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Can I just cut down on my drinking?

It depends on the individual whether or not a problem drinker can simply cut down on drinking. If that person has been diagnosed as alcohol dependent, the answer is "no." People who are dependent on alcohol who try to cut down on drinking rarely succeed. Cutting out alcohol--that is, abstaining--is usually the best course for recovery. People who are not alcohol dependent but who have experienced alcohol-related problems may be able to limit the amount they drink. If they can't stay within those limits, they need to stop drinking altogether.1 Trying to cut down to safe drinking levels means: less than seven drinks per week and less than three drinks per occasion for women and older people, and less than 14 drinks per week and less than four drinks per occasion for men.2

If your doctor tells you to cut down on your drinking, here are some steps that may help. First, make a list of the reasons you want to drink less. Next, choose a limit for how much you will drink. You may choose to cut down or not to drink at all. If you are cutting down, women should not drink more than one drink a day and men, no more than two drinks a day. Write your drinking goal on a piece of paper. Put it where you can see it, such as on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror. To help you reach your goal, keep a "diary" of your drinking. For example, write down every time you have a drink for 1 week. Try to keep your diary for 3 or 4 weeks. This will show you how much you drink and when. Other suggestions that will support your choice to cut down on drinking include: keeping a small amount or no alcohol at home and drinking slowly with non-alcoholic drinks in between. You can also try taking a break from alcohol by picking a day or two each week when you will not drink at all. Then, try to stop drinking for one week. Think about how you feel physically and emotionally on these days. When you succeed and feel better, you may find it easier to cut down for good.3

Another strategy to helping you stay on track is practicing how to say no politely. You do not have to drink when other people drink. You do not have to take a drink that is given to you. Stay away from people who give you a hard time about not drinking. Watch out for people, places, or times that make you drink, even if you do not want to. Stay away from people who drink a lot or bars where you used to go. Plan ahead of time what you will do to avoid drinking when you are tempted. Do not drink when you are angry or upset or have a bad day. These are habits you need to break if you want to drink less.3

Use the time and money spent on drinking to do something fun with your family or friends. Go out to eat, see a movie, or play sports or a game. Cutting down on your drinking may be difficult at times. Ask your family and friends for support to help you reach your goal. Most people do not cut down or give up drinking all at once. Just like a diet, it is not easy to change. If you do not reach your goal the first time, try again.3 If you feel you need help to cut down on your drinking you can ask your doctor for advice, treatment or a referral. You can also contact a self-help support group or the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.2,3


  1. Frequently Asked Questions for the General Public. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Updated February, 2007.
  2. Alcohol Abuse: How to Recognize Problem Drinking. American Academy of Family Physicians.
  3. How to Cut Down on Your Drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Publications. NIH Pub No. 96-3770, 1996

This page was last modified on : 10/28/2013

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