By Chris Richard

How to Manage Alcohol Consumption During the Holidays (Without Feeling Guilty)

The holidays are here! Cue the cheerful music, festive parties, and eggnog! While I am a huge fan of the holiday season and all the excitement that it brings, I also know that there can be a huge amount of stressed wrapped up under the tree. There’s a lot of pressure as a parent to make the holidays idyllic for kids or to be the perfect hostess. There’s also the added weight stress associated with indulgent meals and party drinks. Alcohol can be confusing to navigate during the holidays. As a dietitian, and a fan of the occasional glass of wine, I’m here to break it down for you.

Before we dive into how to responsibly (and moderately) consume alcohol over the holiday season, we must first chat about the elephant in the room. The negative physical health consequences of drinking alcohol – especially for women. Excessive alcohol use has been linked to liver damage, heart disease, and certain cancers[1]. The alarming fact is that all these health consequences are far greater for women versus men.

Canada’s low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines recommend setting limits to reduce the short-term and long-term risks associated with alcohol use. These guidelines state that women should limit alcohol to no more than 2 standard drinks per day, and no more than 10 standard drinks per week[2]. A standard drink is defined as 12-ounces of beer, cider, or cooler (with 5% alcohol content), a 5-ounce glass of wine (with 12% alcohol content), or 1.5-ounces of distilled alcohol (rye, gin, etc. at 40% alcohol content).


Knowing all of this, and as a woman in my 40s with a family history of heart disease and cancers (like most of us), I still enjoy consuming alcohol in moderation. Although there are negative physical health consequences (hello hangover!), there are also social and psychological benefits too[3]. Occasional drinks with friends out or relaxing at home with a good book and a glass of malbec, can also contribute to improved mental health and well-being. As with everything in life, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons and decide what works best for you.

As a huge fan of intuitive eating[4], the question is – can we translate what we know about this mind-body health approach to how we consume alcohol? First up, it’s important to note that alcohol consumption and food consumption are completely different. But within the 10 principles of intuitive eating[5] there are some teachings that can be translated. The three intuitive eating principles that I often focus on within my counselling practice include: honoring your hunger, discovering the satisfaction factor, and coping with your emotions with kindness.

Here are 4 alcohol “don’ts” (and dos!) for the holiday season (or anytime):


Don’t “save up calories” to compensate for alcohol consumed:

In short, this is disordered. Honoring your hunger is a skill that as adults we often override. Our bodies need energy, but in our busy lives it’s not unusual to skip breakfast or a snack and push through to the next task. In doing this we ignore our immediate hunger, resulting in excessive hunger at a later opportunity. To consume alcohol in a healthy and mindful way it’s important to acknowledge the importance of eating intuitively and honoring hunger. This means no skipping meals to compensate for the calories found in alcohol, and instead eating to comfortable fullness. Drinking on an empty stomach is also never a good idea as alcohol passes too quickly into your bloodstream increasing the rate of intoxication[6]. This may then affect decision making when it comes to how many drinks you would like to have, and what late-night snacks you may consume! So, eat normally on the day of your holiday party and enjoy the food provided.


Don’t drink something just because it’s lower in calories

In addition to discovering the satisfaction factor in food, it is also important to find satisfaction in consuming and experiencing alcohol. The eating experience is so much more than the food consumed, and the same is true for alcohol. What environment are you consuming alcohol? Are you using alcohol in a safe and comfortable way? Are you consuming what you want versus what you think you should have? If your favourite alcoholic beverage is a swapped for a less caloric dense version, you won’t be filling your satisfaction factor. So, this holiday season stick to what you truly enjoy and avoid the guilt-regret cycle.


Don’t use alcohol as a coping mechanism

Drinking intuitively means checking in with yourself discovering what emotions you’re feeling. How do you feel prior to a drink, while drinking, and after? If you’re feeling excited to celebrate, are having fun, and feel great the next day then that’s likely a positive and moderate way to enjoy alcohol. But if you are using alcohol as a coping mechanism or to solve a problem or distract yourself, then it’s important to seek guidance on how to deal with the source of the emotion. It’s important to be gentle to yourself. Personally, I often have a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day, but I may equally call a friend or hit the gym!


Don’t say yes to a drink, unless you really want it

As a woman, I find it can be hard to take the guilt out of a lot of things. Sometimes I feel guilty that I didn’t save the last cookie for my kids, and sometimes I don’t have any regrets – that cookie is mine! It’s normal for that feeling of guilt to come into play--we are after all only human. In addition to incorporating some of the intuitive eating principles into alcohol consumption, it’s also important to be mindful. This means, saying yes to a drink when you really want to and no when you don’t. Being aware of quantity and quality – avoid filling up your drink until it’s empty to be aware of how much you’ve consumed, and drink what you prefer. Above all, check in with yourself (and friends) frequently and have fun!