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How Does Alcohol Fit into Intuitive Eating?

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Have you ever wondered how alcohol fits into intuitive eating? You’re not alone. Alcohol isn’t biologically necessary like food and it can be abused. Alcohol can also be a fun and pleasurable part of a perfectly balanced lifestyle. So do the ten principles of intuitive eating apply to booze? Let’s dig in.

The topic of alcohol can be a touchy one for many of us. Alcohol abuse runs in my family, as it does many families, and I’ve seen its effects firsthand. While I’ve been able to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol, I’m acutely aware that it can be a slippery slope to having problems with alcohol.

Before reading further, consider asking yourself these questions:

  • Why do I drink alcohol?
  • How do I feel when I drink alcohol?
  • What happens when I drink alcohol?

There can be a lot of guilt and shame wrapped up into our relationships with alcohol, so try your best to stay curious and compassionate. Talking about this with a professional can be super helpful.

Facts about Alcohol Abuse

Approximately 1 in 12 Americans suffer from alcohol use disorder (that’s nearly 18 million people in the U.S.). There are both physical and psychological factors that contribute to alcohol misuse and people may drink for a variety of reasons. 

When abused, alcohol can make changes to the brain’s chemistry and functionality. This doesn’t mean that anyone who drinks is misusing alcohol, but it does mean that there’s always a possibility of alcohol dependence if you’re not mindful with it.

Alcohol is Not Food

The concepts of misuse and dependence are key nuances in the discussion of how alcohol fits into intuitive eating. When we consume alcohol, our brains release dopamine and endorphins. This can also happen when we eat – but that doesn’t mean food is addictive. 

We have a biological need for food. Our brains send us feel-good chemicals when we eat because we need to eat to survive. This is a very helpful and necessary mechanism.

Studies that have found food to be “addictive” did so using restriction as a precursor – which only proves the diet/binge cycle – it doesn’t prove that food is addictive.

Binge Drinking is Not the Same as Binge Eating

To further clarify the difference between alcohol and food, let’s address the topic of bingeing. 

Bingeing on food is disordered, yes. But it’s not an addiction. Binge eating disorder is strongly influenced by the diet/binge cycle and research has found that the more people restrict food, the more likely they are to binge food. 

It’s a bit messier with alcohol. One can binge drink with or without severe consequences. However, binge drinking is associated with higher rates of violence, depression and suicide. Bingeing on alcohol can literally kill you. 

Also, cutting back on booze doesn’t predict binge drinking the way restricting food predicts binge eating.

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When Alcohol and Diet Culture Intersect

Alcohol contains calories. And this can further complicate one’s relationship with alcohol. Have you heard the term “drunkorexia?” It’s when someone skips meals and restricts food to “save up” calories for an alcohol binge. 

People who engage in this type of behavior are also more likely to engage in eating disorder behaviors such as fasting, bingeing and using laxatives. 

“Drunkorexia,” or “food and alcohol disturbance,” is dangerous for many reasons. First, undernourishment – you’re missing important nutrients from food. Second, alcohol’s effects are amplified when you have zero food in your belly. Third, it creates a disordered either/or dichotomy with alcohol and food – “I can either drink my calories or eat my calories” – which is not healthy at all. 

So you have situations where people starve themselves and then drink. And there are also situations where people won’t drink because they’re scared of the calories. Neither of these are what I would describe a healthy relationship with alcohol. 

Yes, it’s OK not to drink. Many people pass on booze. But if you’re not drinking because you’re terrified of the calories, that’s a red flag.

Have you ever had the “munchies” during or after drinking? This is a common occurrence – drinking alcohol tends to make people want to eat. The benefit of this is there’s food in the belly to somewhat dampen the negative side effects of alcohol. The downside is it can result in mindless eating that may lead to guilt or shame. 

Did you know that people with eating disorders (specifically anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder) are 5 to 10 times more likely to also struggle with a substance abuse issue? 

Therefore it’s especially important to be mindful of your relationship with alcohol if you also have a challenging relationship with food.

Assess Your Relationship with Alcohol

Remember when I asked you to consider why you drink, how you feel when you drink and what happens when you drink? This is where it comes in. 

First you need to be super honest with yourself: do you have a problem with alcohol? Does it feel addictive or abusive?

Vertical Pinterest graphic with the title "Diagnostic Criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder" that then lists all the criteria.

If you’re unsure if your behavior or relationship with alcohol is problematic, talk with a professional! 

How to Be Mindful with Alcohol

The key to a healthy relationship with alcohol is mindfulness.

What this means is taking the time to pause and notice. If you do drink alcohol, consider these strategies:

  • Explore your favorite types of alcohol. Do you prefer red or white wine? Hoppy beer? Dark liquor? Herbaceous cocktails?
  • Like with food, drink what you like and leave the rest.
  • Avoid drinking just to “get drunk.”
  • When offered a drink, decide if you truly want it before saying yes. 
  • Before having a second drink, tune in with your body. How are you feeling? Do you need some water? Food? What would a second drink do for you?
  • Do not restrict food before/during/after drinking.
  • Do not use alcohol as a way to induce vomiting. 
  • Consider experimenting with occasionally not drinking. What would it be like to decline alcohol in a situation where everyone else is imbibing?

Bold, capitalized black text that says "the key to a healthy relationship with alcohol is mindfulness" by Taylor Wolfram on tan background

Intuitive Drinking

Can the intuitive eating principles be applied to drinking alcohol? Yes, they can. But we need to remember that some of these strategies may not be safe for people with alcohol use disorder. For those who do not have alcohol use disorder, consider these extensions of the intuitive eating principles:

  • Reject the diet mentality (Can you reject diet mentality surrounding alcohol?)
  • Honor your hunger (What is it like to allow yourself to have a drink when you want one?)
  • Make peace with food (What does it look like to make peace with alcohol?)
  • Challenge the food police (Do you have inner alcohol police?)
  • Feel your fullness (Mindfulness while drinking alcohol is key. Can you feel your level of intoxication?)
  • Discover the satisfaction factor (Can you truly savor alcohol?)
  • Cope with your emotions without using food (This one is super important with alcohol – make sure you have lots of coping strategies that don’t involve booze.)
  • Respect your body (What does respecting your body look like related to alcohol?)
  • Exercise – feel the difference (Make sure you’re not using exercise to “earn” or “burn” alcohol.)
  • Honor your health with gentle nutrition (What gentle nutrition considerations could you make related to alcohol?)

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I also reached out to some fellow professionals to get their insights on having a healthy relationship with alcohol. Check out these words of wisdom:

  • “It is very possible to hold a positive, intuitive relationship with alcohol in the same way that we can with food. A healthy relationship with alcohol does not compromise our relationship with food, movement, or self-care. This means there is no ‘saving up for’, ‘making up for’, or calculating. We are able to enjoy responsibly without using alcohol solely for numbing or soothing, and have a clear understanding how different drinks and amounts affect our body. As with all things, no amount of alcohol is safe or healthy if the body is undernourished to begin with. Make full-body nourishment the primary focus, and alcohol a privilege to enjoy once you’ve sustained that place.” – Haley Goodrich, RD, LDN – eating disorder dietitian and owner of INSPIRD Nutrition
  • “Drinking alcohol can be very much a part of intuitive eating … and it can also be very far away from it. Alcohol is a substance that’s often abused. Many people consume it mindlessly or in excess of suggested guidelines for intake. However, it also can be part of the joy of celebrating special occasions, something we enjoy socially that brings people together and a beverage that complements food and enhances the eating experience. To be more mindful about drinking, I suggest that my clients slow down and truly savor their beverage. Notice how it tastes in your mouth and how it changes the taste of what you’re eating. Pair wine, beer and spirits with different foods as you learn about what you enjoy and how it makes your body feel.” – Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO – virtual dietitian and owner of ChampagneNutrition
  • “If you realize you feel triggered by the presence of alcohol or the thought of consuming it sparks tension or unease, that’s an opportunity to dive deeper and explore why. It’s important to be kind to yourself if you notice this happening; you’re not doing intuitive eating “wrong” and it’s not a negative thing. We can’t always know what our triggers will be before we experience them so working through challenges like this is another form of building resiliency to diet mentality.” – Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LDN, intuitive eating dietitian and owner of Street Smart Nutrition
  • “Everyone has a different sort of relationship with alcohol. Some people don’t care for it, some are happy drinking occasionally, some like to drink regularly, and some people have difficulties managing their alcohol use. If you fall into the latter category, this would be something to discuss with your therapist. Goals for people who have difficulties managing their drinking may include abstinence or moderate drinking (I.e., up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men). There is really nothing wrong with abstaining from alcohol, if that’s what you want to do. I have not seen any research that suggests that the deprivation effect applies to alcohol use the way it does for food. At the same time, I think it is important to look at why you are abstaining. Are you choosing to stay home from happy hour because you are feeling anxious about the calories or because you don’t like the way alcohol makes you feel? One of those is an intuitive choice, while one seems disordered.” – Catharine Devlin, PsyD, eating disorder therapist and owner of Chicago Family Therapist
  • “People drink alcohol for all sorts of reasons. Knowing your own reasons for drinking alcohol is key. Are you someone who has emotions that are uncomfortable to sit with or you find yourself wanting to numb out? Are you seeking excitement? Or do you simply enjoy the taste and spending time with loved ones over drinks? Intuitive drinking means also checking in emotionally to see how you feel before, during, and after alcohol use -each part is an important part of the intuitive drinking process. Also ask yourself what you do before, during, and after drinking. For example, did you fight with loved ones and say things you would not say outside of drinking alcohol? Did you isolate and cancel all your plans the next day due to not feeling well? To drink intuitively means paying attention to your actions, emotions, and physical feelings around alcohol use. – Caitlin Martin-Wagar, MA, doctoral candidate in psychology.

 

It’s OK to drink. It’s OK not to drink. I hope this post helped you take a moment to reflect on your relationship with alcohol and encouraged you to get help if you need it. You deserve to have a positive relationship with both food and alcohol – cheers!

 

Sources

Engeln R. Is “Drunkorexia” a Real Thing? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beauty-sick/201902/is-drunkorexia-real-thing

Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

Kirkpatrick M, Kinavey H, Sturtevant S. Rethinking Food Addiction. https://benourished.org/rethinking-food-addiction/

Monico N. Am I An Alcoholic? American Addiction Centers. https://www.alcohol.org/faq/am-i-an-alcoholic/

Seruya A. Nope, Food Addiction Isn’t a Real Thing. Erica Leon Nutrition. https://ericaleon.com/2017/12/09/nope-food-addiction-isnt-real-thing/

Treating Eating Disorders and Alcoholism. American Addiction Centers. https://www.alcohol.org/co-occurring-disorder/eating/

What Makes Alcohol Addictive? Recovery Centers of America. https://recoverycentersofamerica.com/blogs/what-makes-alcohol-addictive/.

 

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