How to participate in Dry January without falling prey to diet culture

And yet, the decision to partake in Dry January can be overshadowed by diet-centric motives and language. Alcohol Change UK describes the initiative as “a break and a total reset for the body and mind.” This word “reset” pops up in nearly every article I read about Dry January (see here, here, and here), despite the fact that it’s medically impossible for your body to reset to a natural state of wellness, which I assume is the aspiration here.

Usually, the word “reset” – along with its pal’s detox, cleanse, etc. – is a red flag that you have stumbled across a fad diet and that you should probably run. But when it comes to Dry January (and other sobriety-orientated challenges), this word is allowed to creep back into our consciousness – as Christy Harrison tells GLAMOUR, diet culture is a “slippery thing.” If we’re using diet-coded language to describe our attempts at sobriety, who’s to say we aren’t legitimising the culture these words represent? 

Moreover, the benefits of participating in Dry January or any short-term sobriety challenges often veer into weight loss land, which isn’t inherently problematic. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on. 

“Did you know a standard glass of wine can contain as many calories as a piece of chocolate, and a pint of lager has about the same number of calories as a packet of crisps?” reads the opening sentence on an NHS “alcohol advice” webpage. “So, if you’re trying to lose weight you need to think about what you are drinking as well as what you are eating.”

While it’s useful for some people to understand the caloric content of different alcoholic drinks, I wonder whether it could lead to an unhelpful conflation between food, which we need to consume to survive, and substances like alcohol, which we really don’t need to survive. This blurred understanding of food and alcohol can lead to disordered eating and problematic drinking, as Harrison sometimes sees in her clients: 

“People will end up “drinking their calories” where they’ll decide to drink wine or drink whatever beverage instead of eating […] They’ll skip meals to try to save up their calories for alcohol.”

As Harrison points out, this is rarely sustainable: “People’s inhibitions are lowered as they go through a night of drinking, and hunger builds up because they’re not actually getting their needs met through alcohol […] And so at the end of the night, they’ll end up having a food binge because of all those factors and then I’ve seen people say, “Well, I have to stop drinking because it’s making me eat. It’s making me break my diet.”

I spoke to Holly Whitaker – author of the bestselling How To Quit Like A Woman – about the “wellness lens” through which sobriety is often viewed. She points out that Dry January itself gives “people who might not otherwise examine how alcohol shows up in their lives the space to do so. It allows them to do this within a community.” Given that we still live in a society hell-bent on forcing alcohol down our throats – literally – Whitaker also notes that Dry January “creates an excuse” for people to quit drinking without having to go to uncomfortable lengths to justify their decision. 

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