Welcome to Dear Melissa, where we answer your questions about transitioning into or or maintaining a healthy Whole9 life, helping you figure out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, we’re talking about alcohol–how to include the occasional (or not-so-occasional) drink in life after your Whole30, and how to deal with being the non-drinker in social situations.

Dear Melissa, 

I bet a lot of people will ask this… How does alcohol factor into life after the Whole30? –E.E., Roslindale, MA

Dear E.E., 

We think it’s a hard case to make that alcohol makes you healthier. Some people would say there are benefits from the positive social interaction you experience when you go out for drinks with friends, but that’s just justification. (There are benefits to the positive social interaction… but you get that whether you drink or not. So just go and drink water and get the best of both worlds.)

That having been said, there is room in a healthy Whole9 life for less healthy foods. We discuss how to incorporate these foods back into your diet in depth in the “Life After Your Whole30” chapter in It Starts With Food, but alcohol is a bit of a different animal,  because of the psychological impact even one drink can have.

First, knowing that alcohol makes you less healthy, there are only two good reasons* to have a drink. First, the situation is so special that it’s totally worth it to commemorate it with an alcoholic beverage. Like your first wedding anniversary, when your husband shows up with your most favorite bottle of wine ever and you don’t even know how he got it because that year hasn’t been for sale in ages—word up, 2004 Paraduxx, and yes, we drank the whole bottle that night, and yes it was 100% worth it. But I digress… Second, the beverage is so incredibly delicious and you enjoy it so very much that it’s absolutely worth it to indulge.

*Reasons that aren’t good enough: You had a tough day at the office. You’re sad. You’re angry. You’re anxious. Everyone else is drinking. Everyone else is asking you why you aren’t drinking. Your kids are whiny. Your significant other is whiny. You are whiny. It’s Friday. It’s Tuesday. It’s Flag Day. 

However, be especially careful with alcohol. Much like eating one donut at the morning meeting can set you up for sugar cravings and poor choices later that day, just one drink can set you up for a 3 a.m. drunk dial… to the pizza delivery guy. Know how alcohol affects you—and I’m not just talking about the headache in the morning, or the bubble-guts after a beer. If you know that after one (or three) drinks you’re far more likely to throw in the healthy towel and indulge in foods you’d never normally choose while sober (I’m talking ‘bout you, Taco Bell), then factor that into your decision to imbibe. The dirty martini may be worth it, but the plate of blue cheese-smothered fries that follows may not be. If it tends to be a package deal with you, the smart move may be to channel your inner Nancy Reagan and just say no.

Our general rule for building any off-plan food or drink into life after your Whole30: always make a conscious, deliberate decision to indulge—no mindlessly reaching for the wine after work, or grabbing a beer at the cookout. Eat or drink only as much as is necessary to satisfy your desire. (Maybe that glass of wine lasts you three hours.) Understand that the less often you indulge, the healthier you will be—where you draw that line is totally up to you. Finally, remember that alcohol in particular tends to buddy up with unintended consequences, so imbibe with caution (and maybe take the pizza delivery guy out of your contacts, just in case).

Best in health,

Looking for fancypants alternatives to alcoholic beverages for your next wedding, birthday, or cookout? Check out these fabulous Whole30 mocktails.

Dear Melissa, 

I’ve done a few Whole30’s, and have decided that alcohol generally doesn’t have a place in my Whole9 life. It doesn’t make me feel good, and I’m trying to reduce stress, so it’s just easier (and better) for me to abstain. When I was on my Whole30, it gave me an easy excuse not to drink—“No, I can’t, I’m on the Whole30.” But now that I’m off, people (co-workers, friends, clients I meet at work events) are constantly questioning why I won’t drink. Inevitably, they say to me, “Oh, you must be pregnant!” It’s really annoying. How can I get people off my back because I choose to drink fizzy water instead of vodka tonic? –K.E., San Diego, CA 

Dear K.E.,

While we would hope that peer pressure fell out of style in 7th grade, it can be tiring to constantly have to explain your choices to others—especially when others just don’t get what you’re laying down for them. Try explaining to your client (who enjoys two-martini lunches at least twice a week) that just one drink makes you feel like crap the next day. They’ll probably respond, “Oh, you just need to build up your tolerance.”

Handling these situations can be tricky, but I’ve developed a five-part escalating response system bsaed on Homeland Securities terror threat levels, where a more volatile situation requires a stronger response.

Threat Level Low: These people are merely asking why you are choosing not to drink. It’s totally innocent—they’ll say, “Can I get you a glass of wine?” and you say, “No, thanks,” and they say, “Oh, are you sure? I don’t mind.” They mean no harm, so your response should be just as mild and innocent. A simple, “No, I’m fine, but thank you” easily does the trick. 

Threat Level Guarded: When you get a follow-up to your “No, thank you,” it’s time to be on your guard. Still, you’re not under imminent attack, so just stick to your guns and then pointedly change the subject. “Honestly, I’m all set, thanks. How’s your new employee working out?” At this level, people will take the hint and move on.

Threat Level Elevated: At this point, people are giving you a bit of a hard time about your decision to abstain. Perhaps they say, “Come on—it’s the weekend, lighten up!” or “What, are you pregnant or something?” They aren’t seriously pressuring you, but you’re feeling a little defensive. 

First, avoid the temptation to give an excuse, because excuses are just begging for a “fix.” Saying, “Oh, I can’t, I have to help a friend move early tomorrow morning” may prompt them to say, “Oh, I’ll come help! That way you can sleep in an extra hour. How about that margarita?” See what just happened there? You sounded like you wanted to drink but couldn’t… and they very helpfully fixed your problem, and now you’re stuck.

Direct and deliberate “No, thank you”s at this point may do the trick—after all, saying it once is polite, saying it over and over (just that – a very slowly enunciated “No, thank you” in a full eye-contact, slightly-less-polite manner) may get your point across. If you feel the need to offer a reason, be honest, and give them one they can’t work around. Something like, “I stopped drinking a while ago, and I feel so much better I can’t see going back to it” is sure to stop them in their tracks. (It also might make them a little defensive, so be prepared for that.) 

Threat Level High: You’re in full-on peer pressure mode at this point—or worse, they’ve begun to ridicule you for your choices. “Oh, look at Mr. Marathon Man. He’s going to win the Olympics, so he can’t have a beer.” These people do not have your best interest in mind (and they may be a little drunk at the time), so a more aggressive response is called for. 

Depending on the relationship you have with the person, perhaps a little ribbing right back at ‘em would do the trick. “Yeah, Paul, I don’t drink and I run marathons… your beer belly might be happier if you did some of that yourself.” Obviously, this approach isn’t right if it’s your boss, your client, or your mother-in-law behind the taunt, but in some circumstances, a little humor (with a hint of cattiness) will defuse the situation.

One catch-all response in this situation is a short “No thank you—I don’t drink anymore.” Nobody wants to be the a-hole who continues to offer the recovering alcoholic a drink, and you just left that door wide open (without saying anything untrue).

Finally, you can opt for the public shaming. They’re trying to make you look like a lame-o loser in front of the group—so call them out on it. “Hey, boss, it sounds like you’re pressuring your employees to drink. That’s not part of the company policy, is it?” or “Whoa, Jen, what’s up with the peer pressure? I don’t want a margarita tonight, but I’m not telling you not to have one. Can we please move on?” You’re not being mean, you’re just calling them on their stuff, and sticking up for yourself.

However, beware… if you come back with “Holy crap, Jessica—I’m just as fun sober as you think you are drunk… and trust me, honey, that ain’t as pretty as you’d like to believe,” chances are you and Jessica aren’t going to be friends for much longer.

Then again, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

Best in health,

Is this good advice? Do you want to add your two cents? We welcome your input! Share your best advice for E.E. and K.E. in comments.

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Remember, we aren’t answering technical questions via this column, nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.