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How and why to consider your alcohol consumption this holiday season — and into the new year

From eggnog and rum, to mulled wine and hot toddies, the holidays come with plenty of ways to enjoy alcohol, but are new guidelines around safe alcohol consumption a grinch at the party or a case for sober second-thought?

In August 2022, nearly two dozen researchers and scientists presented for public comment a $1.5-million Health Canada-backed study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) to examine the latest evidence around alcohol use and health.

Its findings and main recommendation of limiting alcohol consumption to two drinks or fewer per week to avoid negative consequences associated with alcohol are significantly different from Ottawa’s current low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines, which are no more than 10 standard drinks per week for women and 15 standard drinks for men.

“One thing I liked about our guidance is that we didn’t pull any punches scientifically. We didn’t choose an ideal limit based on what people would like,” said Dr. Tim Naimi, who contributed to the study and is director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria.

“The problems do start to go up after a couple of drinks a week, albeit not very quickly at first.”

The findings, published in full last January, grabbed headlines and left some people gobsmacked at how much they were being asked to reduce their alcohol use.

However, Naimi said the guidelines have generally been well received by the public because they illustrate what most people have known for years about alcohol use: there is no health benefit, only consequences.

“Those halcyon days of alcohol being the health tonic, that halo has fallen askew sometime back,” he said. “I think the public gets it.”

The report says about three-quarters of Canadians consume alcohol, but the substance is “the leading preventable cause of death and disability, injuries, accident and social problems.”

Alcohol consumption is linked to at least seven types of cancers, is a risk factor for most types of cardiovascular disease and is associated with violent and aggressive behaviour. The only way to avoid these risks of alcohol is to consume none, according to the report.

Christmas-themed glasses and mugs with drinks in them.
Holiday-themed alcoholic drinks are common over the Christmas season, which can make it difficult to avoid drinking at social events, according to experts. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

The new guidelines have yet to be reflected on the Government of Canada’s web page about low-risk alcohol consumption. Health Canada said in a statement that the Government of Canada “acknowledges that alcohol use is a serious public health and safety issue affecting individuals and communities.”

It is providing a further $2 million over two years to CCSA to study how to “communicate the risks and harms of alcohol consumption to diverse populations across Canada.”

‘Less is better’

Naimi said the guidelines are not meant to prohibit people from consuming alcohol, but to inform them about why “less is better,” which is the report’s main motto.

In the 18 months since the study’s findings became public, non-alcoholic drinks have become increasingly visible on drink menus, pushing their way into the zeitgeist.

Still, at a time of year long associated with parties and alcohol, changing habits can be tough.

Vancouver psychologist Dr. Sheena Miao, who often works with patients wanting to change drinking habits, says it’s important to understand what role alcohol plays in your life.

“If you can’t understand why you drink or what are the reasons that you drink, it’s going to be hard to make a plan that’s going to stick,” she said.

SMART goals

Alcohol is often used as a social lubricant by people who want to feel more at ease in group gatherings, said Miao. Some people consume it to unwind from stressful situations or because it’s intertwined with social events like meals and parties. 

A tray of glasses with eggnog in them.
Advocates say it’s not difficult to make a rum-free seasonal eggnog over the holidays by using nutmeg and vanilla extract instead of the rum. (David Armano/Flickr)

Miao’s advice for those wanting to lower their alcohol consumption is to come up with a goal that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound, otherwise known as a SMART goal.

So if the goal is to drink less, which is what Naimi and researchers encourage, that could mean committing to drinking one less alcohol drink a week for a specific period of time, for example a month, and then reassessing.

“If you set the bar too high and you set up this elaborate goal, wanting to create this habit but it ends up not being very achievable for yourself and you might end up feeling really disappointed because you can’t do it and that might make you feel less motivated about working on this habit,” said Miao.

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