“I want to enjoy the odd drink in my 70s” – Adrian Chiles on cutting down for good
Alcohol used to be a huge part of Adrian Chiles’ life – but not any more. The broadcaster and journalist has managed to swap excess for moderation, a task that comes without praise or plaudits – so instead he’s written a book on it.
“Moderation, especially with alcohol, is nobody’s friend. If you cut your drinking down, big boozers and teetotallers alike will be unimpressed,” writes Chiles in The Good Drinker.
Chiles, 56, whose TV career began on Working Lunch but went on to encompass The One Show and ITV’s football coverage, is on a mission to challenge and change our attitudes towards drinking – but he has some particularly stark advice for the over-fifties.
His interest in changing his relationship with drinking began when he presented a documentary in 2018 and revealed he was regularly drinking 100 units per week. That equates to 50 pints of average-strength lager (the NHS recommends that we have no more than 14 units a week).
A liver scan filmed for the documentary prompted Chiles to make drastic changes to his lifestyle, and he managed to slash his intake to between 10 and 30 units per week.
We speak on Monday morning – but aside from the main reason for our conversation, something strange happened at the end of the previous week that we have to cover.
It’s a few days since Chiles found himself the unlikely focus of a bizarre and rambling rant by novelist Will Self that was published in The New European.
In the 2,000-word piece, Self claims to be obsessed by Chiles’s regular column in the Guardian (despite having read it only twice) and then goes onto speculate in detail about Chiles’ male anatomy, while also heaping abuse on his wife, editor of the Guardian, Katharine Viner. So what did Chiles make of it?
“I can’t bring myself to get that offended by it because that would be like getting offended at some lunatic ranting at you in the street. You’d think: ‘Right, I’ll move away from this situation because he obviously needs some help.’
“It speaks to the truth of that maxim about drinking poison and then hoping the other person gets ill. It just seemed to be totally self-defeating.”
We move on to discuss his book, now out in paperback. Chiles’ motivation for drinking less is to avoid ever being told he must give up completely. “I want to still be there in my seventies and eighties enjoying the odd drink – I want to protect that. If I overdo it now, I’ll make my later years that much harder. Alcohol is a toxin, so you’ve got to be careful with it.”
Chiles’ book lands during a wider cultural rethink of our relationship with alcohol: ‘mindful drinking’ has entered the lexicon and #sobercurious – a hashtag popularised on social media by people who are drinking less – is now a firm part of the wellness landscape.
According to a 2019 study by drinking awareness charity Drinkaware, younger people in England are drinking less than ever, with a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds fully teetotal.
Chiles, meanwhile, is flying the flag for older people, who – like him – are suddenly aware of decades of habitual drinking. So does he think young people’s moderate attitude is rubbing off on their parents, and others his age?
“I think it probably is. But if younger people are drinking less, that also means that in the eyes of the drinks industry, it’s all the more important that people of my generation do keep drinking, because that’s where the profits are.”
With adults aged between 55 and 64 most likely to drink more than 14 units per week, according to the Drinkaware study, Chiles is keen for his generation to wise up to the forces that have normalised heavy drinking for decades.
As someone who didn’t start to cut down until his fifties and who spent much of his working life debriefing in the pub, he knows first–hand how tough it can be to change something that’s entwined with your identity.
“It’s hard to change what’s been hardwired into us and we’re under immense pressure from marketing.
“Societally, you’ve got powerful forces raging against you but you can definitely enjoy it more by drinking less. I’m sure about that.”
The strategy Chiles lays out in the book is to mix practical tips, such as understanding units and alternating between glasses of wine and water, with powerful mindset shifts.
“My point about the first drink being the one that counts seems to resonate with people – the rest are just increasingly vain attempts to recreate the feeling you got from the first drink.”
Adrian Chiles on how to drink less
Understanding that most drinkers do manage moderation makes it feel more achievable.
“70% of men manage to drink no more than 14 units a week. We – the big drinkers – are the outliers. But because we surround ourselves with people who drink like us, we think everyone else does too – it’s just not true.”
Be aware of how each drink makes you feel. “The first drink achieves a change in emotional state. It makes you feel different. Each subsequent drink is just trying to recreate the feeling that the first one gave you. Realising this was key to me being able to cut down.”
Make sure you’re not drinking through thirst. “Drinking a couple of pints of water before I go out really helps.”
Don’t feel disheartened if you find drinking in moderation hard. It is hard. “Unlike sobriety, it’s uncelebrated and largely unrecognised. You’ve just got to keep at it.”
So what part did age play in his personal decision to cut down? “When you’re in your fifties, you get those heavy, unrepentant drinkers who say, ‘Who wants to live forever, anyway?’
“That’s just stupid. I want to live my best life for as long as I can. Drinking is likely to impair your twilight years if you’re doing too much of it.
“It’s part of a wider thing about getting older that makes me despair. A lot of people, especially men, get to 45 and think, ‘Right, all my opinions are fully formed. This is the food I like, this is what I do… that’s me.’ I’m really determined not to be like that. I want to keep on learning, keep finding out new things, keep changing my opinion on things.
“Changing habits and behaviour is good for the soul, and good for the mind.”
Cutting down isn’t easy but it’s clearly the preferable route for Chiles. He finds summertime the hardest, and says it’s still early evening – that transition from day to night – that makes him hanker for a cold beer.
“If I meet up with a mate for a quick chat after work, I find it very difficult not to enjoy a pint or two but I have learnt to leave it there.
“I’ve still got to be vigilant, though – there are times when I find that I’m suddenly pouring empty bottles in the recycling. And the recycling box doesn’t tell any lies…”
As the former ‘designated drinker’ of his group of friends – the one who could be relied on to always get another round in – he says it’s on all of us to apply less social pressure to one another. “I can still be guilty of putting people under pressure even though I really try not to,” he says, summing up how being ‘a good drinker’ really is a work in progress for those who accept the mission.
A big part of Chiles’ moderation manifesto is challenging our ideas of what ‘an alcoholic’ looks like. In the book, he writes: “I was drinking an awful lot of alcohol. However, I wasn’t waking up in shop doorways, wetting the bed, getting into fights or drinking Pernod in the morning.
“Therefore, I told myself, I obviously didn’t have this ‘disease’ called ‘alcoholism’. And, as I didn’t have this ‘disease’, logically I was fine. I wasn’t.”
These stereotypes, he argues, are stopping heavy, habitual drinkers from realising they have a problem. Chiles hit his career stride in his forties, presenting The Apprentice: You’re Fired and The One Show before moving to ITV to head up their football coverage – but it was also the decade that saw him drinking “monstrous amounts”.
Looking back, he wonders how he managed. “I was sort of doing it very skilfully,” he says. “I was drinking little and often every day, keeping myself topped up. When you’re topping up the whole time, you sail under the radar.”
Chiles thinks we’re inching towards a better understanding of what problem drinking looks like, but insists there’s much to do.
“We’re all on a spectrum: if you drink a little bit, then you’re a bit addicted. If you drink an awful lot, you’re very addicted. It’s an addictive drug – that’s the end of it.”
Cutting back has brought him many benefits – weight loss, improved mental health, but more than anything, a sense of liberation.
“I feel slightly freed from the tyranny of it. Before it was, ‘I’m going to the football so I’ve got to drink’ but now I don’t feel that. I used to break my balls to get to the pub before closing time, now I don’t have to. I just feel released from its grip.”
The Good Drinker: How I Learned to Love Drinking Less by Adrian Chiles (Profile Books) is out in paperback at £9.99
Written by Fiona Cowood
Fiona Cowood has 20 years’ experience working in senior editorial roles at leading national titles including Grazia, Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has interviewed a diverse range of remarkable people – from victims of sex trafficking in Nepal through to former Foreign Secretaries and national treasures like Tom Jones. It’s a real privilege to have a career that allows her to represent different voices and explore so many issues – from violence against women and girls through to body image, parenting styles, influencer culture and later-life career pivots.
Fiona is passionate about sharing memorable stories that entertain, inform and inspire readers to think differently about their own lives. She has three young daughters, a rescue tortoise called Gary, a podcast addiction and aspirations to be more ‘present’. She enjoys making novelty food creations (but don’t mention last year’s Charcuterie Chalet) and is doing her best to live more sustainably. Her ringtone is the theme from Succession, and she’s not embarrassed about it.