- Dry January is a way to reduce or cut out alcohol for at least the first month of the year. Some also try it to jumpstart their weight loss goals.
- But experts say weight loss does not necessarily go hand in hand with Dry January participation.
- Still, experts share that developing a healthy relationship with alcohol long-term has many positive, healthy benefits.
The desire to lose weight is a common New Year’s resolution, for better or worse. But a new way to try to jumpstart healthier choices is trending these days: Dry January.
Founded in 2013 by Alcohol Change UK, the concept has traveled across the pond and become a way for people to reduce or cut out alcohol consumption for all of January.
The number of people who said they’d participate in Dry January in 2023 dropped four percentage points from 19% last year to 15% this year, according to a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults over 21 by Morning Consult. But the number of respondents who said they planned to abstain from alcohol completely rose from 52% in 2022 to 70% this year.
Why is Dry January such a thing? It may actually go hand in hand with the annual resolution to lose weight.
The desire to be healthier (52%) and lose weight (35%) were the top motivators of more than 1,200 respondents to a Harris Poll-conducted survey for Go Brewing, a low or no-alcohol craft brewery.
“People think of Dry January as a motivator to detox or clear their system to start living a healthier lifestyle,” says Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell of Beyond Clinical Walls. “This often comes with the expectation they will lose weight at the same time.”
Hope springs eternal every January 1 but when the calendar flips to February many people find they’re disappointed that cutting alcohol for 30 days didn’t help them lose as much weight as they thought it would.
Why people may think Dry January leads to weight loss
Generally speaking, most people have heard that limiting alcohol consumption is good for their health.
“That alone may lead to the assumption that taking a month off could lead to weight loss,” says Breanna Woods, MS RD, the editor and nutrition lead with Blogilates.com.
But it’s more than that. Even “light” beverages have calories.
For example, Woods notes that a Bud Light contains 110 calories — which add up if you consume multiple — and some cocktails have 300-400.
“Aside from calories in the drinks themselves, people may associate drinking with behaviors that may lead to weight gain, such as eating out often and skipping workouts after a late night out,” Woods says. “Their hope may be that participating in Dry January will help them get back on track with healthy eating and exercise.”
Why participating in Dry January may not lead to weight loss
Ultimately, there’s no magic pill for weight loss, nor is there a one-size-fits-all strategy. When it comes to alcohol and weight loss, the science isn’t clear.
A 2016 review of 63 studies indicated that interventions linked with reducing alcohol could, in part, help a person lose weight. But the study focused on harmful, hazardous, or alcohol-dependent drinkers.
A 2015 study did not suggest a link between low-to-moderate alcohol intake and obesity.
Regardless, one dietitian stresses the need for a holistic approach to weight loss and maintenance if those are your goals.
“They might not have made any other changes, meaning they cut out alcohol but continued to perhaps eat calorically dense meals, or not incorporated any movement,” Vanessa Rissetto, a registered dietitian and CEO of Culina Health.
Some people may go in the opposite direction and cut calories too much. Curry-Winchell warns against drastically cutting calories.
“Not eating enough can sometimes result in binge or overeating,” she says. “Slow and steady is often the best way to achieve and maintain weight loss.”
Ultimately, Rissetto and Curry-Winchell agree that it’s about eating a well-balanced diet and moving regularly.
The science tends to agree. For example, a 2017 paper indicated that plant-based diets could aid in preventing and treating obesity.
A 2022 study suggested that overweight individuals could cut their obesity risk by nearly two-thirds if their daily step count increased from 6,000 to 11,000.
The Dry January and sober curious movements have also given rise to nonalcoholic beverages like mocktails. They may not have alcohol but could be higher in other ingredients that can contribute to weight gain, slow loss, and overall risk for chronic diseases.
“People could mistakenly replace alcoholic beverages with an alternative that is still high in calories,” Woods says. “This could be another beverage, or possibly food if the person is trying to ‘fill the time’ they normally spend out with friends or drinking.”
Diet and exercise aren’t the only factors in weight loss.
Woods adds that other elements that could affect weight loss pace include:
Experts say developing a healthy relationship with alcohol is still important
Dry January may not have jumpstarted the weight loss you hoped for in a single month. However, experts share that it wasn’t all for naught if it jumpstarted a healthier relationship with alcohol.
The CDC guidelines recommend women limit alcohol consumption to one drink or fewer per day and men stick to two or fewer. A drink is a 12 oz. glass of beer, 5 oz. of wine, or 1.5 oz. of liquor.
Woods says the benefits of reducing alcohol intake include better sleep and less anxiety.
“People often notice that they sleep better once they limit or stop using alcohol,” Woods says. “There’s a misconception that alcohol helps you sleep, when actually, alcohol may help you fall asleep, but then it causes constant sleep interruptions.”
A 2020 study indicated that alcohol consumption might lower sleep quality as people age, particularly men. Research from 2018 suggested alcohol dependence was linked to chronic sleep disruption.
A 2019 study indicated that people who were dependent on alcohol were more likely to have anxiety and vice versa.
Physically, a 2022 cohort study of more than 370,000 people indicated that any level of alcohol consumption increased the risk of cardiovascular disease. A 2020 study suggested a causal relationship between high alcohol intake and a higher risk of stroke and peripheral artery disease.
A 2021 study of nearly 40,000 people ages 18 to 79 indicated that abstaining or lowering alcohol consumption could reduce Type 2 diabetes risk.
A 2020 systemic review and meta-analysis suggested that alcohol was a major factor in liver cirrhosis.
So, moderating or abstaining from alcohol consumption has benefits for overall health. But what about weight loss?
“Yes, someone can lose weight from limiting alcohol,” Woods says.
Even if reducing alcohol alone doesn’t help, it can have a cascading effect. For example, “They may also experience changes like better sleep and better stress management, which could have played a huge role in stagnant weight loss or weight gain prior to limiting alcohol,” Woods says.
Does your relationship with alcohol need work?
The answer to this question takes self-reflection.
“One of the ways to find the line between alcohol use and alcohol use disorder is to remember this phrase: alcohol is a problem when it causes problems,” says Dr. Adam Scioli, FASAM, DFAPA, the medical director and head of psychiatry at Caron Treatment Centers. “In other words, if alcohol starts to cause problems in your life, it may be morphing into an addiction.”
Scioli says examples include:
- feeling out of sorts without a glass of wine
- women drinking more than four alcoholic beverages in a session and men drinking five
- spending more money than your budget allows on alcohol
- strained relationships with loved ones because of alcohol
- being late to work because of hangovers
Resources are available to help you reframe your relationship with alcohol, such as:
- psychiatry sessions
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- support groups
- detoxification programs
- alcoholics anonymous
- treatment of any applicable co-existing psychiatric disorders and general health problems
Like weight loss, Scioli says the approach to care should be individualized.
“Everyone’s recovery journey is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” Scioli says.
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