Moderate drinkers are a majority of the UK population, with four out of five adult drinkers (80%) drinking two to three times a week or less. Around half of those people only have a few drinking days each month, and around one in seven UK adults never drinks. The truth is, much as we might imagine that we’re a nation of big drinkers, most of us aren’t drinking most of the time.
If drinking in moderation is something you aspire to, it’s worth knowing two things. First, moderation is possible. Anyone who tells you that drinking only gets worse or that cutting down isn’t possible isn’t telling you the whole truth. All sorts of people change their drinking in all kinds of ways.
But second, and perhaps more importantly, moderation can take some work. Many articles about moderation focus on practical tips and tricks, rules to set yourself, questions to ask as you cut back and suggestions about what to drink instead. Those kinds of articles and guides are helpful, and we’ve published many of them! But in this article, I want to take a slightly different approach and focus on some essential attitudes that may help you become a moderate drinker.
There is very little academic research about what makes moderate drinkers tick. So this article is informed mainly by conversations I’ve had with people on Club Soda’s courses, discussions I’ve had with friends who are infrequent drinkers, insights from academics, and my experience of changing my drinking habits. So some of this article is personal and might not reflect your experience.
That’s OK with me. Nothing works for everyone. This is all about finding a relationship with alcohol that works for you.
1. Moderate drinkers have a “take it or leave it” attitude
Changing my drinking habits took a long time. Years. Along the way, I had lots of long breaks alcohol-free, and I switched my beer drinking to being pretty much 100% non-alcoholic (those two things helped a lot). Cutting down was a work in progress for a long time.
The big lightbulb moment came one day when I realised that the language of “cutting down” had stopped working for me. You see, I no longer carried around the expectation of a set amount of alcohol I might drink every day or every week. Drinking wasn’t normal for me any more.
My co-founder Laura described me as “alcohol-free by default, ” which resonated with me. I no longer drank out of habit or routine, rarely bought alcohol when shopping, and rarely drank when I was out with friends. Drinking just wasn’t part of my day-to-day thinking any more.
When I talk to friends who drink very occasionally, as I do now, they tell me the same story. Moderate drinkers aren’t thinking about drinking most of the time.
Getting to the point of not thinking about drinking takes time. I’d say I was a good couple of years into my journey, with my consumption dramatically reduced, when that lightbulb moment happened. So I think there is a process to create more space for alcohol-free moments, experiment with different situations without drinking and discover what life can be like if you’re not drinking regularly.
2. Moderate drinkers are realistic about alcohol
If you are only going to drink occasionally, I think you have to be realistic about what alcohol will do for you.
As drugs go, alcohol is pretty rubbish. It’s not especially fast-acting, and we need to drink quite a lot to feel anything. And we can develop tolerance to alcohol remarkably quickly (though we lose it reasonably rapidly if we take a break), so the amount we drink can go up too. Research led by Dr Emma Davies of Oxford Brookes suggests even occasional drinkers need a couple of drinks to feel alcohol’s effects, and the number of drinks increases rapidly for more regular drinkers.
So if you only have a drink now and again, you may never get drunk. Maybe not even tipsy. There are other reasons to drink, of course. But you might need an honest word with yourself about how drunk you want to get and what a couple of drinks might feel like. It may be underwhelming.
3. Be more mindful of how drinking feels
If you take nothing else from this article, remember this: moderate drinkers drink slowly.
I mentioned previously that alcohol is relatively slow acting. Even on an empty stomach, your blood alcohol level peaks about an hour after you finish drinking. That time delay can come as a surprise, especially if you’ve ever experienced the instant gratification of the first sip of a drink. (Hint: that feeling comes from you, not the booze).
But it also should affect your decision-making about when to have another drink. If you rapidly knock back pint after pint, you will carry on getting drunker for some time after you stop. So slowing down, and taking the time to feel your first drink before you plough on to the next, can be helpful.
If you need a practical tip to slow down, stop and pay attention to how your drink tastes. But if you want to shift your attitude, take some time to sit in a pub and watch people drink. You’ll be amazed how many glasses sit half-full on tables as people chat. Be more like those people.
4. Moderate drinkers stop before their tipping point
Because alcohol takes a while to catch up with you, it’s essential to know your tipping point. Most drinkers can identify when drinking’s downsides outweigh the upsides, and you’re drunker than you want to be.
Moderate drinkers know to stop well before they reach this tipping point. I’m not saying that they get it right every time. But they’re generally cautious about how much they drink.
When people talk about “knowing their limit”, I think this is what they mean. They consider how far the edge of the cliff is when they apply the brakes.
5. Moderation means being confident to say no (and yes)
Many moderate drinkers I speak to will have a drink or two in a social situation. But not always. Part of being a confident drinker is learning how to say no to a drink. It also means that sometimes you will say yes, especially take care of your alcohol choices.
Advocates against moderation will tell you that switching between yes and no leaves you constantly negotiating peer pressure while battling your inner desire to drink. That isn’t my experience, and it’s not the experience of the moderate drinkers I speak to. Sure, everyone has a friend who’ll be at the bar buying shots. But honestly, those people are rare.
Remember, most of us aren’t drinking most of the time. And most of us don’t care what other people are drinking as long as they’re happy. Aim for connection, not consumption.
6. Are you willing to tackle high-risk situations?
Club Soda supports people to stop drinking as well as moderate, and one thing common to both approaches is getting to know your triggers for drinking. Our drinking changes in different situations, and we might find it easier to say no to a drink in some circumstances than others.
Especially if you are on a journey to cut down your drinking, you may notice that certain situations always lead to difficulty. Maybe it’s a particular pub, a regular event, a group of drinking buddies or just the fact of tequila that gets you in trouble. Moderate drinkers pay attention to these issues and are willing to tackle high-risk situations.
That doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding your triggers completely, though that can be a practical approach. More, this attitude is about a willingness to look honestly at how drinking turns up in life and not take any of it for granted. Making changes can require some bravery, especially if it means going against the social norms of your group.
7. Moderate drinkers need some tolerance for mistakes
I often say to people that taking a break from alcohol can teach you many things, but the one thing it absolutely cannot do is teach you to moderate your drinking.
Put simply, taking a break from alcohol teaches how to not drink. But moderate drinking is about learning to drink differently. Because becoming an occasional drinker means learning a different relationship with alcohol, that means your drinking will sometimes go wrong.
Let’s talk brass tacks. Hangovers are going to happen. In my experience of cutting down my drinking, I resolved to learn from those situations rather than beat myself up. You might take to moderation like a duck to water and never mess up. If you do, more power to you. But moderate drinkers will have moments when things don’t go to plan.
So accepting yourself, including your flaws, is an essential attitude. Can you be patient and kind to yourself while you learn? Because you’ll never stop learning.
8. What risks are you willing to accept?
The World Health Organisation is clear that no level of alcohol consumption is safe for your health. And although research continues, and guidelines vary from country to country, researchers and experts fairly universally agree that from a health perspective, drinking less is better than drinking more. And they agree that the risks associated with drinking increase the more you drink.
So how are moderate drinkers going to deal with the risks of drinking? I recently heard an illuminating discussion about risk on Vox’s Today Explained podcast, exploring Canada’s new drinking guidelines, and I recommend it for a balanced and honest view. A key takeaway: Risk guidelines are based on population averages. Your personal risk from drinking is dependent on your individual circumstances, your health history, and most importantly, your social background.
Drinking guidelines are about protecting yourself from health risks; they’re not a guide on how much to drink to have a good time. So as a moderate drinker, you’ll need to decide what’s right for you.
Less is going to be better than more. Non-drinking days are always a good thing. But make those decisions for yourself, weighing up the costs and benefits of drinking in the context of your life.
What to learn more about moderate drinking?
Club Soda’s course How to Drink Mindfully is an in-depth exploration of your drinking habits. The course is self-paced so you can make changes in your own time. You’ll get tools to track your happiness with your drinking, regular check-ins on your progress, and lots of in-depth learning on subjects, from paying attention to your habits to learning to slow down.
Importantly, we won’t tell you how to change your drinking. That, always, is up to you. So whether you’re fine-tuning your habits, making significant reductions, taking a break, or even going alcohol-free, the course can help you get there.
You’ll also get the support of the Club Soda community. We welcome everyone, whether you’re moderating or going alcohol-free. Join us.