How Much Alcohol Is Safe to Drink?

By May Wilkerson 01/13/16

The United Kingdom has some new thoughts on the subject, which has some critics crying party foul.

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If you're a man, you might want to rethink how much booze you’re drinking.

The British government has updated its guidelines for how much booze is safe to drink, based on the latest research. And it’s less than was previously recommended for men, while remaining the same for women.

Both men and women should have no more than 14 units of alcohol a week (about five to six pints of beer or six to seven glasses of wine) according to the guidelines, issued by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies. This compares to the previous guidelines, which set the upper limit for men at 21 units per week, and 14 for women.

However, the authors added that any amount of alcohol intake carries some risk for all men, and women under age 55. “Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone,” said Davies, “but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low.” The exception is women over 55; for this group only, drinking up to five units of alcohol a week could have cardiovascular benefits, say the new guidelines.

For pregnant women and unborn babies, no amount of alcohol is “safe,” the guidelines warn. Though the potential harms of light alcohol consumption have been long subject to debate, the new guidelines recommend total abstinence. “I want pregnant women to be very clear that they should avoid alcohol as a precaution,” said Davies. “Although the risk of harm to the baby is low if they have drunk small amounts of alcohol before becoming aware of the pregnancy, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol to drink when you are pregnant.”

Binge drinkers should also beware. “Saving up” your allotted weekly alcohol consumption for the weekend is less safe than spreading it out throughout the week, say the guidelines. Many recent studies suggest binge drinking, or consuming three or more drinks in a short time period, can be hazardous to your health and boost your risk of becoming alcohol-dependent.

Some have criticized the United Kingdom’s new guidelines for being too strict, unrealistic and serving as an example of government scare tactics. But Davies defends the science-based guidelines.

“If you take 1,000 women, 110 will get breast cancer without drinking,” he said. “Drink up to these guidelines and an extra 20 women will get cancer because of that drinking. Double the guideline limit and an extra 50 women per 1,000 will get cancer. Take bowel cancer in men: if they drink within the guidelines their risk is the same as non-drinking. But if they drink up to the old guidelines an extra 20 men per 1,000 will get bowel cancer. That’s not scaremongering, that’s fact and it’s hard science.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/ @alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.

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