To make sure we’re all on the same page, intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to eating pioneered by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, two Registered Dietitians out of California. While there’s 10 principles in total to teach you how to make peace with food and your body, essentially the model encourages self-care over self-control, and satisfaction over restriction and deprivation.
In case you hadn't noticed, I love the intuitive eating model. But as someone who adores wine and all things fermented, I wondered: can I apply the intuitive eating principles to boozy cocktails and girl's nights out? Alcohol relaxes our inhibitions, after all, and can lead to a serious case of the munchies; the empty containers of spicy hummus and boxes of cheap rice crackers I've slept beside are evidence enough. So, is an approach characterized by mindfulness and connection applicable to something that, by its very nature, encourages the opposite?
I was determined to find out.
But before I get into this, I do want to acknowledge that alcoholism is serious. If you suspect you have a problem, please seek help. And it would be foolish of me to equate alcoholism with eating disorders; that's not what I'm doing here. But I do believe restriction and deprivation within the context of food and drink almost always present problems, for they foster an emotional charge to things that don't deserve to hold so much power over us. Our bodies are not projects, as Glennon Melton Doyle points out in Love Warrior, and food and drink are really just expressions of joy, satisfaction, and self-care, not tools to be used for or against us as diet culture and prevailing health messaging insist they be.
I’ve done the hard work — someone’s got to do it! — of drinking and eating, and then eating and drinking, wondering whether the world of shots and Shiraz was compatible with an intuitive lifestyle. Did we need limits and rules to "successfully" navigate drinking? Did we need to be told to take a swig of vodka or wine over amber-coloured beverages? Or would intuitive eating allow us to lead healthy lifestyles while sipping on Manhattans with the delight of a Bay Streeter who'd just received her annual bonus? I'll be the first to admit that being told what to do gives me hives, and being told what to drink is equally if not more infuriating. Do we really need infantilizing rules around alcohol consumption? Aren't we all adults here?
While I’ll admit drinking intuitively sounds a hair ridiculous, intuitive eating isn’t a set of rules to live by the way a diet is. It’s a suggested list of guidelines to help you to make empowered decisions rooted in self-care and enjoyment vs. self-control and self-loathing. If I’m not drinking, it has more to do with how I want to feel and the work I need to do rather than wanting to look a certain way or "fall in line" with societal expectations. Which means the topic must be approached differently than we would approach it if we were dieting, or the way we generally approach it in North America.
1 | For one thing, alcohol enriches experiences — it isn’t the experience. In practice, I work with clients to help them to savour food. But I also teach them how to develop a good relationship with it so it's just one of many amazing things about their lives — not the only thing. Sure, there are times when we just want to eat a cookie or tuck into a bowl of popcorn, the same way we may just want to sip a Caesar one morning at the cottage. But to make peace with food and alcohol, we need to remove some of its power and stigma by making it ordinary, secondary, and personal.
We do this first by eliminating scarcity. Stop making alcohol a "special occasion only" item. If we analyze the outcomes of food restriction and deprivation, it's not unreasonable to suggest these same tactics, when applied to alcohol, encourage binge drinking. Keep it around. Allow yourself to drink it. Make it an ordinary occurrence. By keeping it around all of the time and not making such a big deal of it, it becomes ordinary.
Now let's make it secondary. For example: I look forward to going out for dinner with friends because I want to see my friends — not because I need an excuse to eat my favourite foods. I look forward to spending time with my family around the holidays — and not because it gives me a carte blanche to overeat. See the difference? Intuitive drinking, just like intuitive eating, means being conscious of why you’re doing what you’re doing and understanding how you feel, think, and behave while and after you drink.
Let's make it personal. I enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings while catching up with a friend, but I’m not all that inclined to drink to excess because it does not make me feel good, and I won’t enjoy anything beyond the second drink. This is personal. This decision isn't externally-motivated. No one's made me do it. But it's a choice I've arrived at on my own through experimentation and experience.
Related: 5 Ways to Rebel Against Diet Culture
2 | An intuitive relationship with alcohol means savouring the experience. While diet culture and the weight loss industry promote restriction around alcohol consumption — vodka soda, anyone? — I encourage my clients to choose drinks they love. Wine fan? Drink wine. Enjoy craft beer? Savour it. Dig sweet, fruity drinks? All yours.
Like eating, drinking isn’t a race to the finish line. Have you ever knocked back a cold beer on a hot day and thought, “I didn’t even taste that”? What if, instead, you chilled out and drank slowly so you could taste and savour the flavours of your beverage? This isn’t about rules so much as it is about being mindful of and honouring your choices so that you can be more present in your body and in life.
Instead of pouring over the menu trying to decide which cocktail has the least amount of calories, ask yourself what you’d like to drink. Perhaps the answer really is a vodka soda, but maybe it’s a whiskey sour or Pimm’s cup. I’m a fan of wine and beer pairings for this reason, since they serve to elevate the overall experience and satisfaction factor. Choose what you'd like to drink the same way as you'd choose what you'd like to eat.
That said, I’m biased. I love a really well-crafted cocktail, bold wines, and dry ciders. But I also believe that unless you have a challenging relationship with alcohol, a nice beverage can supplement a joyous life. Some of my favourite memories combine both excellent food and alcohol: pasta tossed in a fresh, mid-August tomato sauce with basil leaves, shredded mozzarella, and Chianti; margaritas on the rocks and oysters with hot sauce in Boston; sparkling wine and chips down at the dock, laughing with friends; hard cider and French fries dipped in mayonnaise on a patio down the street; boozy coffee and dessert with my family.
While drinking, I want you to consider: how is this enriching my life? I want you to step back and out of the experience for a moment and peer from the outside in. How can you feel more grateful for the memories you’re making? How can you honour and respect it? Maybe this means choosing wines from local wineries and learning the story behind them. Maybe it means hosting a whiskey sampling and picking out the different notes. Maybe it means paying greater attention to your guest than you might normally and truly listening to what they have to say, what they're struggling with, and what they could really use from you.
3 | Since we’re on the topic, I’d recommend eating in advance of drinking so you can monitor consumption. You could eat a full meal beforehand, or enjoy your cocktail with snacks. If I’m having wine with my meal, I tend to drink slowly so that I can savour my food and my drink equally. Without food, it’s easy to overdo the alcohol without realizing it, or becoming so intoxicated that you aren’t present when you finally eat. This is as much about safety as it is about becoming more intuitive.
As far as post-cocktail pizza or cheeseburgers? Chances are if you're restricting in your daily life, you're going to go balls to the wall when you're uninhibited. If this is a challenge for you, I would actually say this is an indication you're still restricting or dieting. I do tend to eat when I'm drinking, but my choices look the same as they do in my everyday life. Why? Because if I want pizza, I eat it. If I want an apple, I eat it. Ice cream? I eat it. If you look to countries like France, they have a good relationship with both food and booze. Why? No restriction. No deprivation. No rules. When you don't give things unnecessary shine appeal, they become a lot less powerful and taboo.
4 | Alcohol is a depressant, so it helps to keep tabs on mood and emotions. Whenever I’m asked about recommended amounts or upper limits, it always comes back to this point for me. Let’s do away with physical health and weight for a second and focus exclusively on mental health and energy. Alcohol can be a major depressant and amplify feelings of anxiety.
If you find you’re drinking a lot and your mood is really suffering, this may be a key indicator that you need to cut back. Everyone’s tolerance is unique to them. Some people can handle a couple of drinks, while others can handle more. What you need to return to, always, is: how does alcohol make me feel? What is my limit? How do I want to feel in my day-to-day life? Is alcohol improving my experiences, or is it becoming a problem? Is it running my day or am I?
5 | Put the glass down from time to time to take a breath and inhale the experience. When drinking intuitively, as when eating intuitively, remember to put the glass (or fork) down periodically to breathe, inhale the experience, and return to your drink. It's super easy to chug a pint of cider or beer without realizing it, or to down a well drink without thinking twice. This isn't something you're just going to go out and automatically do. It's something you have to remain conscious of whenever imbibe — just like eating. But by actively putting your glass down you'll have time to realize when you're had enough to drink because you're giving yourself time to register it, and you'll be able to savour it more completely. Pay attention to the conversations being had around you. Listen. Engage. And then return to your drink in full awareness.
Related: How I Became an Intuitive Eater
What do you think? Can we apply intuitive eating principles to drinking?
Hey! I'm Sarah, Intuitive Eating and Body Image Coach. I work with purpose-driven women who want to let go of diets and stop fighting their bodies so they can show up fully in their lives. If you're interested in learning how to have an amazing relationship with food -- one where you can enjoy it all -- I'd invite you to book a discovery call so we can get to know each other and discuss your options.