Intuitive eating and alcohol can coexist
Intuitive eating is a non-diet eating framework that encourages eating based on your hunger and fullness cues. The principles of intuitive eating focus on mindfulness, or reconnecting to your body to make choices about when, what, and how much to eat at a meal or snack. Many people question if intuitive eating and alcohol can fit together.
Although consuming alcohol is not typically considered a “mindful” activity, mindful drinking is possible when you are committed to listening to your body. You can start practicing more intuitive alcohol consumption with these strategies, tips, and tricks.
How to apply intuitive eating to alcohol consumption
1) Set intentions before you start drinking
Before attending an event where alcohol will be served, take a moment to ask yourself how you would like to feel in your time there. Is this an event where you would like to stay alert and conversational, like a work luncheon? Or is this an event where you would prefer to be more relaxed, like a family BBQ?
Then consider how you would like to feel after the event. If you experience hangovers from drinking, consider what activities or obligations you have later that day or the next. How would you like to feel for those and how will consuming alcohol affect that?
2) Take note of what your body might need besides alcohol
Do a full body scan before you have your first drink to assess your body’s needs. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Or tired? Ignoring these while drinking may make you feel worse as the day/night goes on. Alcohol is not a substitute for food, water, or sleep!
Similarly, you can assess your emotions. Feeling excited, sad, angry, lonely, nervous, or distracted might also impact how you engage with alcohol once you start drinking. Consider what you might do to address your emotional needs with other coping skills before you begin drinking.
3) Stay present and choose a drink that you enjoy
A large focus of intuitive eating is choosing foods that taste good and are satisfying, and learning how to stay present and enjoy them. We can apply the same practices to alcohol by choosing beverages that we want to sip and savor. Feel free to responsibly try different brands, varieties, and flavor combinations to find what you like best.
When drinking socially, it can also be all-too-easy to mindlessly drink your beverage without really tasting it, especially if you are standing, talking, dancing etc. You may find it easier to stay present and mindful with your drink if you are sitting instead of standing, or if you can put your drink down periodically (in a safe space) instead of holding it in your hand the whole time.
4) Listen to your body
With food, just because something tastes good, doesn’t mean that it will make you feel good if you consume too much of it. The same applies to alcohol. One of the most important parts of drinking intuitively is checking in with your body frequently. Frequent check in’s are crucial as you drink, largely because alcohol will progressively impair your ability to be present and intuitive.
As a part of checking in you might ask yourself the following: Are you noticing any physical sensations or changes to your body or thoughts as you drink? Are they positive or negative? Are they in line with the intentions you set before you started? What about your mood and emotions? Are there external factors impacting your ability to be truly mindful with your drinking?
5) Do what feels right for you
Everyone reacts differently to alcohol, so it’s important to stay true to yourself and your intentions. Just because someone else says they’ve had three cocktails and is “feeling nothing” doesn’t mean this will be true for you.
This is also a great time to consider the safety risks associated with drinking. Not only is it important to consider the adverse physical side effects of drinking past your limits (nausea, vomiting, impaired motor skills, blacking out, alcohol poisoning, etc), it’s also important to consider your personal comfort level with your surroundings. The venue, transportation, or people you are with that may have felt safe to you before your first drink, might not feel as safe after your second or third drink. Always follow your gut and seek help right away if you no longer feel safe in your surroundings.
6) Practice curious reflection
Intuitive eating hinges on the practice of curious self-reflection. Reflection can help you make informed decisions about future drinking opportunities based on how your body felt before, during, and after consuming alcohol. You may begin to notice patterns. For example, if you are always tried and stressed before drinking you may drink more quickly and less mindfully. Or, when you order your favorite wine at a restaurant you are more likely to slow down and enjoy it compared to when you order a beer.
Curious self-reflection is only productive when you practice it without judgment and shame. There may be parts about your drinking experience that you don’t want to repeat, and that’s ok. Consider this information for next time. If this happens more often than not, consider working with a professional who can help you explore your relationship with alcohol further.
Common challenges when drinking intuitively
It’s not uncommon to feel pressure in social situations to drink past your personal limits, especially when others are doing the same. However, intuitive drinking requires listening to your own body about what feels best, not what feels best for someone else. Declining a beverage may feel uncomfortable at first. However, it’s always ok to say no. Remember, only you can know your comfort level with what and how much you drink.
If you’ve decided that you don’t want to consume alcohol, but still want to enjoy a drink, you may find that sipping on a water, soda, mocktail or other non-alcoholic beverage is a great alternative. Having a beverage in-hand might help you feel more socially comfortable without compromising your intentions around alcohol consumption.
Disconnecting from your body
By nature, alcohol is considered a nervous system depressant. This means it will slow brain function, making it harder to think clearly and make reasonable judgments and decisions about your body or your surroundings. This directly interferes with intuitive drinking practices which require mindfulness and awareness. It’s important to remember when you are setting your intentions around drinking that the more alcohol you consume, the harder mindful drinking will become.
Frequently asked questions about intuitive eating and alcohol
Do I have to be an intuitive eater to drink intuitively?
You don’t have to be a seasoned intuitive eater to want to combine intuitive eating and alcohol—but it might help! Even if you aren’t ready to tackle your relationship with food, you can still explore mindfulness around drinking with questions that boost awareness and body attunement.
Why do I always want to eat when I drink alcohol?
It’s important to check in with yourself before you start drinking to assess if you are hungry (or thirsty, or tired, or emotional etc). Alcohol is not a substitute for food, so eating before you begin drinking might feel better in your body.
If an event runs long, you might not realize how long it’s been since your last meal or snack. As a part of your intentions for the evening, you might include making sure you have access to food or a snack to tide you over.
Alcohol may also lower your food inhibitions. If your judgment becomes cloudy while drinking, you may not be able to make intuitive decisions around food, leading to eating types or quantities of foods that wouldn’t otherwise feel great in your body.
If eating, or overeating, is always part of your drinking experience, you may want to work with an intuitive eating dietitian who can help you understand how your relationship with food and/or alcohol is fueling this behavior.
Is drinking alcohol healthy?
There is no biological need to consume alcohol like there is for consuming food or water. Some studies suggest that consuming certain types of alcohol may be beneficial to health, though many more studies have identified a strong connection between alcohol consumption and increased risk of chronic disease and cancer.
Mindful drinking may be a helpful practice to help you decide what, when, and how much alcohol is best for you according to your personal physical and mental health goals.
Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Kristin specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating, and is an advocate for weight-inclusive care for all her clients.