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How Much Alcohol Is Too Much – Safe Alcohol Unit Guide

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

How much alcohol is too much? That depends on who you ask. Ask your vicar or priest and he may tell you that any amount is too much. Ask your parents and they are likely to say that whatever amount is needed to get you drunk is too much. But if you ask a doctor, nurse, or therapist, they are likely to refer to government guidelines. Those guidelines recently changed, by the way, so it would be a good idea for you to know what they are.

We have listed both the old and new guidelines below. Understand that when the guidelines speak of 'units' of alcohol, they are referring to the amount of alcohol contained in the drinks you consume. One unit of alcohol is defined scientifically as 10 ml of pure alcohol. Yet the pint of beer you drink every evening is by no means pure, so you cannot rely on the volume of the bottle to determine how much alcohol you are actually consuming.

As a general rule, a pint of beer with an alcohol content of 4% contains about one unit of alcohol. The same is true for a standard glass of wine. Spirits tend to be higher in concentration as evidenced by the proof markings on bottles. Keep in mind that the higher the proof, the more alcohol a drink contains.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much: Old Standard

For decades, the UK operated on a standard that was different for both men and women. The idea behind this was rooted in the knowledge that weight and size affect a person's ability to process alcohol. Since women tend to be smaller and weigh less, the standard called for less alcohol consumption among the fairer sex. That has since changed, which we will get to when talking about the new standard.

According to the old standard, the generally accepted levels of safe drinking were as follows:

  • Men – a maximum of 3 to 4 units of alcohol per day; no more than 28 units per week
  • Women – a maximum of 2 to 3 units of alcohol per day; no more than 21 units per week

The old standard also suggested that men and women who actively monitor their unit intake not attempt to consume all 28 units or (21 for women) on the weekends. Anyone who planned to drink the maximum should spread out their consumption evenly across all seven days.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much: New Standard

Despite what the government saw as very effective guidelines, excessive drinking continues to be a real problem here in the UK. So much so that the powers that be decide to reconsider the numbers. In so doing, they came up with a new standard that was implemented at the start of 2016. It is a new standard that is not going to make a lot of people happy.

The government now says that both men and women should limit total alcohol consumption to no more than 14 units per week. That is less than half of the old standard for men and more than one-third the old standard for women. The question is, why get rid of the separate numbers given the science? If weight and size really do play a role in how effectively the body processes alcohol, why create a single standard for both sexes? No one seems to have answered that question adequately, but that is not the issue. The new standard is no more than 14 units per week regardless of sex.

The new standard does not do away with the government's recommendation to spread alcohol consumption equally throughout the week. It is still a bad idea to binge on the weekends, regardless of how much alcohol one intends to consume. Binging is the first step toward problem drinking; problem drinking is the first step in the process of becoming an alcoholic.

If You Are Drinking Too Much

You now know what the government standards for safe levels of drinking are. That does not necessarily mean that your habit of exceeding 14 units of alcohol during the course of a week makes you an alcoholic. It doesn't. The thing to understand is that the government standards are just guidelines. You really need a professional opinion to determine whether or not you are drinking too much.

Speaking to a professional counsellor or physician would generally mean submitting to a scientific questionnaire consisting of 10 specific questions. Each of those questions would precipitate an answer that is graded between zero and four, depending on your response. At the conclusion of the questionnaire, the person conducting the evaluation would tally your score and compare it to what is known as the Alcohol Dependence Scale. The higher you place on that scale, the higher your risk for alcoholism.

If you are drinking too much, you may notice a few of the following tell-tale signs:

  • During the last year, you have missed work or school on more than one occasion because of your drinking.
  • During the last year, you have experienced multiple incidents in which you have forgotten the events that occurred during a drinking episode.
  • During the last year you or someone you know has been physically hurt as a result of your drinking (think car crash or household accident).

Drinking too much usually results in participating in certain kinds of behaviour you would not normally think of when sober. In simple terms, people who drink too much tend to take more risks than they otherwise would. Risky behaviour is one of the hallmarks of problem drinking.

What do you think? Does it appear you might be drinking too much, based on the government standards and the tell-tale signs we have listed above? If so, do not ignore your concerns. Drinking too much can lead to more serious problems if it is ignored. You are far better off getting some advice before you travel a road you will regret.

How much alcohol is too much? Contact us on our 24-hour helpline to find out how to answer the question according to your circumstances. If you are drinking too much, we can connect you with an organisation that can help you cut down.

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