At some point in your health journey, you may have asked yourself, "Should I cut out alcohol to reach my goals?"

For those of us who do consume alcohol, we likely consider ourselves moderate drinkers. We have a drink at the end of a long day, socially with friends, or a glass of wine with dinner.

We'll be diving into what alcohol quantity recommendations exist, some health side effects of drinking, as well as debunk some myths surrounding drinking. 

There comes a point where we start to become informed about our health decisions, and we have to face the elephant in the room - should I be drinking alcohol? Am I maybe drinking too much? Would it make a difference if I stopped?

The answer isn't exactly straight forward. You may have even heard that drinking certain alcohol is good for you. There's always an article popping up on social media that reads "Drinking red wine has the same benefits as exercising" or "Red wine prevents heart disease" or something of that nature. To be fair, studies exist that show how drinkers actually outlive non-drinkers

On the other hand, health experts recommend that if you don't currently drink, not to start. 

"But studies show I will live longer and prevent diseases!"

There's no way to know if drinking is actually healthy for all of us. This is because mostof the research on the potenial benefit of alcohol are large, long-term epidemiological studies. This type of research is unable to prove anything. Instead of being able to say that drinking causes health, they are able to say the drinking seems to be correlated with health. It could be that drinking beverages like wine contain antioxidants that ward of cancer. It could that alcohol consumption raises HDL (good cholesterol). It could be that consuming alcohol reduces stress. But there's no way of know what it might be, or if these things really make a difference for health benefits. 

For those who drink, they couldhave other lifestyle factors that lead to better overall health, such as connected social circles for support, a lower stress lifestyle, certain personality traits, etc. 

You hear it all the time - everything in moderation. So when it comes to drinking, what does moderation actually look like?

According to the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, "moderate drinking" means that, on average:

  • For men: up to 14 drinks per week, with no more than 4 drinks on any given day
  • For women: up to 7 drinks per week, with no more than 3 drinks on any given day 

For these guidelines, here's what "a drink" looks like for different types of alcohol:

 Photo courtesy of Precision Nutrition

Photo courtesy of Precision Nutrition

Right now you're probably thinking, "Okay, so I'm not a binge drinker, perfect!"

But when was the last time you measured off your glass or wine, or used a shot glass to pour a cocktail? Are you accounting for those high ABV Colorado beers into your count? Better yet, when was the last time you tallied all your drinks for the week?

Research shows that people routinely underestimate their alcohol consumption, and sometimes they do so drastically. It might surprise you how easy it is to creep into the category of "heavy drinker" without realizing it. 

Let's say you're a woman. Three days of the week, you come home and have a glass of wine after work, because you worked hard and you're unwinding. This put you in the moderate drinker category. Come Friday, a co-worker invites you out for happy hour, and it's been a rough week so you go and have two drinks - one martini (with 3 shots) followed by a light beer. Now you're in the range of a moderately heavy drinker. On Saturday evening, it's your birthday or a friend's birthday, so at dinner you indulge in a gin and tonic and a couple glasses of wine. Now you're well in the category of heavy drinker. 

It happens pretty quickly, even without "binge-ing,' which is categorized as women drinking 4 drinks within two hours, and men drinking 5 drinks within two hours. 

This becomes important since there are well-defined health risked related to heavy drinking habits, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart disease
  • Chemical dependence (alcoholism)
  • Depression
  • Neurological damage
  • Epilepsy
  • Dementia 
  • Sleep disruption
  • Lowered immune response
  • Cancer
  • Increased Inflammation
  • Hormone disruption
  • Impaired sexual and reproduction function
  • Thyroid disease
  • Breast cancer (even in moderate drinkers)
  • Fatty liver

And this doesn't even begin to cover the health issues directly related to metabolism (and therefore weight loss, aesthetics, and performance) which include weight gain, stalled weight loss, loss of bone density, osteoporosis, changes to fat metabolism, and muscle damage. 

We all know that alcohol is technically poison in our bodies, but it's fun, right? We enjoy it. We drink socially and it's often relaxing. I'm not here to tell you to stop drinking or scare you away from it. 

Drinking can promote creativity, social connection, leisure, and pleasure. A good rule of thumb is that if you're going to drink, do it because you genuinely enjoy it- not because you're stressed, it's a habit, because other people are drinking, and certainly not because a study said "it's good for you."

The choice to consume alcohol is an individual one. It's less about healthy or not healthy, and more about trade-off's. Think of it like this: saying "yes" to something means saying "no" to something else:

  • Saying "yes" to six-pack abs might mean saying "no" to a few drinks at the bar. 
  • Saying "yes" to happy hour might mean saying "no" to your workout the next morning. 
  • Saying "yes" to getting solid and sound sleep might mean saying "no" to indulging in wine with dinner.
  • Saying "yes" to moderate drinking might mean saying "no" to stress triggers in your life.

How might you implement a well-balanced approach to alcohol for your life? Ask yourself a few questions...

Is my drinking urgent or mindless? This might mean that drinking has become habitual.
Are there patterns to my drinking? For instance, over-doing it on Friday nights. 
Is alcohol helping me or stressing me out? Feel guilty or stressed the next day due to drinking, then reassess.
Does alcohol bring out the worst parts of you? Might be time to cut back if your mood changes, or you do things you wouldn't do sober, like texting your ex. 

In terms of athletic performance and reaching goals, consider these questions:

Do I generally feel good? This is so simple, yet so telling of whether alcohol is serving us well or not.
Am I recovering properly? After the gym as well as following drinking.
How does my body react to drinking? Hungover, headache, upset stomach, bloating, etc.
Is alcohol adding extra calories to my body? This is especially important when trying to lose weight.

When it comes to alcohol, consider what you're currently saying "yes" to and what you're currently saying "no" to. What, if anything, might you being willing to change? What are you prepared to say "yes" or "no" to, and why? There aren't any right or wrong answers, but it's important to recognize the compromises (temporary or permanent) that you can make to progress in your personal health journey.