Informed choice: making sense of the new guidelines on alcohol and health

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) has released Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health to provide people with the information they need to make well-informed decisions about their alcohol consumption. The new guidelines recommend that low-risk consumption should involve drinking no more than two drinks per week. This number may seem extreme to some, and has generated significant media attention and discussion in recent months.

That said, the new recommendations are worth considering since they reflect the most up-to-date science of the risks related to alcohol. The research links alcohol to several types of cancer, heart disease, and liver disease. We know from other studies that alcohol can also negatively affect skin, gut health, sleep, weight, stress, and mental health.

The new guidelines categorize alcohol consumption into risk levels to give people a better understanding of the potential impact on their health:  

  • Low risk is 2 or fewer units per week
  • Moderate risk is 3-6 units per week
  • High risk is 7 or more units per week

A unit refers to 5 ounces of wine, a bottle of beer (5%), or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. It is still recommended that you don’t consume any alcohol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Should I change my drinking behavior?

Ultimately that is up to you. The most important information this report gives us is the option of informed choice. In life, we are constantly faced with deciding between risk and reward, but when it comes to drinking, we now have the information to make that choice wisely.

“In life, we are constantly faced with deciding between risk and reward, but when it comes to drinking, we now have the information to make that choice wisely.”

If you are thinking about ways you can decrease your drinking considering these new findings, here are some specific strategies that you can use:  

  • Drink mindfully: When you are offered a drink at a restaurant or gathering, think about whether you really want to drink, or whether a non-alcoholic beverage will do the trick.
  • Sip mindfully: When you are drinking an alcoholic beverage, savor each sip. This may sound counterintuitive, but research shows we ingest less (of food or alcohol) when we create a greater sensory awareness of the experience.
  • Track your drinking: Tracking behavior works well to create awareness, whether it is calories, steps, or drinks. People tend to drink more than they estimate.
  • Pace your drinking: Many people do well by setting boundaries around their intake. Maybe that means setting a start and stop time. Maybe it means one per hour or water between each drink.
  • Stick within the guidelines: If you are trying to stick to a certain number of drinks per week, it requires that you make choices about when you will drink. These guidelines can be a good starting point for creating awareness about when and how often you crave alcohol.
  • Be aware of why you are drinking: We generally consume alcohol to decrease emotional pain (including feelings like stress, boredom, or loneliness) or to increase pleasure. Challenge yourself to drink only when it enhances pleasure and not to numb the pain.
  • Try a mocktail: There are several new and innovative mocktail companies and craft beer creators that have developed products that mimic the taste of alcohol. You may even experience the placebo effect of feeling a little buzzed. This effect has been documented in research studies, where people think they are consuming alcohol but are not.
  • Choose lower alcohol content beverages: If you want to lower your “units” but enjoy a beverage, move to lower alcohol content beer, mix your wine with water or juice, or make cocktails with small amounts of hard liquor.
  • Only drink on weekends: Some people do better with an all-or-nothing approach to days of the week. The caveat is that you can’t drink all your units on Friday. Binge drinking (4 drinks or more for women, 5 drinks for men) is a well-established risk factor for health and social consequences.
  • Ride the craving: One of the best ways to decrease alcohol consumption is to find ways to ride out the craving. This strategy was well established for people wanting to quit smoking. Cravings generally only last for a set timeframe and will pass more quickly with practice.

Changing your drinking habits can improve your short- and long-term health – even small changes can have a big impact. ALAViDA can help.

If you’d like to change your relationship with substances, ALAViDA provides a wide range of support options. Connect with our care team for a personalized program proven to reduce substance use or use our self-guided approach to go at your own pace. Support is accessed through the TRAiL platform and includes a wide range of resources to help you reach your goals, including iCBT modules (internet-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), notifications, tracking tools, and more. Access the ALAViDA TRAiL.