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Thinking About Your Drinking

Do you ever wonder if you drink too much? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. If you don’t drive drunk or get hangovers or get in fights or embarrass yourself when you drink, is there any reason to cut back? What is normal drinking? What is social drinking? Here are some facts that can help you decide.

35% of adults in the U.S. don’t drink alcohol at all.

28% of adults in the U.S. regularly drink an amount of alcohol that puts their health at risk.

37% of adults in the U.S. are low-risk drinkers.

Are you surprised by how many people don’t drink at all? Some people don’t know anyone who doesn’t drink and view drinking as normal behavior.

Does the number of people who drink in a way that puts their health at risk seem high or low to you? Many folks don’t know how much alcohol is enough to cause health problems, and assume they are low-risk drinkers.

What does it take to be a low-risk drinker? 

For men under 65, that means you have no more than 14 drinks per week (no more than 2 per day on average) or no more than 4 drinks in a single day.

For women and men 65 and over, it means no more than 7 drinks per week (average about 1 per day) and no more than 3 in a single day.

If you typically split a bottle of wine with someone every night with dinner, your drinking falls into the higher risk category.

You may be thinking, "Really? What could be more civilized than sharing a bottle of wine?" Yes! It can be a lovely ritual, but if you do it every night, you do unfortunately increase your risk for some serious health conditions, including cancer and heart disease. It doesn’t mean you’ll get those conditions, and you may decide it’s worth taking a risk. The important thing is to know the facts, so you can make an informed decision after thinking about other factors, like your family history of health problems.

***Update (7/18/2024): Recent research suggests that the guidelines for low risk drinking should be even lower, no more than 2 drinks per week according to a recent Canadian study. Canadian researchers assessed multiple studies looking at relationships between alcohol intake and risk of death due to cancer, heart, disease and accidents. Even light drinking significantly increases the risk of esophageal and breast cancer. 

You may be wondering about the size of a drink in these guidelines. Unfortunately, it’s probably smaller than you think. These risk estimates are based on what’s called a “standard drink.”

A standard drink of beer is 12 ounces of beer with 5% alcohol content. Recently, it seems like the 12-ounce beer is disappearing from store shelves to be replaced by 16-ounce cans, in bars and restaurants beer is usually served by the pint, and many craft beers can be 6.5-9 % or even 10% alcohol. Keeping that in mind, one beer can easily count as 2 standard drinks.

A standard drink of wine with 12% alcohol is 5 ounces (so the typical bottle of wine contains 5 standard drinks).

A standard drink of distilled spirits (gin, vodka, rum, whiskey, tequila) is 1.5 ounces of liquor with 40% alcohol (80 proof). Many popular liquors have a higher alcohol content, and some popular drinks contain more than 1.5 ounces of liquor. A single dry martini served in a bar could easily be equal to 3 standard drinks.

Some people think being able to ‘hold your liquor” means you are at lower risk of alcohol problems. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Being able to drink a lot without feeling intoxicated means you have tolerance, so you don’t feel the effects that could warn you that you’re drinking too much.

Now for the good news. Small changes can make a big difference in lowering your risk for alcohol related health problems.

  • Start by tracking your alcohol intake. There are lots of apps available to help you do it, and most of them can help you calculate the number of standard drinks in your favorite beverages. A pocket notebook or index card, or even notes on a napkin work for some folks. Try recording the drink before you drink it rather than after. You might find keeping a drink diary makes you slow down and drink less even if it’s the only change you make.
  • When you drink at home, measure how much you drink using measuring cups or a shot glass with measuring lines. Over time, you’ll get a sense of what measurements look like and get better at estimating the size of drinks served in bars and restaurants.
  • Limit the number of days when you drink. Once you start drinking, it’s harder to limit the amount you have because your inhibitions come down. Stopping at one drink on seven days a week is a lot harder than letting yourself have two drinks on 3 days a week. Set goals and pick the days when you will and won’t drink ahead of time. If you know you’re going to a party or dining out on a specific day, for instance, make that day a drinking day but take the days before and after off.
  • Drink more slowly. Wait an hour later than usual to have your first drink. Before you have the second drink, have a glass of water or seltzer instead. Sometimes the desire for the second drink will pass after a delay and a chance to go through the motion of drinking with a non-alcoholic beverage. If you typically have a cocktail before dinner, have a soft drink instead and save the cocktail for dessert. If you eat before you drink, you’ll absorb the alcohol more slowly.
  • Try some social activities that are incompatible with drinking like taking an exercise or dance class or going for a walk instead of meeting friends at a bar.
  • Partner with a friend or family member and give up drinking for a specific period of time. Many people give up drinking for lent or celebrate a dry January.

 For more information, see Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Your Health by the National Institutes on Alcohol and Alcoholism (2024).


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