Should You Drink Low Alcohol Beer or Alcohol Free Beverages?

Man drinking bottle of beer

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If you want to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, you may wonder whether low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages are a good substitute for their full-strength counterparts. Making this decision involves considering a number of factors, but begins with understanding the difference between the two options.

Alcohol-free beverages contain no alcohol at all. Low alcohol beverages, on the other hand, have had most of the alcohol removed by osmosis yet many still contain up to 0.5% alcohol. What are some things to think about before deciding to consume one of these types of drinks?

The Taste

The issue of taste is quite important. Some people drink, at least initially, because they enjoy it. There are over 38 different types of low alcohol beer available and research shows that the difference between these and full-strength beer cannot be determined by tasting.

If you dislike the taste of the alcohol-free or low alcohol beverage you choose, you are more likely to go back to the full-strength version. Therefore, if your goal is to avoid alcohol, less harm may be done by choosing a low alcohol beverage you enjoy than an alcohol-free version you dislike.

"Mocktails" are another alcohol-free option that you might consider if you are craving the taste of your favorite drink. These non-alcoholic cocktails often utilize a combination of ingredients such as vinegar and spices to replicate the flavors of authentic alcohol beverages, but without the actual alcohol.

Alcohol Use Concerns

This factor deserves careful consideration and includes having had an issue with alcohol in the past or if you are currently experiencing issues related to alcohol use, such as:

  • A diagnosis of alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, or alcohol use disorder
  • Binge drinking or difficulty stopping once you have started drinking
  • Problems with self-control when intoxicated
  • Becoming aggressive, anxious, or depressed after drinking
  • Physical problems as a result of alcohol use, such as liver disease

If you have an alcohol-related concern, you may be better off avoiding alcoholic drinks of any kind. It is also worth considering avoiding them if one of your parents or siblings has had serious problems with alcohol.

If any of these situations apply, discuss the idea of replacing some or all of your alcoholic drinks with your doctor, alcohol counselor, or AA sponsor. Reflect on whether the low alcohol or alcohol-free beverage can help to reduce your alcohol intake or whether it could trigger you to drink more.

Alcohol-free beverages are the better choice for anyone who should avoid alcohol altogether whereas low alcohol beverages may be a better option for people who want to reduce their alcohol intake and prefer the taste and minimal effects of low alcohol beverages.

Placebo and Expectancy Effects

Placebo effects are effects that aren’t actually caused by the drug itself and can occur when people drink low alcohol and alcohol-free drinks. The feeling of being intoxicated, for instance, can be experienced without having a high level of alcohol in the bloodstream.

Expectancy also affects how a person reacts to low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages. Someone drinking a low alcohol or alcohol-free beverage might not consciously expect to become intoxicated. However, the taste and appearance of the drink can trigger expectancy effects, causing the person to behave as if they had consumed a greater amount of alcohol.

It's helpful to consider whether you experience placebo or expectancy effects with low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages. Trusted friends are also a good source of information, particularly if you tell them you want an honest opinion of your appearance and behavior.

If you seem to behave irresponsibly after drinking low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages, it's probably a better idea to stick to water or soft drinks.

Harm Reduction for Drivers

Low alcohol or alcohol-free drinks are ideal for moderate drinkers who intend to drive. This is much safer than the approach of having one or two drinks then stopping, which can impair the cognitive skills that are important for driving more so than if you consume low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages.

In many jurisdictions, the legal level of alcohol in the bloodstream is higher than the level at which driving is impaired (0.08 versus 0.05).

Because low alcohol and alcohol-free beverages do not dehydrate you to the same extent as full-strength beverages—you feel less thirsty after drinking them than you do regular versions—the risk of drinking an excessive amount of low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages is also low.

Avoiding Intoxication

If you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed drinking soft drinks in social situations but want to avoid intoxication, low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages are an ideal solution. These beverages look the same as full-alcohol drinks, so they are hard to tell apart.

Vulnerable drinkers, such as young women attending clubs or parties, can also stay sober and more aware of their surroundings by replacing alcoholic drinks with low or no-alcohol alternatives. Another alternative to consider is drinking seltzer water with a lime in a cocktail glass.

Purported Health Benefits

Low alcohol beverages, particularly low alcohol red wine, are a good method for incorporating a small amount of alcohol into your diet if you wish to explore the health effects of alcohol reported in many studies. This includes improving your cardiovascular health.

Though, it should be noted that many health agencies do not recommend starting to drink "for any reason." Additionally, there are some people who shouldn't consume alcohol at all, such as those who are pregnant or have a certain medical condition.

Plus, research shows that people are particularly bad at judging home-poured drinks. So, it is difficult to limit yourself to the small quantities recommended and avoid consuming amounts that are more harmful than not drinking at all.

A Word From Verywell

Deciding whether to consume low alcohol or alcohol-free drinks is a personal decision that involves considering a number of factors. Seeking input from your doctors, counselors, and those who care about you can help you make the best decision for you given your health and your specific circumstances.

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