Moderation vs. Abstinence: Should You Cut Back or Quit Drinking Completely?

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Many people think that abstinence is the only solution for problem drinking. Abstinence means giving up alcohol completely, and it’s the foundation of traditional treatment options like AA and most inpatient rehabs. But alcohol misuse is not a one-size-fits all problem, and neither is its solution. 

Moderation is an alternative that works better for some people. It involves the use of medications like naltrexone which help reduce alcohol cravings. People who drink in moderation stick to reasonable limits. They’re able to enjoy an occasional drink while still avoiding negative drinking behaviors and consequences. Some are even able to relearn moderate drinking after abstinence.

However, moderation doesn’t work for everyone who struggles with alcohol. So, how can you tell whether moderation or abstinence is a better goal for you? Here are some things to consider in comparing moderation vs. abstinence.

Read more: What Is the Definition of Moderate Drinking?

Why Moderation May Be a Better Choice Than Abstinence

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1. Moderation may be easier to stick with

Some people aren’t ready to quit alcohol completely, and are more likely to succeed if they cut back instead. In this case, moderation serves as a harm reduction strategy that minimizes the negative consequences of drinking. It’s a healthy step in a positive direction, and is often achievable with medication.

2. You don’t need to tell everyone you’re an alcoholic

If you don’t consider yourself an alcoholic or don’t feel comfortable labeling yourself one, practicing moderation helps you avoid having that discussion when you’re not in the mood. You don’t have to attend AA meetings and introduce yourself as an alcoholic, and you don’t have to answer questions at parties or social gatherings when people notice you aren’t drinking.

3. One beer doesn’t mean failure

Shame and guilt over a slip-up can trigger full relapse. When people aiming for abstinence make a mistake, they may feel like quitting is impossible and give up entirely. Moderation reduces this tension. You can have an occasional drink without feeling defeated and sliding deeper into a relapse. It’s easier to maintain your motivation and stay on the right track.

4. Quitting is easier when it feels like a choice

After a period of moderate drinking, some people end up achieving abstinence anyway. Sometimes not having to stop makes it easier to do it. If quitting is your ultimate goal, starting with moderation may help you achieve it. And even if you don’t plan to quit, you may find that you lose interest in alcohol after practicing moderation.

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Reasons Abstinence From Alcohol May Be the Best Choice

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1. You have liver damage or other health problems from alcohol

If you have health problems related to alcohol, it may be unsafe to drink at all, period. Even moderate drinking can make these problems worse. In this case, abstinence is the best way forward for your health and safety. By quitting drinking completely, your body can begin to repair the damage caused by alcohol.

2. You prefer not to take medication for alcohol addiction

Moderation often requires that you take anti-craving medication for an indefinite period of time. Medication makes it easier to put the brakes on after a drink or two, and sticking to moderation is challenging without it. If you want to resolve problem drinking without medication, abstinence may be a better choice for you. 

3. You find even one drink is too triggering for you

Some people find it’s still too overwhelming to be around alcohol, and it’s too hard to change their habits. If one drink still leads to several more, attempting moderation isn’t the safest choice. People who have a more severe drinking problem and find moderation difficult to maintain often do better with abstinence.

4. You’re simply done with alcohol

You may genuinely never want to drink again. The negative effects of your drinking may have turned you off of alcohol entirely, and that’s completely okay. If your reason for choosing abstinence is simply that you want to, that’s a perfectly valid reason to quit alcohol altogether.

Moderation vs. Abstinence: What’s Right for You?

Both moderation and abstinence are perfectly acceptable choices. It all comes down to what will be most effective for you as an individual. Is moderation more achievable for you? Do you prefer to avoid labeling yourself an alcoholic? Is abstinence a safer option for you? Do you prefer to avoid taking medication? Are you ready to walk away from alcohol entirely?

These answers will vary from individual to individual, and your choice of moderation vs. abstinence is a personal one. Ria Health supports either option. Whether you want to quit drinking or cut back, we’re here to help. Our program offers expert medical support, recovery coaching, and a variety of tools and resources—all delivered 100 percent virtually. Learn more about moderation with Ria Health, or find out how our program works.

Written By:
Ashley Cullins
Freelance writer with contributions to numerous addiction blogs and a passion for relatable content.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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