortable with socializing without alcohol, too.

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