Drinking for the taste, not to escape from life

Research published in the BMC Public Health journal recently found that more than a quarter of young people class themselves as ‘non-drinkers’. Why is this and what are the benefits of shunning alcohol?

“Young people are drinking less than any other generation because they’re more conscious of their mental health and how alcohol impacts on it. They’re poorer than other generations and they’re more interested in an evening out that is an experience that doesn’t have to include alcohol,” says Laura Willoughby, who founded the mindful drinking movement Club Soda six years ago after giving up drinking. And she thinks there's something to learn from these young people.

“I’m 44 and vertical drinking – standing in the pub with a pint – was all we did in our twenties but now people my age are realising that we can eat as much kale as we like and go to the gym five days a week but if we’re still downing a bottle of wine in the evening it’s undoing all our hard work.”

Laura Willoughby

With a background in politics and campaigning, Laura applied for a small business loan and took part in a business accelerator programme with Bethnal Green Ventures, a social impact investor, before launching Club Soda in January 2015.

“I realised there were services available to help people who were dependent drinkers or those who needed serious support because they were beginning to live a chaotic lifestyle due to alcohol, but very little support for all those people in the middle of that spectrum who were perhaps drinking more than the recommended amounts but didn’t need intensive help,” she says.

“I also found it really weird that there were lots of resources available if you wanted to go on a diet, but nothing similar if you wanted to change your drinking habits, when actually that’s a harder task in terms of behaviour change. Almost no-one was talking about changing drinking patterns as a positive lifestyle choice.”

Club Soda began as a resource for people who wanted to change their drinking habits but quickly evolved into an active online community that now has 30,000 members.

“Our online community is a big part of what we do – just like any form of behaviour change, connecting with other people who are on a similar journey is really important, and our online courses take people through a behaviour change journey to change their drinking,” she says.

“It soon became very clear that our members still want to go to pubs and restaurants – they want to have an active social life but they began to talk about the fact that there was a lack of good drinks options for people who didn’t want to drink alcohol,” she explains.

That prompted Nudging Pubs, a piece of research undertaken by Club Soda, which sought to encourage pubs to offer more choice to their non-drinking customers.

“We want our pubs to survive but they needed to do more to attract non-drinkers,” Laura adds. “I feel very passionate about the fact that we can begin to change social norms through what we do and how we do it, as well as by engaging people in a very pro-social agenda.”

Club Soda has launched its own pub guide – it’s the biggest guide to alcohol free drinks and where to find them, and more than 500 adult alcohol-free drinks are included.

Club Soda also recently held its fifth Mindful Drinking Festival. Taking place at the Truman Brewery in London, it was a free two-day event featuring inspirational talks by an array of speakers plus more than 60 alcohol-free brands to taste.

Talking of taste, Willoughby says the festival came about because she realised that people wouldn’t spend money on alcohol-free drinks unless they knew they liked them. She decided to create an event where people could taste alcohol-free drinks free of charge. It was a roaring success, and the festival continues to go from strength to strength.

“The Mindful Drinking Festival shows that we’re making social spaces more relevant for more people, but ultimately we want to create a world where nobody feels out of place if they’re not drinking,” she says.

While the alcohol-free drinks sector is growing, Willoughby acknowledges that it’s still not easy to go alcohol-free in a society that is so “alco-centric”. But she hopes that continuing to use positive language about being alcohol-free will help foster change.

Laura Willoughby

“People used to be embarrassed to say they weren’t drinking because of the assumption that they must have a drink problem, whereas using terms like alcohol-free and mindful drinking allow you to talk about cutting down on alcohol consumption as a positive, healthy lifestyle choice,” she says.

“For people who don’t want to drink, the old non-drinking language that originated with the AA movement over 70 years ago and which is all about disease and resisting temptation just isn’t relevant any longer.”

For anyone considering a taste of life without alcohol, Willoughby recommends starting with an extended period of not drinking. A month is a good place to start, but Willoughby says three months without alcohol was a turning point for her.

“That’s when I started to see a big difference in terms of my energy coming back and my body repairing itself after 20 years of drinking far too much,” she says. “It’s all a learning process and you’ll begin to learn where the social pressure is and what the scenarios are in which you find it hardest to not drink.”

An extended break from drinking alcohol means you’ll experience a variety of different social situations without drinking. That’s important, according to Willoughby, because drinking is so tied up in our social fabric that handling social events without alcohol is often one of the most challenging things for anyone contemplating giving up drinking. A period of three months of not drinking is also long enough to ensure you’ll begin to reap some of the benefits of being alcohol-free.

“Whether we like or not, you don’t have to drink very much alcohol for it to impact on your sleep, productivity and energy levels,” says Willoughby. "If you could buy a pill that increased productivity, helped you lose weight and improved your sleep and made your skin look better you’d probably be willing to pay quite a lot for it, but you can achieve all that and save money simply by cutting down on drinking.”

Ultimately, mindful drinking is about taking control of your relationship with alcohol. And that means different things to different people. For some that’s practising moderation; enjoying a glass of wine with dinner instead of absent-mindedly finishing the bottle. For others it’s a period of abstention, while for still others it’s giving up alcohol altogether.

Whichever approach you take, Willoughy recommends setting some clear rules for yourself, especially if you’re going to try moderating your alcohol intake. “In some ways going alcohol-free is easier than drinking in moderation because you don’t have to think about how much you’re going to drink,” she says.

You could try being dry for a certain number of days of the year, start your evenings out with two alcohol-free drinks, or limit alcohol to weekends only. Bear in mind that you’ll also need a plan for how to stick to the rules, because once alcohol is in your system it’s likely to impair your decision making.

If you’re going out, Willoughby recommends phoning ahead to the venue to find out what alcohol-free options are on offer. “I always do this so I know what I’m going to order in advance, then if a persistent mate puts pressure on you to have ‘just the one’ it’s easier to say no with confidence because your mind is already made up before the drinks start flowing.”

As well as the health benefits and the impact on your wallet, going alcohol-free is the perfect opportunity to indulge in a new hobby. Whether you take up a new sport or simply throw yourself into exploring the vast range of alcohol-free drinks that are now on offer, becoming a mindful drinker is a chance to allow your tastes to develop.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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