How much alcohol is too much?

Guide to alcohol intake and your health

How much alcohol is too much alcohol? What can you do to make your drinking habits more healthy? Find out here in’s guide to health and alcohol intake.

When stories of binge-drinking teenagers hit the headlines, most of us tut and shake our heads. But according to the latest statistics, it isn’t just alcopop-guzzling youths who are putting their health at risk through excess drinking.

The amount of alcohol consumed by the average person in the UK doubled between 1950 and 1980 — and this trend shows no signs of abating. The General Household Survey in 2002 found that 15 percent of women in the UK were drinking at levels high enough to place their health at risk, while the Royal College of Physicians found that one in five women aged 25 to 44 had ‘binged’ on drink (‘binging’ is defined as consuming more than six units in one session) at least once in the previous week.

Drinking away our health

The rise in excessive drinking is taking a significant toll on our general health. Excess alcohol consumption has been linked to hypertension, stroke, heart disease, some cancers of the digestive tract and sub-optimal bone health. Also, the risk of contracting breast cancer — the most common cancer affecting women — by the age of 80 rises from 88 per 1,000 women in non-drinkers to 133 per 1,000 in women who consume the equivalent of a bottle of wine per day. Fertility can also be reduced, and drinking while pregnant is linked to babies that have a lower weight at birth and a higher rate of miscarriage.

And for the guys out there — you don’t get off lightly either! Research suggests that excessive alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on men’s health too — including impotence, heart disease, hair loss, and prostate and colon cancers.

More immediate health risks can arise, too. For example, road traffic accidents — as well as other accidents in general — are far more likely to occur when a person has been drinking. Alcohol intoxication can also lead to actions which people would question more if they were sober — for example getting into unlicensed taxicabs, going home with strangers, or having unsafe sex (one in seven young women said they had had unsafe sex while drunk in an HEA survey).

Beer belly boom

Too much booze also has a detrimental effect on your waistline. A study from Zurich found that alcohol causes fat to be stored preferentially in the abdominal region. It’s also one of the greatest sources of hidden calories in our diets, as it contains seven calories per gram. One unit of alcohol contains eight grams — so that single measure of gin will contain 56 calories even before you go near it with a mixer. Also, while a tomato juice in your vodka is a good way of increasing nutrient intake and staving off dehydration, sugary drinks such as tonic water, ginger ale and coke add roughly 50 calories per mini bottle.

There is also the issue of willpower. You may have started out with the best of dietary intentions, but after a couple of G&Ts you may feel in need of a packet of salty snacks to soak up some of the alcohol. Next thing you know, you’ll be heading for a full meal (accompanied by more drinks, of course!)


Measuring up

All this doom and gloom is enough to turn you to, er, drink! But don’t be disheartened: it is possible to enjoy a few drinks without undermining your health. It’s just that many of us still don’t understand what constitutes ‘a few’. The recommended maximum intake for women is 14 units per week, whereas for men it’s 21 units. Don’t be tempted to ‘save up’ your units to guzzle down in just one or two evenings out, as experts recommend drinking no more than two to three units for women and three to four for men in a single session.

So much for units, then. But how does that translate into real drinks? Well, drinking guidelines state that one unit is half a pint of lager, a single measure of spirits or a small glass of wine — but you should also check out the ‘Top Tipples’ list below to get the real low-down on your favourite poison.

Taking control

If you think you may be crossing the health border with your alcohol intake, then DrinkLine (0800 917 8282) — a free helpline — is a good port of call to discuss any issues to do with a friend’s, a family member’s or your own alcohol intake. Also, the Down Your Drink interactive program on the Internet (, funded by Alcohol Concern, has a useful ‘drinking diary’ in which you can put the size of your drink and its alcohol content to calculate the precise number of units you have consumed. It also offers email or text message tips on cutting down.

Here are some other ways of reducing the amount you drink:

  • Don’t get involved in ‘rounds’. You often end up drinking just because it’s been bought for you, even though you already feel you’ve had enough.
  • Alternate your alcoholic drinks with a soft drinks or water. If you drink spirits, order the mixer neat between alcoholic drinks and no-one will know a thing!
  • Drink a good amount of water or soft drink before you go out, so that you don’t become thirsty and down the first alcoholic drink that you buy! If you find you’re thirsty when you start your night out, then make sure your first drink is alcohol-free.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Either get food with your drinks or eat before you go out.
  • After a heavy night out, don’t force yourself to ‘work it off’ with exercise, as your body will already be working hard to process the alcohol, deal with dehydration and possibly also deal with lack of sleep. Instead, drink lots of fluids, eat something light, and allow yourself to recover.
  • Make sure you have one to two days alcohol-free days per week.


Top 10 tipples: a guide to units and calories

Pint of standard strength beer (e.g. Carlsberg) 3.5% 2 160-180
Single measure (25ml) spirit (e.g. vodka, whisky, gin) Vary 1 50-60
125ml glass of red or white dry wine 12% 1.5 80
125ml glass of sweet white wine or champagne 12% 1 100
175ml glass of red or white dry wine 12% 2 110
75cl bottle of wine 12% 9 500
250ml glass of red or white wine 12% 3 160
440ml can of premium beer 5% 2.2 260
25ml measure of Campari 25% 1 110
50ml measure of port or sherry 18% 1 75

Comments (9)

  • Lady_K 'I am trying to stick to the rule - no drink on a school night, it seems to be working and when I get to Friday that first drink is a real treat.'

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  • HAN75 'I really don't know how some people drink every night and get up for work the next day! I struggle to get up in the mornings as it is - god knows what I'd be like after a heavy nights drinking!!'

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  • haveago 'I do my best to steer clear of drink all week, but come Friday there's always the temptation to go a bit too mad, which I usually do. '

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  • PaulRitchie2 'In my opinion alcohol intake is on the increase because of increasingly stressful lives. People work hard alll week and just want a good blow out and who can blame them? It's when people are drinking in the week, and not just the weekend, that it's a real problem.'

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  • drewreeves 'I am actually worried about my alcohol intake. I drink pretty much every night, with dinner, and can quite easily polish off a bottle of wine on my own. I get up at 6 in the morning and run 10k 5 times a week, but am worried what the hell I'm doing to my liver. Trouble is I cant just have the one, if its a beer, then its 3 or 4 cans, wine, then once the bottle is open, it gets finished. Its the will power thing of not thinking about it on the way home from work and stopping at the offy. Seriously considering counselling.'

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  • lindsaylocket 'I'm doing my best not to drink in the week as am on a serious health kick at the moment!! Haven't had any alcohol for 10 days and feel quite self righteous but tomorrow am out for big lunch with friends -not sure if my will power will stand up to the challenge!!!'

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  • louck38 'I stopped drinking after Christmas for three weeks and I have to say I felt the best I have for a long time. I did get a bit bored at weekends though!! On the third week i drank far too much and went a bit mad, needless to say the hangover was horrendous!!! '

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  • NicPerrins 'Hmm, that chart doesn't add up. So drinking wine out of smaller glasses means I can drink more does it? Apparently I can have three 125ml glasses of wine at a total of 3 units, or only one 250ml glass at 3 units? I'll have the smaller glasses then please! - I figure 125ml should be 1.5 units each.'

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  • Kirstie_McIntosh 'Noted Nic - we'll take a look at the info in the table. '

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