In recent years, accessibility to nonalcoholic beverages has surged, and perhaps for good reason. The COVID-19 pandemic alone brought in a new wave of sober-curious people, amid a rise in alcohol consumption during the isolation of lockdowns.
To meet this shift, drinks like CBD-infused seltzers, zero-proof liquors, nonalcoholic wines and more have filled the shelves for those who are looking for party options without the buzz.
CBD drinks, for example, promise to take the edge off after consumption thanks to the properties in cannabidiol, a nonpsychoactive part of a cannabis plant that may promote a sense of relaxation. Nonalcoholic, or “NA,” beverages give sober folks a substitute for the drinks that many may have previously relied on in social settings.
But for those who have a difficult relationship with alcohol, are these alternatives really a solution? Or is the need for them a sign of something greater? Speaking to HuffPost, substance misuse experts and people who are sober shared a few questions to consider if you’re turning to these beverages when you give up drinking:
1. What’s my motive for drinking nonalcoholic beers, wines or cocktails?
A recurring topic that occurs in 12-step substance misuse recovery meetings is motive. What is your motive for doing X vs Y? The spectrum of answers may range from attending a wedding to visiting a bar with nonsober friends.
Some may feel uncomfortable around their peers who still drink. It is hard to socialize without booze when you’ve become so accustomed to having a drink in hand to feel normal. Some may find solace in nonalcoholic beverages to put on the facade that they are still drinking, perhaps because they haven’t fully disclosed the change to friends. Others may insist that they are just taking a break from alcohol for health reasons.
Whatever the case may be, it is important to acknowledge what the motive is for wanting to indulge in nonalcoholic drinks in the first place and to address that. Those in recovery need to examine whether the motive behind drinking the nonalcoholic beverage is potentially detrimental to their sobriety.
“I feel as if you should be fully abstinent for the first two years of sobriety,” said Ashley Loeb Blassingame, a co-founder of an online substance abuse counseling program named Lionrock Recovery, noting that these kinds of problems “aren’t substance-specific.”
“Then, check your motives to see if the desire for an NA beverage is still there,” she continued.
If the desire is still there and you decide to try an NA beverage, think about why you are doing it. Is something missing in your sobriety? Is your recovery checklist in order?
“How much do you like the taste of a NA beverage? Or do you like it because it tastes similar to alcohol?” Blassingame said.
If drinking a beverage that tastes similar to alcohol could be triggering, it is important to have a plan in order. In recovery, the idea of a true nonalcoholic beverage is alluring, and with so many new options becoming available, it is OK to wonder about them. Just make sure you are valuing your sobriety more than anything and not becoming a victim of surreptitious marketing.
If you’re sober-curious but not dealing with an addiction, full abstinence might not be totally necessary right now. In those circumstances, practicing moderation tactics ― like drinking NA beverages ― is a good entryway into the recovery world.
For both those in recovery and those who are sober-curious, it is important to have a network in place — people you can rely on in a time of need or bounce questions off without fear of judgment, according to Blassingame.
2. Do the drinks I’m choosing contain traces of alcohol?
The reality is that many nonalcoholic beverages include small amounts of alcohol. This is known as a low alcohol by volume, or ABV.
A sober-curious individual partaking in these alternative beverages is different from someone in recovery doing so. The former may look at these options as healthier choices. The latter has more at stake, with the consumption of low-ABV drinks potentially igniting the craving for something stronger.
If you’re in recovery, be mindful of the ingredient list for anything you’re consuming, experts told HuffPost. This does not mean diligently checking every household item, but it is good to be aware of what is in your food and beverages, as well as how certain ingredients can affect you. Beverages like kombucha have an ABV of 0.5%, and while that may not be enough to even remotely affect some, others may feel a buzz due to overconsumption.
Check the alcohol volume in drinks you’re choosing. Then ask yourself why you may want them — and be radically honest about it.
3. Does this align with my definition of sobriety?
Sobriety isn’t one-size-fits-all, and this applies to the beverages people choose to consume, according to Trey Laird, the CEO and founder of a sober living facility in Connecticut known as The Lighthouse.
“I have worked with clients who have tried both nonalcoholic drinks and CBD. For some of them, it has a purpose, and I don’t judge them,” Laird said, adding that people in recovery who drink them should disclose this to someone they trust beforehand.
He warned, however, that these beverages can become a slippery slope in some cases. Some of his clients have reported drinking one bottle of O’Doul’s, which in turn leads to drinking a six-pack to feel a slight buzz. In Laird’s personal recovery, he hasn’t found the need to indulge in nonalcoholic drinks.
“For me, I have been sober since 2011 and have gone this long without trying a nonalcoholic beer or wine,” he said.
Lindsey Metselaar, the host of the dating and relationship podcast “We Met at Acme,” feels similar to Laird in terms of her own recovery. She isn’t interested in trying nonalcoholic drinks, and she argued that the consumption of CBD products in recovery is unnecessary and does not equal sobriety.
The distinction needs to be clearly defined for you, Blassingame said. In her opinion, the term “sober” implies recovery in the traditional sense, which can include meetings, therapy and more.
“It is the difference between someone running a marathon [on occasion] … versus an endurance athlete,” she said, noting that to her, sobriety and recovery imply complete abstinence from all mood and mind-altering substances ― even drinks like CBD-infused beverages or low-ABV beer alternatives.
The sober-curious, however, may think of the change as just abstaining from drinking, with the option to either maintain that or consume alcohol when they want.
Decide what aligns with your needs for your relationship with alcohol, and then make an informed decision about whether drinking alternative beverages will fit into those plans, the experts said. And no matter what, make sure you’re relying on a support system to guide you through it.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.