How to Moderate Drinking (Or Any Other Habit!)

Jun 09, 2023


Disclaimer: Although moderation works for some, it can harm others. Please consult a health professional if your condition could be life-threatening. 

Note: This article might include affiliate links, for which I receive a small commission. 

So, you’re trying to moderate.

Oddly, you’ve heard one of two messages: that moderation is easy or impossible. 

The answer is somewhere in between–as it so often is. 

It depends heavily on a confluence of factors: how severe your problem is, how connected you are to others, whether you’re impulsive or self-restrained, etc. 

That said, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has reviewed one population-based cohort study that suggests that moderation is possible–even for those with relatively severe problems.

As a recovery coach, I work with people to moderate alcohol all the time! However, I also work with people attempting moderation who cannot seem to get it. Some people–myself included–just aren’t cut out for moderation. 

Ultimately, there is only one way to find out if that’s you: to try it out.

This guide contains everything you need to know about how to moderate drinking–or any other pleasure-seeking habit. 

While it won’t work for everyone, it’s a great place to start. 

Please keep in mind that if you are a danger to yourself or others, you must seek the help of a healthcare provider or professional. You can contact me for a complimentary session or find a local detox center near you. Alternatively, check out the Mental Health Services Administration website.

What is Drinking in Moderation? 

Alcohol can have some pretty nasty side effects. In large quantities, it can be immensely detrimental to your health, relationships, and anything else you can think of–trust me, I would know. 

For this reason, many people choose to moderate their consumption of alcohol. According to the Centers for Disease Control dietary guidelines, moderate drinking looks like limiting your intake to two alcoholic beverages daily for men and one drink for women. 

Standard drink sizes consist of:

  1. 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer
  2. 8 ounces of 7% malt liquor 
  3. 5 ounces of 12% ABV wine 
  4. 1.5 ounces of 40% (80-proof) distilled spirits 
  5. 8 ounces of mixed drinks 

Why is Moderating Drinking Important? 

Limiting intake of alcohol is essential since your alcohol consumption can directly–and indirectly–affect many areas of your life, causing health problems (and social problems).

Although some people believe that small amounts of alcohol can be beneficial (such as the belief that red wine helps with blood pressure), the research is inconclusive—and the official position of the CDC is that alcohol’s effects are generally negative.

Excessive drinking has many detrimental effects on the body. Consider the following: 


  • Cardiac Issues include arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy, cardiovascular disease, and more.
  • Neurologic Problems including strokes, hemorrhagic stroke, seizures 
  • Oral Issues include esophageal cancer and oral cancer.
  • Liver Dysfunction includes fatty liver, fibrosis, cirrhosis, liver disease, hepatitis, and cancer.
  • Gastrointestinal Problems include leaky gut, cancer, and dysbiosis.
  • Lung Issues include acute respiratory problems, pneumonia, and more.
  • Muscle Problems include muscle wasting and myopathy.
  • Pancreatic Dysfunction, including pancreatitis (I’ve had it–it’s not pretty) and pancreatic disease.
  • Bone Problems include impaired fracture repair and reduced bone density.
  • Breast Cancer 


Now that you understand the extent to which excessive alcohol consumption can impair your health, you might be wondering: is moderation for me?

Can Everyone Moderate?

Moderate alcohol intake has many health benefits–drastically reducing your chances of contracting any previously mentioned pathologies.

However, it’s not always possible for everyone. 

The program of Alcoholics Anonymous, largely considered the gold standard in recovery programs, maintains that it isn’t possible for severe alcoholics to moderate–and my experience has confirmed that. 

However, limited research suggests that moderation is possible for most people who drink excessively. 

So, which is it?

The answer is: it depends. Moderation is possible for some and impossible for others. There’s no easy way to tell. 

If you do decide to moderate, it’s always best to start with a short period of abstinence—as we’ll discuss below. 

Do You Have Alcohol Use Disorder?

Unfortunately, I can’t answer this question for you. Alcohol addiction is not a discrete disorder–it’s a disease that differs from person to person. 

The CDC has determined that many people who drink more than the daily recommended amount are not alcoholics. That’s because alcohol addiction has more to do with how you use the substance than how much. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines alcohol use disorder as “a problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least two criteria within a 12-month.

The criteria include the following:

  1. Alcohol is taken in more significant amounts or over an extended period than intended.
  2. A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts exist to reduce or control alcohol abuse.
  3. Much time is spent on activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects. 
  4. Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol. 
  5. Recurrent alcohol use failing to fulfill significant role obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. They continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol. 
  7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use. 
  8. Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous. 
  9. Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol. 
  10. Tolerance, or needing increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication, or having a diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol. 
  11. Withdrawal

Using the criteria above, you might gain a clearer picture of alcoholism. If you do have alcoholism, you may have difficulty with moderation, so keep this in mind before getting started.

A Brief History of Moderation Movements 

Moderation of alcohol has a long and complex history that lies beyond the scope of this article. 

However, I will briefly summarize some of the movements and resources traditionally available to those looking to moderate. Consider the following before you moderate drinking. 

Moderation Management

Moderation Management is a secular, non-profit, peer-run organization that aims to help people moderate their drinking.

The group was founded in 1994 by Audrey Kishline, a problem drinker who sought to change her relationship with alcohol. 

The principles of the group are founded on cognitive behavioral therapy principles and a nine-step personal recovery plan. 

The Sober Curious Movement 

You’ve likely heard of Dry January and Sober October–two recent products of the emergent Sober Curious Movement

The movement was launched by author Ruby Warrington, who wrote a book using the term in 2018. Since then, many have chosen to explore their relationships to alcohol through intermittent periods of abstinence and reduction in intake., also called Check Up and Choices, is a digital network of clinicians who work to help their patients moderate alcohol intake. 

The group has been operating since the early 1990s and has been shown to help problem drinkers change their drinking patterns and even moderate drinking. 

How to Tell If You Need to Moderate

Although moderation offers health benefits to everyone, there are sure signs that can indicate excessive alcohol intake. Consider the following. 


  • Your skin is dry or puffy and swollen
  • You bruise easily
  • You’ve lost your appetite 
  • You experience weight gain 
  • You get headaches
  • You have heartburn 
  • You sleep poorly  
  • You get sick often 
  • You experience night sweats
  • You have air loss 


Although these symptoms can have many different causes, several symptoms may indicate a problematic reaction to alcohol. 

If you have experienced these symptoms, it may be time to explore alcohol moderation.

How to Moderate Alcohol Consumption in 7 Steps 

Moderating drinking is a process of trial and error. Additionally, it can put serious drinkers at increased risk for certain health conditions. If you suspect you have alcohol use disorder, please consult a professional before adjusting you start drinking less.

1. Get Sober Curious 

I know, I know. You’re not here to get sober; you’re here to moderate. 

But here’s the thing. If your relationship with alcohol has become problematic, you’ll need to take a break from it to reset your brain and body. Then, it will be much easier to reintroduce alcohol when you’re ready.

In her book Dopamine Nation, researcher Dr. Anna Lembke recommends taking one month off drinking to reset your dopamine levels and clear your head.

If you cannot take a break from alcohol, drinking moderately may not be for you. A key sign of substance abuse is an inability to take a break or stop when you want to. If this is the case, please contact me or a mental health professional. 

2. Make a Plan 

Once you’re ready to reintroduce alcohol–albeit with healthier habits–you’ll need to make a concrete plan for how you will moderate.

Start by answering the following questions:

  1. How often do you plan to drink? I recommend 3-4 days per week at most.
  2. How many drinks will you have in one day/sitting? I recommend at most 4. 
  3. Who can support you? Do you know anyone who has done the same? We’ll talk about this one in a minute! 
  4. How will you handle your urges? I like exercise, chatting with a friend, or deep breathing exercises.
  5. How will you respond when someone asks if you want to drink? A firm “no” is ideal, but practice your version.
  6. What triggers urge you to drink? How can you avoid them or mitigate them? I typically just stay away from people and places that trigger me.
  7. When will you rethink your relationship with alcohol? What factors will indicate that moderation isn’t working for you? This one is important. You may need to rethink your approach if you can’t meet your moderation plan.

3. Cultivate Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is at the heart of a successful effort to drink in moderation.

That’s because cultivating mindfulness skills allows you to spot when you’re having a craving or acting in ways that don’t align with your moderation plan. 

Mindfulness grants us the space and awareness to make decisions based on logic and reason rather than emotion and impulsivity.

For this reason, you must cultivate a mindfulness practice that works for you. I recommend any of the following. 

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness Meditation is a great place to start. This type of meditation typically isn’t too scripted. You will be guided to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment simply.

Many people have misconceptions about meditation, so clarify some things.

  1. Meditation is not meant to “clear your mind.” Don’t even try that. Your role is simply to observe what is there.
  2. Meditation works best when practiced regularly rather than one extended sitting.
  3. You can’t be “bad” at meditation. Plus, you’ll get more focused as you practice–that’s the point.
  4. The point of meditation is to practice mindfulness in your waking life. So get out of the lotus position every once in a while and practice out in the world!


Prayer is a powerful way to introduce mindfulness and intention into your life. No, I’m not talking about the religious type of prayer (unless that’s your jam).

I’m talking about communing with your higher power—-whatever that is—to set your intentions for the day and ground yourself.

Remember that you don’t even need to pray to anyone in particular. You can address your prayer to a higher self or someone you love.

Mindful Walking (Or Anything Else!)

Mindful walking is a practice that involves remaining fully present as you walk. You can apply this strategy to any other method. For example, I take aware showers every day.

The goal is to focus on the physical sensations you are experiencing and pay attention to your thoughts. You consistently gently redirect yourself to the present.

Don’t stress if your mind wanders–that is perfectly normal. Simply bring it back to the present. 

Read Books About Mindfulness 

There are tons of great books about mindfulness that can help you develop the skills you need to drink responsibly.

Consider checking out:






Journaling is a great way to cultivate mindfulness–and it’s essential in tracking your healthy habits as they progress.

Consider keeping a journal to track your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around alcohol.

Get a Support Group 

Learning to drink in moderation typically requires a little bit of help. Before you get started, seek out others who have limited their consumption of alcoholic drinks or eliminated binge drinking. There is no one better to help you than someone who’s been there before. 

To that end, you can also check out any of the abovementioned groups, including Moderation Management,, and Recovery Dharma.

Additionally, enlist the help of your friends and family. Many people forego telling others about their moderation efforts because they’re worried they’ll slip back into heavy drinking and disappoint them. 

But remember that people who genuinely love you will understand what you’re doing–and you can use all the help you can get. 

Furthermore, as you get further on into recovery, you realize that other people don’t care all that much about your drinking habits. 

Surround Yourself With Positive Messages 

Practicing self-compassion is crucial on the journey to drink moderately or eliminate drinking. 

The more you chastise yourself, the more likely you will slip back into heavy alcohol consumption. 

To that end, you need to surround yourself with as much positive messaging as possible. Use any of the following strategies.

  • Leave post-it notes reminding yourself of your goal (I put mine on  the bathroom mirror)
  • Practice loving-kindness meditation (a practice in which you send love to yourself and others)
  • Listen to your favorite podcasts about recovery—I like the Alcohol Minimalist.
  • Journal about things you are grateful for and things you’ve done well that day (my favorite exercise). 
  • Ask others to share their positive impressions of you–and do the same (less awkward than it sounds, I promise). 

Check Out Books & Podcasts

Books and podcasts were crucial in my attempts to reduce alcohol intake. Listening to messages of recovery can help you stop drinking as much since what you consume heavily affects your mental state.

Some of my favorite books about moderation include:

My favorite podcasts about moderation include:

  • The Alcohol Minimalist Podcast 
  • Sober Curious Podcast 

Maintain Your Health 

When working with clients, I typically introduce them to a healthy diet, exercise regimen, and sleep schedule.

If you’re not caring for yourself, you’re not giving yourself a fighting chance. Remember to practice as many of the following strategies as possible.

  • Drink eight glasses of water a day
  • Adopt a healthy diet 
  • Stay physically active 
  • Sleep 8+ hours a night 
  • Limit intake of other drugs (though please continue taking prescription and over-the-counter medication)

Frequently Asked Questions 

Consider the following answers to the most commonly asked questions. 

What does it mean to be sober-curious?

Ruby Warrington coined this term. The author maintains that sober curiosity is simply getting curious about your alcohol intake and questioning your relationship with alcohol. 

What is sober curious strategy?

The sober curious strategy consists of asking yourself why and when you drink. Instead of simply adhering to the dominant drinking culture, you question your individual choices.

Why is drinking alcohol in moderation so hard?

Drinking in moderation is problematic because it requires exerting more energy than simply quitting. Additionally, suppose you have a strong family history of alcohol abuse disorder or a compulsive relationship with alcohol. In that case, it might serve a purpose in your life—question that purpose and ask yourself if it’s working. 

What is moderate vs. problem drinking? 

Moderate alcohol consumption technically consists of drinking 1-2 drinks on the same occasion. However, some people drink alcohol in larger quantities and still consider themselves moderate drinkers.

Problem drinking or alcohol abuse consists of drinking in large quantities without the ability to stop and with many negative consequences.

How do I drink more in moderation? 

Use this guide! But long story short: adopt mindfulness, make a plan, and surround yourself with support. 

Wrapping Up: Is Moderation For You?

Controlled drinking offers many possible health benefits over heavy drinking–from better skin to a longer life. 

However, no one can tell you if moderation is desirable–or even possible–for you. The only way to figure that out is to experiment with moderate alcohol consumption and see how you fare.

Remember that moderation isn’t always achievable for everyone, so don’t be disappointed if you must stop drinking entirely—many of us did. 

That said, I wish you the best of luck on your journey. I know you can do it! 

If you need any help along your journey, please consider contacting me for a complimentary session–I’d be more than happy to help! 


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