Local dietitians weigh in on Dry January

A month without alcohol might sound impossible, but local practitioners say it could be the one health resolution that can benefit you for the rest of the year.

woman's hand refusing glass of alcohol
© Pormezz / stock.adobe.com

There are plenty of health resolutions out there to choose from. But Dry January is just a bit different. 

Rather than restricting your caloric intake or clearing your pantry of processed foods, all it requires is putting down that wine glass, or not ordering a cocktail with dinner.

The plan of 31 days with no alcohol originated from Alcohol Change UK in 2013, with 4,000 signing up to take the challenge. In 2018, there were over four million participants worldwide.

Since you’re likely to have a handful of friends who are skipping the sips, and starting to see more zero-proof cocktails on menus thanks to the sober curious movement, we spoke with two local registered dietitians/nutritionists to get their thoughts on sidestepping happy hours this month.

Alexandria-based Kelly Abramson, M.S., R.D., CHWC, of NpowerYou, and Rebecca Mohning, M.S., R.D., of Expert Nutrition shared their thoughts, advice and goals for a healthier 2020. Highlights from our conversations are below.

First things first, it’s the New Year and everyone’s talking about their resolutions. How do you feel about kicking off 2020 with plans like Dry January?
KA: I am generally against most things that are restrictive, such as eating a “forbidden” ingredient or food, or those that put punishment and morality around food or our daily eating habits. So with Dry January, you might think I would be totally against it, but I think of it differently. We need food to live; we don’t need alcohol to live. I think for many people, it can be a helpful reset, particularly after a month of social obligations, and oftentimes drinking more than we normally would. 

RM: The nice thing about January is people want to hit the reset button and get on a healthier track for the new year, and whether that involves cutting out alcohol, or something like sugar, I’m  all for that, as long as those changes are sustainable. But in the case of Dry January, much like other diets or plans that people tend to be leaning toward, such as plant-based diets, most of these are not going to have any negative consequences, but you are going to notice a difference in how you feel. 

What do you find to be the benefits of Dry January from a health-and-wellness standpoint?
KA: First, not everybody needs to do it because people have varying degrees of consumption. Those who might only be drinking a glass of wine every so often are not going to notice a huge difference. It’s also not going to be the magic cure-all by any means, but I think it can help people analyze their overall health and their relationship with alcohol. Specific benefits include better sleep, which also bleeds into our feelings of hunger and fullness, since we know that the less sleep we get, the hungrier we feel. Also. increased energy, better mental focus and there is some research to support that [the reduction or stoppage of alcohol consumption] can help with cardiac health with blood pressure and alcohol. 

RM: Certainly people will probably see more benefits in their sleep, since alcohol affects the quality of our sleep, and can leave us feeling groggy and dehydrated in the morning. For those kicking off their new year with a fitness resolution, they’ll find themselves feeling more energized for their workouts. Some people might also experience benefits in weight loss, especially people who are drinking one or two drinks a day, which can quickly add up to 200 to 300 calories. Plus, the one-month time frame gives people an opportunity to see how they feel and if they notice any benefits. A month is enough time to note if you’re feeling better or if you have better energy, and that would certainly be long enough to make note if their bodies don’t have as much inflammation, if they don’t feel as much stiffness in their joints and if they should keep doing what they’re doing. 

Are there any potential downsides that people should be aware of with Dry January?
KA: [Restriction] can have a backlash. Something I see recovering dieters do, when foods or ingredients are forbidden, people tend to follow that by eating greater quantities after their diets end. I definitely see that with food, which is why I don’t promote the restrictiveness. But for a lot of people, just having one month can promote healthy behaviors that stick throughout the year. Especially if they’re consistent with their lifestyle and bigger values, and the ways they approach life. 

RM: If they recognize their dependence is there for alcohol, and they become more aware of that [through avoidance during Dry January], then certainly reaching out to a professional can be a benefit, especially if they didn’t realize they had such a dependence. That can also unravel some other things that need to be worked on as well. But as long as the person is not cutting out things that they need, they should mostly avoid any negative consequences. [The act of cutting out necessary things] leads to one of the biggest downsides in most restrictive diets, which can lead to disordered eating habits. 

More than anything, what do you want readers to know about Dry January and maintaining health and wellness for the rest of 2020?
KA:  We have a lot more wisdom within ourselves than we often give ourselves credit for. Often when Jan. 1 rolls around, everyone looks for the best new fix, but often times the answer is within us. I think with a lot of these rigid plans that are designed by an “expert,” they don’t take individual needs into account, and it just doesn’t work for someone or meet them where they are. There’s no magic diet that works for all of us, so for all individuals, we need to dig inside rather than looking outside. 

RM: I think the biggest thing is just to take it one day at a time. Think about three things every day that you’re doing for your wellness. That’s a nice way to remember you’re making good changes, even if they’re small. Sometimes we have too many things that are too extreme to maintain, so even if it’s simple things like “I went for a walk today,” or “I ate a salad for lunch,” or even “I didn’t have that glass of wine,” can help us stay positive.

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