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Sophie Donaldson: 'The dangers of banishing the booze for January'

Dry January gives us an excuse to binge - a dry-ish year would have a more lasting impact, writes Sophie Donaldson


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For an initiative that was only formally registered five years ago, Dry January is a curiously 1980s concept. Along with the Atkins diet and those high-cut aerobic leotards, yo-yo dieting is a health trend that we've largely abandoned. Or at least, it's one that is largely frowned upon.

If you do fall victim to binge dieting, then it's not something you tend to boast about, nor would you dare encourage other people to follow suit.

Imagine if we applied the logic of Dry January to the consumption of white, processed bread: We all decide to eat excessive amounts of the stuff for a month. We know we don't feel great after doing so, and some wake up with a bloated belly and feeling sluggish - but hey, it's bread season.

After this period, we announce we will be going cold turkey, despite the fact we have very little interest in ditching the processed foodstuff after this abstemious period. As expected, after the month has passed, we regularly gorge on the refined carbohydrate again, regardless of the fact that it's not particularly good for us.

Yes, I know. Bread doesn't make you drunk, nor can you directly link it to around 1,000 deaths each year, as you can with alcohol in this country. But it is a food that is often victim to the whims of the health industry - similarly, it is possible to read conflicting reports about the positive and negative effects of alcohol in a single week.

We are told simultaneously that alcohol can both prolong your life and dramatically shorten it. The psychology we employ when demonising something we ingest becomes even more damaging when we then binge and subsequently abstain from it. It is no different whether we chew or swallow; if it's bread or booze.

Just to be clear, this is not the opinion of somebody fed up with all her friends smugly avoiding the sauce for the month. For the first time, I am joining the other hopefuls partaking in an alcohol-free month to kick off the year.

I just don't feel quite so bright-eyed about it, perhaps because I'm not quite sure why I am doing it, other than because I want to. I don't think I have a problem with alcohol, though I wish I drank a bit less of it.

I am a certified morning person and find myself most weekends waking up around the same time I do midweek, despite the fact I have probably had a lot less sleep the night before and a lot more wine. So I am looking forward to having my weekend mornings back, and feeling less haggard on the midweek mornings after.

Beyond that, I don't feel too bothered about it. What I do feel bothered about, though, is the binge ideology that Dry January is built upon, no matter how virtuous its incentive.

I can't help but think that Dry-ish January would be a far healthier approach. Dramatically cutting down your alcohol intake for a month to say, one standard drink a week (approximately a half-pint) would do wonders for your health, both mentally and physically.

It would negate the 'all or nothing' mentality of Dry January that sets us up to fail, because if we do succeed, there's a pretty good chance we will reward our abstinence with a hefty session. I wonder how many in my cohort, one weekend down, are already thinking about what beverage they will reward themselves with on February 1.

We become obsessed with our drinking habits in January - but wouldn't that investment in our health be far more useful the month prior? Many of us wouldn't feel the need to give up alcohol in January if we didn't imbibe with such wild abandon in December, for no reason other than we tell ourselves we can. Dry January is going to be hard, but a dry-ish year would probably be a lot harder.

It's little wonder we are drawn to get-slim-quick regimes like Atkins and, more recently, ketogenic, paleo and even vegan diets. People take part in Dry January for myriad reasons, but it's likely most of them are hoping for some sort of healthy pay-off, whether it is to do with their liver, complexion or weight.

Not of all of us will make it to the end of the month without a drink. Some might have caved last night, while others will go for weeks without a drink, only to indulge their craving just before the cut-off date.

If that is you, or me, there are two options. You can either consider your Dry January endeavour - and, by extension, yourself - a failure. Or, you could consider yourself a success for cutting down on your drinking, no matter the length of time. That, my friend, is called moderation, and to that, I'll happily raise a glass.

Sunday Independent