alcohol and intuitive eating: part two

Last week, I wrote a post about navigating alcohol in eating disorder recovery (if you haven’t read it yet, you can check it out here! Recommend reading that first as many of those tips still apply.) This week, I want to dive into navigating alcohol in intuitive eating. 

Same as last week, I want to be clear up top that alcohol does not need to be part of your relationship with food - ever. If it’s not safe for you for any reason, honor yourself in whatever ways you need. If you don’t like it, don’t drink it. The point of this post is for people who are safe to consume alcohol who are curious about how this fits in to intuitive eating and is written assuming this is the case for you - if alcohol isn’t safe, feel free to skip this post altogether.

Alcohol in intuitive eating can be tricky to navigate for many reasons including that unlike food, alcohol isn’t necessary. But the goal of recovery and/or healing your relationship with food is return to or create a life in which you can live by your values and not let food and body control your life. Alcohol may or may not be part of this equation. In my practice, I see various ways diet culture has influenced people’s decision to drink (or not to drink). If you need proof, see the alarming number of restaurants that are adding “light & fresh” cocktail sections to their menus (more on that in a bit). The goal of intuitive eating is to unlearn diet culture and figure out what makes sense for you. Before diet culture took hold, was a glass of wine with dinner something you enjoyed? Did you enjoy going out for a few drinks with friends? Were brewery tours something you looked forward to?

Not all the principles of intuitive eating apply to alcohol (honoring your hunger and fullness don’t necessarily make sense here), but there are certain facets that are worth exploring in the context of alcohol if you are curious about ways to include it in a way that feels good for you mentally, physically, and emotionally:

Honor your body. Pay attention to how your body feels. It’s no secret that alcohol can leave you feeling a little under the weather and knowing that can help you make decisions about whether you want to have that third glass of wine or not. You probably have some idea of what does/doesn’t feel good in your body - maybe sweet drinks leave you feeling kind of sick the next day, maybe red wine gives you a headache, or maybe anything more than one or two drinks leaves you tired and out-of-it the next day. Use that information to help you make decisions. Ultimately, it is your decision and there’s no right or wrong - you have autonomy over your body! Another way to think about this: my partner is quite lactose intolerant. Sometimes he avoids things that he knows will make him feel sick; sometimes he decides that it’s worth it and deals with the stomachache later. Same can go for alcohol. If there’s a celebration (wedding, birthday, etc) and you know you can take it easy the next day (or you can’t but you don’t care), then maybe it makes sense to have a few more drinks that you normally would in the context of celebration or connection. But on a regular basis, that’s probably not going to feel great in your body. As with all things intuitive eating, using both body and mind knowledge to make that decision can help you arrive at place that feels good to you.

Honor your emotions. One of the intuitive eating principles is honor your emotions without using food. When I talk about this with clients, I usually add a big caveat to that which is sometimes it’s *okay* to use food to cope with emotions. Emotional eating gets a bad rap but food is inherently comforting. If you’re stressed and want to copy by eating ice cream, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as long as it’s not the only coping mechanism in your toolbox. This applies to alcohol as well. I’m sure there are people who would disagree with me but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a glass of wine at the end of the night to deal with a stressful day. However, it shouldn’t be the only thing in your toolbox. There’s a problem if you’re using alcohol to cope with all your bad days. Part of healing your relationship with food is learning to deal with life without using food (or lack of food) as a coping mechanism; for the purposes of this post, we can include alcohol in this as well. Hard emotions may come up, whether you’re in recovery or not, and learning to deal with them in healthy ways is a far better plan in the long-term than a gin & tonic. 

Leave nutrition out of it. Meaning that you don’t need to automatically go to the “light” cocktails or opt out of a particular cocktail because it’s “too much”. Let’s be real: you’re not drinking alcohol for health benefits. You’re drinking for connection, celebration, pleasure, satisfaction, flavor, etc. Leave the nutrition facts out of it; drink what genuinely sounds good to you and you’ll be able to enjoy it more and feel more satisfied.

Be flexible - learn to say yes and learn to say no. A core tenet of intuitive eating is flexibility - being able to try new things, let go of rules, and feel less rigid around food. The same goes for alcohol. There are many valid reasons to avoid alcohol but calories is not one of them. I would argue that it’s not a healthy choice to say no to a drink if the only reason you’re saying no is to avoid the calories. If alcohol has been off limits due to diet culture, see what saying yes to a cocktail at dinner feels like when it sounds good. And also, practice saying no when you really don’t want a drink but feel pressured to. Remember that there’s no reason you have to drink just because everyone else is and the idea that we have to celebrate all things with alcohol is a social construct (and a messed up one at that). Whether you say yes or no, do it because you’re honoring your body and your desires. Leave everything else out of it.

Let yourself snack. This comes up in my sessions a lot. It’s no secret that alcohol sometimes makes us want to munch later on and I see this create panic for a lot of people. Is this “real” hunger? Do I listen to it? Should I just ignore it and wait for breakfast tomorrow? Yes, yes, and no. It’s true that alcohol can throw off our hunger cues - but that doesn’t mean we should ignore them altogether. The core of intuitive eating is flexibility. Let yourself have a snack if it sounds good! Don’t get too caught up in how it “fits” or the right/wrong of it (hint: there is no right or wrong). Restricting yourself in these moments is probably going to make you feel much worse. Eat a snack. Your body knows what to do.

In practice, this can look different for everyone - just like food. Personally, I’ve realized recently all the times I was having a drink out of habit versus because I genuinely wanted one only to end up with a headache that I was mad about. It’s okay if it takes time to figure out what makes the most sense for you and what feels good to you. Recently, I was out to dinner with my partner. I had decided going into dinner that I would have one glass of wine so I could wake up with energy on Saturday morning. Long story short, our dessert ended up taking much longer than expected and our server brought me a second glass of wine and two shots of homemade limoncello for my partner and I on the house to apologize for the delay (yes, this restaurant has incredible service). Knowing that if I had two glasses of wine and a shot I would definitely have a headache the next day (mind knowledge), I opted to drink most of the limoncello since it was delicious and so flavorful (body knowledge) and give the rest and the glass of wine to my partner. Mind and body knowledge, friends.

I would love to hear how alcohol fits into intuitive eating for you- feel free to drop a comment below. Cheers to the weekend friends!

Cover photo by John Canelis