Over the years, I’ve watched my definition of Gray Area Drinking get chopped up into various word salads and re-purposed in different articles, books, websites, and social media accounts.

I’m debunking these “gray area drinking definitions” here because they don’t serve anyone. They keep people confused about how much alcohol is too much. They also perpetuate old, outdated paradigms about drinking. These “definitions” lack the understanding of current neuroscience as well as the clinical data from actual client work.

Simply put, we need to stop trying to opt in or opt out of arbitrary drinking labels because there is no healthy or safe recommended intake level of alcohol.

Here are some misinformed—false—gray area drinking “definitions” that came up in a recent Google search. I do not agree with any of thesedefinitions.” Let’s discuss why…

  1. Gray Area Drinking falls between moderate drinking and alcohol-use disorder. (FALSE)

Moderate drinking and alcohol-use disorder are two of many labels on the gray area drinking spectrum, so this definition makes no sense. Self-selecting in or out of a drinking label is not the definition of gray area drinking.

More than two drinks per week is what puts someone on the gray area drinking spectrum. People will self-identify with all types of drinking labels: social, sober-curious, normal, casual, moderate, habitual, non-problematic, problematic, alcohol-use disorder, dependent, addicted, alcoholic, or something else — it doesn’t matter which label is used. Since there is no safe or healthy recommended intake level of alcohol, if someone is drinking more than two drinks per week, they are drinking in the gray area.

  1. Gray Area Drinkers experience a drinking problem but not severe alcohol-use disorder. (FALSE)

How exactly is severe” measured in this context? What’s the distinguishing line between a drinking problem, an alcohol-use disorder, and a severe alcohol-use disorder? This is a big ol’ pile of semantics. It’s not the definition of gray area drinking. More importantly, most drinkers will opt out of this definition because they will not self-select language like “problem” or “disorder” to describe their drinking.

  1. Gray Area Drinkers are not social drinkers, and they are not alcoholics. (FALSE)

There are a lot of people who drink a lot of alcohol, yet they will tell you (and they firmly believe) they are just social drinkers. A social drinker vs “not a social drinker” is an ambiguous wormhole. It carries multiple interpretations depending on the person you’re talking to. The highly debated “alcoholic” label carries numerous connotations and assumptions for different people as well. If you don’t believe me, go ask five different people (including medical professionals!) what a social drinker is, and then ask them what an alcoholic is. You’ll get five very different responses. Therefore, using these labels to disqualify (or qualify) someone from gray area drinking is too ambiguous. It does not provide any clarity or insight into what gray area drinking actually is and is not. 

  1. Gray Area Drinkers dont have a physical alcohol dependence, but they drink in non-social situations and wonder why. (FALSE)

What? This word salad of negatives—“non-social situation” and “no physical dependence”— shows a complete lack of clinical understanding. I know from coaching actual gray area drinkers for the past eight years (and my own gray area drinking experience) that gray area drinkers LOVE to have drinks while they cook alone. Get ready alone before a night out. Watch TV/Netflix alone. Take a bath alone. Sit in their backyard alone. Have cocktails in the hotel or airport lounge after a long travel day alone. They don’t wonder “why”— they just like the off-switch that alcohol immediately provides their brain in those “non-social situations.”

And what about the “physical dependence” label? Alcohol is incredibly disruptive to the entire physical body. No one gets a biochemical free pass when they put any amount (large or small) of alcohol in their body. When we put a physical substance into our body we get physical effects. This is why people return to alcohol again and again—they want and depend on the (initially positive) ritual and effects that happen every time they drink.

The problem with this notion of “not physically dependent” vs “dependent” is that it’s just another way to divide drinkers into one category over the other: 1“normal” vs “alcoholic” drinkers, “problem” vs “don’t have a problem” drinkers, etc. Drinking is not that black or white. There is a lot of gray! So, continually trying to opt in or opt out of one arbitrary drinking category over another and rotating through different labels is missing the point. It’s a waste of time.  

The definition of Gray Area Drinking is clear and very simple!

Gray area drinking is the space between every-now-and-again drinking and end-stage drinking.

Let’s break that down.

Every-now-and-again drinking means two or fewer drinks per week. It’s very common for this category of drinkers to go weeks or months without drinking any alcohol at all.

End-stage drinking means a medical detox is needed to prevent seizures or death when stopping drinking. End-stage drinkers might also require medication to stop drinking or need medical support to monitor the liver, pancreas, stomach, and other physiological issues caused by excessive drinking. Some end-stage drinkers find it necessary to remove themselves from their environments and check into an in-patient or out-patient treatment center so they can stick with the quit process.

Otherwise, most people who drink are drinking in the space between these two extremes. They drink more than two drinks per week, but they don’t need medical intervention to stop drinking —that is gray area drinking!

You can dress up, downplay, or dance around whatever drinking label you like. Or you can simply use the gray area drinking term because that’s the inviting, non-stigmatized, resonant, umbrella category that according to the 2010 dietary research, is how most people drink.

Either way, the reason ALL of the self-selected drinking labels fall under this one big umbrella of gray area drinking is because there is no safe or healthy recommended intake level of alcohol. I’m not saying this from a position of moral high ground. It’s not a personal opinion or judgment. Nor is this a purist/prohibitionist point of view on alcohol. There literally is no safe level of alcohol for humans to ingest. The US, the UK, the World Health Organization, and Canada have all stated in their public health guidelines and recommendations that no alcohol is best.

If you’re interested in optimal well-being for your mind and body, or if you want to prevent chronic disease, stay informed on the topic of gray area drinking. Even if you don’t have personal experience drinking in the gray area, I guarantee someone in your life does. This conversation is not going away. It’s how most people drink. It’s one of the biggest public health challenges of our time.

 *Please properly source and give credit to this article if you distribute it in your work. It is copyrighted material.

For more info on the Gray Area Drinking demographic check out:

—The science on why anything beyond two drinks per week is too much — The Huberman Podcast (2022).

—The lived experience of two former gray area drinkers Editing Our Drinking & Our Lives PodcastThis was the first podcast solely dedicated to this topic (2017).

—The professional training program I created for coaches and practitioners. I’ve been training coaches on this since 2018. The next Gray Area Drinking Coach training begins in May 2024.

One of OG’s in this space, Holly Whitaker, blew the lid off the fallacy of the normal vs alcoholic drinker 10 years ago. When people say, “No one was talking about this stuff when they quit drinking” (2, 3, 5, 7 years ago). It’s not true. Holly was part of a handful of pioneers who carved the path and led the way for those who are now speaking and writing on this topic today.

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