Sober-curious? Some thoughts on cutting down alcohol consumption

Over January I’ve decided to stop drinking alcohol. This was for multiple reasons, but I wanted to try to reset some habits (mindless drinking in the evenings). I’m actually feeling much better for it physically and mentally. Over the initial waves of the COVID-19 pandemic many people increased their alcohol consumption through social isolation, stress and boredom of being stuck at home. Over time, excessive drinking can precipitate mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

I set myself some goals and trackers to help with my motivation, and to discourage myself when my brain thinks about reaching for a beer or a glass of wine in the evenings. I downloaded a tracker app to my phone that tells me how much money I’ve saved by not drinking alcohol. More realistically, I think about the calories I’ve saved, as a small 5oz glass of wine (and not a “home pour”) is about 125 kcal, and these are empty calories with little to no nutritional value.

Alcohol contains seven calories per gram, which is a concentrated source of calories. In fact, it’s second only to fat, at nine calories per gram. When you consider that a standard pint of beer contains around 20g of alcohol, those numbers soon add up. Add to this that your body cannot store the energy from alcohol, meaning it must be broken down before the energy from food. This can lead to weight gain as you end up storing the excess energy from food as fat.

Alcohol can also reduce the physiological effects of exercise and recovery from a workout. Drinking alcohol after strength training prevents efficient muscle gains by decreasing the secretion of growth hormone, slowing recovery and exacerbating muscle soreness.

If you are planning on having a month off alcohol, are trying to build new healthy routines or just want to cut down on your alcohol consumption, while also being mindful of sugar consumption, here are some tips.

Don’t have alcohol around the house

It’s always easier to abstain from something if it isn’t staring you in the face. I took all the beers out of my fridge and put them in the back of a cupboard. By removing the temptation to crack a cold beer open, I’m less likely to go fishing through the cupboard, and go to the effort of sticking a beer in the freezer to cool off for 15 mins. I moved the spirits away into a cupboard too, where they now reside next to some cleaning products.

Have low sugar, non-alcoholic alternatives available in abundance at home

Hey, guess what has no sugar and no alcohol in it? Water. However, I’m not a fan of straight-up “plain” water unless I’m exercising, in which case I drink it by the gallon (fizzy water in a spin class, oh hell no). I find plain water pretty dull, but I try to drink 3-4 litres a day of liquids because I’m often a sweaty mess when I’m active, or in air-conditioned / heated spaces that dehydrate me horribly.

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I get through a lot of carbonated water at home. I have a Sodastream and it’s always on hand to make carbonated water. The scientist in me had to work out the cost-effectiveness of the purchase of the machine (mine is a Sodastream Source – $120) plus the CO2 refills (~$25 – makes about 40 litres), and it works out at about $1.50 / litre once you’ve used the machine regularly for at least 3-6 months, as you have to offset the cost of the unit. For me, it’s great because I hate carrying heavy bottles of water back from the supermarket, and it reduces plastic waste.

I try to spruce up my fizzy water with mint leaves to make some sort of virgin mojito, add ginger slices (smash at the bottom of the glass or grate before use for extra ginger power), throw in fruit like raspberries, mango or watermelon, or add lemon / lime juice, add sliced cucumber. Mix things up a bit too. Some combinations – ginger + lime, mint + watermelon, cucumber + mint, mango + mint, raspberry + lime… these all go together well. You can also include teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to fizzy water, which gives it a bit of a zingy kick, while diluting the acidic vinegar.

Alternatives for when you’re socialising

When you’re going “dry” for a month but also want to maintain social activities that usually involve alcohol, like going to the pub with friends, it’s easy to just have coke or lemonade. But these drinks are full of sugar, so I avoid them.

The easy alternative is a diet version of these drinks, however a range of scientific research actually points towards artificial sweeteners being just as bad for you as sugar. Your body thinks that it’s getting glucose, mobilises its glucose uptake system (insulin) and then gets very disappointed.  In a nutshell, artificial sweeteners can make cells resistant to the insulin we produce, leading to both increased blood sugar and insulin levels. Evidence also shows that regularly consuming sugar-alternatives can alter the balance of our gut microbiome.

Sorry, I’ve ruined diet drinks. Back to soda water for you… Ask the bartender for a lemon or lime wedge in it. Sometimes I’ll ask for a dash of aromatic bitters in soda water with fresh lime. Ah, “but bitters has alcohol in it” you say. I’m not going to wax lyrical about approximately 3ml of 22% alcohol getting into my 300mls water when I rub hand sanitiser onto my hands regularly.

Teas, hot or cold

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I’m British, so nothing beats a cup of English breakfast tea with a dash of milk. Sometimes I’ll make iced tea by steeping peppermint or ginger and lemon tea bags for a really long time, then chilling off in the fridge and drinking later with some ice cubes and berries (raspberries are best as they add sweetness). Most store bought iced teas are full of sugar, or sugar alternatives. I also don’t like them because I think they taste gross and smell weird, so that ends that discussion.

I’m a big fan of Yogi Teas, particularly their Restful Sleep blend, which contains skullcap, a natural relaxant and anti-anxiety herb. A lot more healthy than a nightcap of whiskey.

Kombucha or kefir

At many cafes and supermarkets there are a range of fizzy fermented health drinks like kombucha and kefirs. These have the added bonus of being probiotic and prebiotic so you can feel extra good about yourself. Or make your own if you can find a SCOBY (this link here is helpful).

These drinks start off as tea with a whole heap of sugar in, which is then fermented by a SCOBY (a jelly lump of microbes) for a few weeks which eats up the sugar, then gets batched up into portions and flavoured by infusions of fruits or herbs. I really like ginger flavoured kombucha (I have a thing for ginger, can you tell?). Just be mindful of the sugar content in the store bought ones. It should be natural fruit sugars listed because many add fruit juice for the flavour. Also, too much kombucha can upset your stomach, so don’t drink like 3 pints of it at once. Take it from me, I’ve been there.

Alcohol-free spirits and beers

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I’m very intrigued by these, particularly the zero-proof spirits that can serve as an alcohol-free night-cap or to make an interesting non-alcoholic cocktail.

Beyond Heineken 0%, many bespoke brands are coming to the table with non-alcoholic products with artisanal botanicals, herbs, spices and layered flavour profiles that sound far more interesting than my soda water with lime squeezed in. I’m currently sipping on Solbru Restore – which contains immune-supporting Reishi mushrooms and spicy, warming botanical extracts, and has no sugar! My next move will likely be to purchase the ingredients from Lyre’s to make a ‘negroni’.

Final thoughts…

I hope I have shared some slightly useful insights into the world of sobriety paired with low sugar diets with you. You might take a break and really miss alcohol, but you also might build some new routines that are better for your brain and body, and find some new-found freedom from habits.

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