Alcohol - sensible drinking

About alcohol

Drinking within safe limits is unlikely to do you any harm and it’s even been suggested that for certain people, a small amount of alcohol – that is about one or two units of alcohol a day – may be good for your heart. But in truth, there are more effective ways to protect your heart, including eating a healthy balanced diet and taking regular exercise.

If you regularly drink too much alcohol, not only do you risk your health, but depending on how much and how often you drink, your work and relationships may also be affected.

To stay safe and healthy, it pays to know your limits and drink alcohol sensibly.

What are sensible drinking limits?

The Department of Health guidelines recommend not regularly drinking more than:

  • three or four units a day for men
  • two or three units a day for women

‘Regularly’ means every day or most days of the week. This does not mean you can save up all the ‘allowance’ for a weekend binge. A drinking binge is generally defined as drinking double the daily recommended units in one session. Binge drinking for men, therefore, is drinking more than eight units of alcohol – or about three pints of strong beer. For women, it’s drinking more than six units of alcohol – the equivalent of two large glasses of wine.

Why are sensible drinking limits different for women?

The recommended limits are lower for women than for men because women have different amounts of fat, muscle and water in their bodies than men. This affects the way women and men’s bodies cope with alcohol. As a result, women are more likely to develop health problems, such as liver disease, at lower levels of alcohol consumption than men.

How many units in your drink?

The UK aims to state on the label of all alcohol drinks how much alcohol they contain. This is expressed as ‘percentage alcohol by volume’ (% ABV). The packaging should also give the number of units of alcohol the drink contains.

One unit is equal to 10ml by volume or 8g by weight, of pure alcohol – the amount of alcohol an average adult can process in one hour. The number of units of alcohol in different drinks varies, for example:

  • one 25ml single measure of spirit (37.5% ABV) is equal to one unit
  • a 175ml (standard) glass of red wine (12% ABV) is equal to two units
  • a pint of beer (4% ABV) contains 2.3 units
  • a pint of cider (4.5% ABV) contains 2.6 units

Be aware that alcoholic drinks vary in strength; for example, some wines and lagers contain more alcohol than others. What’s more, bars and restaurants offer a variety of measures, such as spirits in measurements of 25, 35 or 50ml, and wine glass measurements of 125, 175 or 250ml. So, for instance, if you drink three glasses of 250ml wine, you’re drinking a whole bottle of wine and three times the recommended amount. It can be easy to do without even realising it.

In fact, some research has shown that only one in eight adults keep track of their drinking and most people aren’t clear about the relationship between units, alcohol strengths and glass sizes. Another survey found that around three in 10 adults drink more than the recommended amount of alcohol on at least one day each week.

To accurately track how many units you are drinking, try our alcohol units calculator. There are also apps for your phone that can help you keep track.

Drinking sensibly

Drinking sensibly doesn’t mean missing out on all the fun. The first steps are to understand how much and how often you’re drinking. Start by keeping a record of how much you drink over a week. You may find you’re drinking within your limits and don’t need to change your drinking habits. But if you’re exceeding your safe limits, think about when and where you’re drinking and how much. You may be having a glass of wine with most evening meals, a lunchtime drink once a week and a planned night out every Friday or Saturday. Remembering a few simple tips can help you drink sensibly.

  • Have something to eat before you drink, and if possible, while you’re drinking – this slows down how quickly your body absorbs alcohol.
  • Start with low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks, or alternate these with alcoholic drinks. You could also switch to a lower alcoholic drink.
  • Pace yourself – enjoy your drink slowly. Don’t drink in rounds or you may be drinking at a much faster pace.
  • Buy yourself an alcohol measure for your home so that you can see how much you’re putting in your drink. Keep track with an alcohol app when you’re out on the town.
  • Instead of going to the pub or having a drink at home, try going to the gym or doing another activity you enjoy such as having a bath.
  • Don’t drink alcohol every day of the week – have at least two alcohol-free days.

When not to drink?

It takes about one hour for your liver to break down one unit of alcohol. The more you drink, the longer it will take for the effects of alcohol to clear. There are times when not drinking alcohol at all is the safest choice. These include the following.

  • Before you plan to drive or when you’re driving.
  • Before or when you’re operating machinery or electrical equipment.
  • Before or during swimming or other active sports.
  • When you’re taking certain medicines – always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.
  • When you’re pregnant or trying for a baby. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage and affect the development of your unborn baby.

Do you need help cutting down?

If you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Talking to a close friend, a support group or your GP can help you understand your drinking habits and find ways to cut down how much you drink.


Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, December 2012.

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