When Seattle-based author Kristi Coulter quit drinking in her 40s, she began to take stock of the volume of alcohol all around her. It seemed impossible to escape: Booze was on billboards, at the office, in every Facebook post, at every gathering. At first she tried to avoid it by staying home, but eventually she wanted to rejoin the ranks of people who go out to dinner once in a while.
This shift in Coulter’s life coincided with the rise of nonalcoholic beer, wine, and mocktails that now seems to be hitting its peak. She considered trying some of the options available at the time, but felt nervous that they might make her miss the real thing.
“I often tell people that it’s kind of like if I knew I had a shellfish allergy. It might just make me uncomfortable for a night—or it might kill me,” Coulter says. “Would I take the risk of eating the shrimp? Probably not. I wouldn’t think it would be worth it.”
The risks of alcohol alternatives
As brands target the growing number of health-conscious consumers who want the taste and social experience of drinking without the negative effects, a tidal wave of substitutes is flooding store shelves and restaurant menus. For people who’ve struggled with alcohol misuse or addiction, these drinks can seem like a safe alternative.
“To me, it’s like playing with fire,” says Megan Boardman, LCSW, who’s an advanced certified alcohol and drug counselor. Alcohol alternatives contain only trace amounts of alcohol—usually no more than 0.5% in the US—but that doesn’t automatically make them harmless for addicts.1 “I personally wouldn’t recommend nonalcoholic beverages to most clients, but I also believe that everyone’s sobriety is individual,” Boardman says. “Some folks believe in a harm reduction approach, and I’ve had clients who have used this. But I’ve also seen it lead back to major relapse.”
Much of the risk is tied to habits. Situations, feelings, and experiences that remind an addicted person of drinking can trigger cravings, and for some the taste and smell of alcohol alternatives may be too similar to the real thing.2 In addition, in a study where groups of several participants thought they’d had alcohol when they’d actually consumed a placebo, over 99% reported feelings of intoxication.3 This begs the question: If you’re in a social setting where everyone else is drinking, can alcohol alternatives really help you stay sober?
A little drinking among friends
Alcohol is embedded in much of our social lives. For those in recovery who are actively social, the pressure to drink—or at least look like you’re drinking—can be overwhelming.
“I was at a work function once where there were maybe seven types of beer, five types of wine, and nothing else—except a water fountain,” says Coulter. For someone who was just learning how to socialize as a sober person, she says, it often felt awkward to refuse a glass of wine. “I wanted to be able to go incognito. I didn’t want people to know me as a drinker, and I didn’t want people to ask.”
Drinking alcohol helps people bond, and Boardman points out that the risk of relapsing is hugely influenced by this fact.4 When everyone around you is drinking and you’re not, you might miss out on what most of us look for when we socialize: the chance to connect, not necessarily to get drunk.
Alcohol alternatives give you the option to hold (and sip) a glass of what looks like the real thing, which can help in situations where you don’t want to stand out from the crowd. But for people in recovery, this version of faking it can sometimes be a slippery slope.
Consider, for example, one study on how drinking with others influences risk-taking. Participants who were given alcohol were much more likely to engage in risky behavior when they consumed it in a group setting compared to when they drank alone.5
That finding may not seem like a big surprise. What is surprising, though, is that participants who were given a nonalcoholic placebo and thought they were drinking alcohol showed the same results: They took more risks when they “drank” with others.
Tips for deciding when and what to drink
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for whether it’s safe for someone in recovery to have an alcohol alternative. As Boardman points out, it really depends on the person and their understanding of their own emotions and behaviors. You might start by asking yourself these questions.
Where am I in my recovery journey, and how am I doing so far? If you haven’t been sober for very long or are struggling with temptation, it may make sense to skip alcohol alternatives altogether. But if you’ve been sober for years and haven’t had any problems, you may be able to enjoy an alcohol alternative every so often without putting your sobriety at risk.
How in control do I feel? If you feel anxious or uncomfortable around alcohol or alcohol alternatives, it’s probably best not to risk it. That said, some people may be fine with limiting their alcohol consumption or using alcohol alternatives, depending on their level of control and where they are in their recovery.
What’s driving me to want an alcohol alternative? If your goal is to hide your sobriety or try to fit in, it may be a sign of underlying issues that should be dealt with first. In this situation, steering clear of alcohol alternatives is a good choice.
How comfortable am I with talking to people about my sobriety? If you find it hard to navigate conversations about your sobriety and don’t feel entirely secure in your recovery, you may find it beneficial to take a harm reduction approach by having an alcohol alternative.
How supported do I feel? If you believe your community is understanding and supportive, it can help you feel safe enough to be yourself and own your sobriety. “What’s most important to recovery is a person’s ability to be authentic and who they are,” says Boardman. Having a strong sober support network and staying in touch with them about cravings and triggers can also be a big help.
How to support people in recovery
We don’t know what other people might be going through in their relationship to drinking. “If you see someone who usually drinks but isn’t, just don’t ask,” says Coulter. “What seems like a casual question to you could make or break their evening.”
To support people who are in recovery or trying to cut back on drinking, you can:
Provide a range of nonalcoholic drink options when entertaining
Suggest ways to socialize that don’t involve bars, restaurants, or parties
Not make assumptions about why someone isn’t drinking
Listen without judgment if someone decides to open up about their sobriety
Be open to respectful conversations about sobriety and addiction recovery
Let them know you’re available for support or just to listen
Volunteer to attend meetings or support groups with them—and consider looking into groups for yourself, too. Al-Anon was designed for family and friends who are worried about someone with a substance problem.
Should you offer someone in recovery an alcohol alternative? The short answer is probably no, regardless of how healthfully some brands like to market themselves. The longer answer is that it depends on how well you know the person and understand their experience.
You don’t want to enable or pressure anyone to drink. The best you can do is have a conversation about it before the question comes up, listen without judgment, and let your friend or loved one know that you’re there to support them in any way you can. Recovery is an ongoing process, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
A decade into sobriety, Coulter now enjoys an occasional alcohol alternative if the timing and setting feel right. But she still wishes someone had gotten the memo back at her work function with the water foundation early in her recovery.
“If I could have had a real wine glass with something legitimate-looking in it, it would have made a major difference,” she says. “Even if it had been just club soda with lemon and a fancy garnish, I’d have felt a lot better.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with how substances are affecting your life, help is available. Visit our directory to find a therapist near you.