Alcohol can be enjoyed as part of a healthy lifestyle, but drinking too much alcohol can be dangerous. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), excessive drinking accounts for approximately 5.1% of the world’s global burden of disease, and a study published in The Lancet suggests that alcohol misuse leads to over 2.8 million deaths every year.
Studies reveal that drinkers frequently underestimate the amount of alcohol they consume. Research conducted in the UK, US, and Australia shows that moderate drinkers may underestimate their average alcohol intake by as much as 40% because they:
- forget to account for any extra alcohol consumed on special occasions
- underestimate the alcohol content of drinks prepared at home
- do not properly understand the unit measurement system
Drinking more than 12-14 units of alcohol per week increases the likelihood that you’ll suffer from a heart attack or stroke at some point in your life, and people who frequently consume too much alcohol are known to be at increased risk of developing conditions like:
Drinking too much alcohol can also increase your risk of certain cancers, and create a chemical dependency.
How much alcohol should I be drinking?
Understanding how much alcohol it is safe to drink can be challenging. Some health professionals maintain that there is no safe amount of alcohol, and recommend we think in terms of high and low-risk drinking instead.
Establishing a threshold for low-risk drinking can be equally challenging. There are no globally accepted guidelines for the safe consumption of alcohol, and individual health agencies tend to provide inconsistent and varied advice.
These contradictory guidelines can make it difficult to work out how much alcohol you can drink, and it’s not easy to remember the exact amount of alcohol associated with the measures employed by your health agency.
Here, you will find the alcohol intake guidelines for different countries, and the conversion figures to help you compare the various recommendations.
All available guidance agrees that alcohol should be avoided by women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or currently breastfeeding. You should also avoid alcohol if you are:
- under 18 years of age
- taking certain medications, including antibiotics like metronidazole
- currently recovering from an addiction
It is advisable to avoid alcohol if you have a family history of alcohol-related diseases like liver cirrhosis or hepatic cancer.
According to the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England, healthy men and women should aim to drink no more than 14 units (or 112g) of alcohol per week. This equates to ten 125ml glasses of low-strength wine, or six pints of low-strength beer.
The CMO also recommends that men and women spread their drinking over several days, taking care to leave at least three alcohol-free days every week. Alcohol free days will help to break the habit of drinking every day and may reduce the impact alcohol has on your liver.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adult men should drink no more than two drinks per day, while adult women should aim to drink no more than one regular drink per day.
For reference, a drink (or drink equivalent) is defined as a drink containing exactly 14g of pure alcohol, which means that an American man should drink no more than 14 small (125ml) glasses of wine per week, or 14 small bottles of low-strength beer.
Public Health France advises that all men and women limit themselves to two glasses of alcohol per day, and defines a glass as ‘a beverage containing 10g of alcohol’. This is equal to 11 small (125ml) glasses of wine per week, or seven pints of low-strength beer.
However, Public Health France also recommends that everyone have several alcohol-free days per month, and recommends a weekly cap of 10 standard drinks (or 100g of pure alcohol).
According to the German Nutrition Society (DGE), adult men should limit themselves to two drinks per day (or 14 per week), while adult women should limit themselves to one regular drink per day (or seven per week).
The DGE defines a regular drink as any drink containing 10-12g of alcohol, which means their guidelines for men are roughly equivalent to 11 small (125ml) glasses of wine per week, or seven pints of low-strength beer.
The Australian Government Department of Health says that healthy adults should limit themselves to two drinks per day, and you should not consume more than four regular drinks over several hours. Australia’s Department of Health defines a regular drink as 10g of pure alcohol, and note that many of the drinks you buy in pubs or bars contain more than one regular drink’s worth of alcohol.
Note: Limiting the amount of alcohol you consume in a short space of time can help to reduce the chances of accidental injury and death. Avoiding binge drinking behaviour also helps to cut down on the damage done to your liver and other vital organs.
According to India’s National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC), everyone should avoid drinking more than two drinks per day (defined as 20g of pure alcohol). The NDDTC also recommends that everyone has at least two alcohol-free days per month.
The rest of the world
The International Alliance for Responsible Drinking lists additional drinking guidelines.
How much alcohol do we really consume?
According to the WHO, we each drink an average of 6.4 litres of pure alcohol per year. However, alcohol consumption does vary according to country, with countries like the UK and the US reporting higher-than-average levels of alcohol consumption.
Average alcohol intake is also affected by gender, socioeconomic status, and a range of other factors, which can make it difficult to provide average statistics for the rate of alcohol misuse.
Here, you will find a breakdown of the average alcohol intake according to country.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), approximately 56.9% of UK residents over the age of 16 regularly drink alcohol.
24% of UK residents over the age of 16 also drink more than the CMO’s recommended weekly allowance (14 units per person), while Alcohol Change UK reports that approximately 27% of all UK drinkers engage in binge drinking.
Binge drinking is defined as consuming lots of alcohol in a short space of time, or drinking to get drunk. This behaviour is normally associated with an increased risk of:
- accidents resulting in injury or death
- misjudging risky situations
- losing self-control, and engaging in high-risk activities like unprotected sex
In 2017, the NHS recorded 5,843 alcohol-specific deaths. 80% of these deaths were caused by alcoholic liver disease, and a further 9% were caused by mental and behavioural disorders as a result of alcohol misuse.
However, alcohol consumption may be falling, particularly in the younger population. In 2015, a study involving 10,000 respondents aged 16-24 found that the number of people happy to say that they would never drink alcohol had risen from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015. The same study also found that people aged 16-24 were likely to drink less alcohol, and engage in less binge drinking.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 56% of adult Americans regularly drink alcohol (60% of men, 45% of women).
23% of American men report binge drinking at least five times per month, and the Talbott Recovery in Atlanta reports that high-risk drinking behaviour is on the rise among women - up 58%, according to a study published in 2017.
Between 2006 and 2010, the CDC recorded 88,000 alcohol-related deaths and found that excessive drinking was responsible for one in 10 deaths among working age American adults (20-64 years).
Further studies conducted in 2017 show that alcohol use and high-risk drinking behaviour is becoming more popular in America.
According to the WHO, approximately 51% of adults drink alcohol. However, France does have the highest per-capita alcohol consumption figures, with the average drinker consuming over 16 litres of alcohol per year.
Interestingly, consumption figures are far higher among men, and binge drinking is more prevalent in the male population, with between 40 and 69% of men in France admitting they engage in heavy episodic drinking.
German adults consume roughly 11.4 litres of alcohol per year, which is significantly higher than the DGE’s recommended intake.
Drinking may be less popular among younger age groups, with one study finding that only 10% of teens had tried alcohol (down from 20% in 2004). However, alcohol-related issues are still understood to cost the German economy an estimated €40 billion every year.
What are the risks of drinking too much alcohol?
Drinking too much alcohol is directly linked to over 200 different medical conditions, including:
- cirrhosis of the liver
- alcoholic hepatitis
- gastrointestinal disorders like oesophageal varices or
- peripheral neuropathy
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and other cognitive disorders
- alcohol dependence syndrome
The health risks associated with alcohol misuse are directly linked to the amount you drink. This means that underestimating your alcohol consumption, or regularly drinking too much alcohol can significantly increase your risk of developing health complications.
According to a study published in The Lancet, drinking less than 100g of pure alcohol per week should help to minimise any long-term damage, and allowing your liver to rest for at least three days per week can aid recovery. Try to:
- schedule a few alcohol-free days every week
- avoid binge drinking and aim to spread your drinking across several days
- keep your alcohol intake under 100g per week
How can I tell if I am drinking too much alcohol?
It can be difficult to tell if you are drinking too much alcohol. If you feel like you should cut down on your drinking - or people are criticising you for drinking too much - consider if you could be abusing alcohol.
Other signs of alcohol misuse include:
- irritability and extreme mood swings
- needing a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover
- frequently drinking much more than you intended
- making excuses to drink, or feeling like you need to drink to relax
- struggling to enjoy yourself unless you have a drink
- experiencing temporary blackouts or short-term memory loss
- losing interest in other activities and hobbies since you started drinking
If you are worried about your alcohol intake, book an appointment with your doctor. They will be able to help you identify any problems, and help you safely reduce your alcohol intake.
You could try to keep a drink diary, or use Drinkaware’s Drink Calculator to keep track of the alcohol you are consuming. The NHS’s free Drinks Diary offers hints and tips to help you get on top of your drinking.
How can I cut down on my alcohol consumption?
Reducing your alcohol intake can be challenging, but the benefits are considerable. To make the process easier, practice these simple steps:
- set aside three (or more) alcohol-free days each week
- tell your family and/or friends so they can encourage you to stay on track
- set yourself a daily limit and stick to it
- set yourself a weekly budget for alcohol
- choose lower-strength drinks when you are out drinking
- make smaller drinks at home (Drinkaware recommends buying home measures to help regulate the amount of alcohol you drink)
- limit your drinking to dinner time (sometimes known as dinner only drinking)
You should never attempt to stop drinking overnight or suddenly. Over time, your body can become dependant on alcohol, which means that it can be dangerous to stop drinking too quickly. Your doctor will be able to support your recovery, and help you to cope with any withdrawal symptoms.
Get tips on cutting down on alcohol, and you can find support networks in your home country via Soberistas, a ‘worldwide community of friendly, non-judgemental people, all helping each other to kick the booze and stay sober.’