How to Control Your Alcohol Intake

Young couple grilling and drinking beer at outdoor festival

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If it has hit you that you are drinking too much and that cutting down or quitting is not as easy as you thought it would be, you may be wondering what other steps you can take to control your alcohol consumption. Many people, including some medical professionals, believe that abstinence is the only way. But medical research has shown that the cold-turkey approach may not be the best way for everyone.

How to Gain Control of Your Alcohol Use

Different approaches work for different people and various types of addiction. Some people may be able to quit and never have a drop of alcohol for the rest of their lives. For them, even a glass of wine every now and again could trigger a return to drinking heavily. If you recognize yourself as that kind of drinker, it's important to stay away from alcohol as much as possible.

For some people, drinking in moderation can be effective at curbing addictive behaviors to alcohol. Research tells us that controlled drinking is not only possible for many individuals, but it is quite common among people who used to drink heavily.

Many people cut down on their alcohol intake without medical or therapeutic help, although it is advisable to discuss your alcohol intake with your family doctor before trying to change it. It can also be helpful to talk with a counselor who is trained in assisting people with substance use concerns and addiction for their advice and support.

RethinkingDrinking is a great resource from the National Institutes of Health if you're considering a change.

How to Cut Back on Drinking

If you feel that avoiding alcohol completely is not for you, there are other options. Some people can get control over their drinking and drink safer levels of alcohol without having to quit entirely. If you plan to attempt to control your drinking, there are several steps you should take to assist you in this process.

Establish Your Drinking Goal

Although it is a good idea to think about reducing your alcohol intake, check whether you are a suitable candidate for controlled drinking. Some people shouldn't drink at all, especially if you have a history of addiction problems or a close relative with an addiction or mental health issue.

Your drinking goal should be based on what is best for your long-term health, as well as what is realistic for you, your family and friends, and other aspects of your lifestyle.

If you realize you should quit completely, talk to your doctor or addiction counselor about getting help with quitting alcohol and staying sober. Depending on how much you have been drinking recently, it may not even be safe or realistic to quit cold turkey, and your doctor can prescribe medications or refer you to a treatment program.

There is no shame in this. Remember, those who struggle with alcohol use disorder want to be able to reduce or moderate their alcohol intake, but it's not always something they can control despite their best efforts. 

Controlled Drinking Goals

If you are a good candidate for controlled drinking, think about your goal and write it down. Some possible goals include:

  • I just want to drink on weekends.
  • I want to lower my overall intake to a healthy amount.
  • I want to be able to drink at parties and other events without getting drunk.

Assess Your Current Alcohol Intake

Keep a drinking diary for one week. The most straightforward drinking diaries just record how much you drink each day, but the more you can keep track of, the better you will understand your own drinking patterns, and thus be able to control them. For example, every evening (or the following morning, if you forget), write down how many drinks you drank, where you were, and with whom.

Also write down any negative effects or situations that arose that you would like to avoid in the future. For example, "After my third beer, I got into an argument with Ben." This will give you a good idea of the times, places, and people where your drinking tends to become excessive or problematic.

Your safe alcohol limit is based on your blood alcohol concentration and is the amount of alcohol you can drink in a single drinking session. You will need professional assistance to determine what this safe limit is for you.

When you have figured out how many drinks you can drink, write it down, along with the drinking time period.

Purchase Alcohol in Small, Measured Amounts

Stocking up on wine, beer, and liquor is the quickest way to sabotage your plan to drink responsibly. For drinking at home, follow these tips:

  • Avoid hard alcohol. Switching to drinking less concentrated drinks, like beer or wine over vodka, is one way to reduce alcohol intake.
  • Limit your purchases. Buy only the amount of alcoholic beverage that meets your safe alcohol limit, on the day you intend to drink it. If necessary, purchase individual cans or single serving or half-size bottles of wine.
  • Only drink after big meals. This will dilute the effect of alcohol consumption and therefore reduce the drive to drink excessively.
  • Stick to your schedule. Drink only the amount you wrote down, and at the speed specified. If you want more to drink in between, drink water, or alcohol-free or low-alcohol beverages.
  • Try alcohol-free or low-alcohol options. If you know that you'll want more drinks, but not more alcohol, purchase the same amount of alcohol-free or low-alcohol wine or beer.

Watch for Peer Pressure

Look at your drinking diary. If there are any people who encourage you to drink too much, try to avoid them for the first month or so while you get used to your new style of drinking. If you are constantly surrounded by peer pressure to drink, start seeking out new friends or family members who don't drink as much.

Plan Your Journey Home

Even if you're drinking at a sensible level, you should not drive. Arrange for a ride home with a sober driver, or pre-book a cab or rideshare service. If that is too costly, plan your journey home via public transportation so you know when to leave while the buses or trains are still running. Leave your car at home so you will not be tempted to use it. Get a ride or take a bus or train to your event.

Discover Healthy Alternatives

If drinking has occupied a big part of your social life, it may also be time to explore other activities and hobbies that don't involve alcohol and that focus on self-care. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Go for a walk.
  • Practice yoga, tai chi, or meditation.
  • Snuggle up with a loved one and watch a movie.
  • Start or join a book club.
  • Take up drawing or photography.
  • Try a new type of exercise class.

Seek Help

Talk to your family doctor or an addiction counselor about whether a moderation or abstinence-based approach is right for you. If you decide together that moderation is the right goal, there may be a program or support group that will support you in your new lifestyle. There are also medications that can be helpful for people who want to reduce their drinking.

Ask your doctor or counselor for a referral and/or work together to develop strategies for controlling your alcohol consumption and drinking responsibly or quitting all together.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sayed BA, French MT. To your health!: Re-examining the health benefits of moderate alcohol use. Soc Sci Med. 2016;167:20-28. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.08.034

  2. Alcohol screening and counseling: an effective but underused health serviceCDC Vital Signs. January 2014.

  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Rethinking Drinking Alcohol and Your Health. Thinking about a change? Tips to try.

  4. Robertson K, Tustin K. Students who limit their drinking, as recommended by national guidelines, are stigmatized, ostracized, or the subject of peer pressure: limiting consumption is all but prohibited in a culture of intoxicationSubst Abuse. 2018;12:1178221818792414. doi:10.1177/1178221818792414

  5. Harvard Health Publishing. Alcohol abstinence vs. moderation. 2009.

  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Treatment for alcohol problems: finding and getting help. 2014.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.