alcohol and eating disorder recovery: part one

Alcohol in recovery is a topic I’ve been meaning to tackle for awhile and a question I get frequently on social media and during my one-on-one sessions with clients. Is it safe to drink in recovery? How does alcohol fit in my meal plan? How do I navigate alcohol and intuitive eating? After a little bit of thought, I’ve decided I’m going to break this down into two posts: the first (the one you’re reading right now!) will address alcohol specifically in the context of eating disorder recovery and the second (which will be published next week) will address alcohol in the context of intuitive eating. Although there are many similarities, there are some nuances between the two that I think are worth distinguishing between.

Right up top, I want to state a very important disclaimer which is that alcohol does not ever have to be part of your recovery. If there is any reason alcohol may be unsafe for you* - whether that’s a history of substance abuse, related medical history, or any other reason - then please honor yourself, your history, and your body in whatever ways you need. That might look like abstaining from alcohol altogether; that might look like being mindful of your alcohol consumption. If, like me, you have a history of alcohol abuse in your family, it may mean paying extra attention when/why you do drink. Also: if you do not like alcohol, you do not have to drink it! Ever!

This post is by no means me recommending you include alcohol in your recovery; rather, this is written for those who are safe to consume alcohol and are curious how that meshes with their recovery/journey with food.

Alright ready? Let’s dive in.

Alcohol and recovery can be a tricky topic for a lot of reasons and my thoughts about the appropriate-ness of it really depend on where you are at your recovery and your life. In the beginning stages of recovery when you’re starting to nourish your body properly again, having a drink may be more confusing than not. Alcohol can disrupt your sense of hunger/fullness and as you’re learning to feel those cues in your body again, adding alcohol to the equation might make things more complicated than they already are. The last thing you want to do is make it harder for yourself to feel hunger. In the beginning, the priority should be on food and alcohol may make it harder to do this.

As you move on in your recovery, it might feel safer to consume alcohol without impacting your ability to nourish yourself. This is a point where you’re consistently nourishing yourself, on a regular meal/snack schedule, and starting to feel and respond to body cues again. At this point, it may be worth ordering a drink with dinner (if it sounds good!) to see how you feel. Does it impact your appetite/thoughts/behaviors? Get curious about this and if you have a treatment team, I recommend bringing this to your sessions. One of the goals in recovery is to go back to living your life normally and if that includes a glass of wine with dinner or mimosas at brunch, there’s nothing wrong with that (again, if alcohol is generally safe for you). But be aware that it may take some experimentation and mindfulness to get there in a way that feels supportive to recovery.

That all being said, there are definitely things to watch out for as your navigate alcohol and recovery:

  1. You are counting alcohol as part of your meals/snacks. You can include alcohol in addition to your meals or snacks but you’re not going to convince me that a glass of pinot grigio counts as a starch exchange. Any alcohol consumption is in addition to not in place of your meal plan.

  2. You are drinking to the point that you are too hungover/sick to eat regularly or complete your meal plan. I work with a lot of college-aged people and folks in their 20s. I know that going out and having drinks with your friends can be part of that. I went to college, I’ve been there. And as your dietitian, I don’t care if you’re going out and partying on Friday night and I want you to be able to enjoy that experience if that’s a thing you want to do - as long as you are safe and as long as you are able to continue nourishing yourself the next day. I get it, stuff happens. Sometimes we end up with an unexpected hangover (I’ve also been there). But it’s a problem if it’s happening consistently and impacting your ability to eat regularly. Beyond that, it may be worth exploring why you’re trying to drink so much in the first place. Again, food comes first and if alcohol is impacting your ability to make it a priority, it’s worth exploring what might be going on for you.

  3. You are “saving” calories in order to drink and/or using it to suppress your appetite. As someone who went to a “party school” (what school isn’t?), I feel like this was the standard. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s normal, okay, or healthy. Lindsay Hall is a great writer/recovery advocate and she’s written about this pretty extensively.

  4. You are using alcohol as an excuse to use behaviors. Nope, nope, nope. If you notice yourself doing this, please tell your treatment team, trusted provider, or friend/family.

  5. You are using alcohol to avoid feelings that are coming up since you ceased using eating disorder behaviors. When you start recovery, you may notice an increase in anxiety, depression, or an array of negative/uncomfortable emotions. That’s because your eating disorder was a band-aid; it helped cover or numb those things when you didn’t want to deal with them. The solution is not to throw on a new, differently colored band-aid. It’s to clean out the wound (sorry for the gross analogy). Point being that neither eating disorder behaviors nor alcohol/substances are a healthy way to deal with hard emotions. Learning skills (hopefully with the help of an eating disorder-informed therapist) to cope with these emotions rather than suppressing them is a much more sustainable plan and ultimately, brings you closer to recovery.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of red flags, but hopefully gives you a few things to look out for as you navigate alcohol and eating disorder. Stay tuned - next week’s blog post will be about navigating alcohol and intuitive eating!

*If you are struggling in your relationship to alcohol, know that there are resources out there and a 24/7 help line if you need immediate support.