How Much Alcohol is Too Much?

What is a standard drink?

The first step to understanding healthy enjoyment of alcoholic beverages is to recognize what is considered one “standard” drink. People are often surprised to learn that the body does not differentiate between “soft” and “hard” alcohol. From your body’s point of view, alcohol is alcohol, whether it’s beer, wine or liquor. And while many people think that they can’t be an alcoholic if they “only drink beer,” it is the alcohol content rather than the type of drink that determines what makes up a standard drink. While the alcoholic beverages listed below are of different types and sizes, each is considered one standard drink:

The percent of "pure" alcohol, expressed here as alcohol by volume (alc/vol), varies by beverage.
[National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2011]

What level of drinking is considered okay?

There are many factors involved in helping someone make good choices about how much alcohol is healthy to consume. One of these is determining whether you have a family history of alcohol or other substance abuse. Just as families need to know their health history of cancer, diabetes or other potentially inherited illnesses:

Learn whether you have a family history of alcoholism.

Individuals who have a family history of drinking should be especially cautious of how much they drink because they may have a genetic “predisposition” to alcoholism. Researchers increasingly recognize, for example, that some individuals’ bodies react differently to drinking than the average person. These people are much more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol, and much more likely to engage in alcohol abuse and drinking binges. Some people appear to have an internal biological reaction that acts like a light switch being turned on, so once they consume a single drink, they crave more and more drinks, and are unable to stop. The good news is those who are genetically predisposed can take responsibility for their alcohol use to decide whether they can maintain healthy alcohol consumption or choose to abstain from alcohol use altogether.

Safety and Alcohol Use

Another factor involves developing an awareness of what is considered to be reasonable, “low risk” alcohol consumption. While low levels of consumption of alcohol are sometimes touted as being beneficial, such as consuming one glass of red wine, the truth is that any alcohol use poses a potential health risk. When in doubt, health experts recommend speaking directly and frankly with your physician about how much alcohol may be acceptable given your individual health history and current status.

For safety sake, avoid drinking:

  • if you take medications that warn against alcohol use
  • if you plan to drive, operate machinery or engage in any activity that requires you to be physically/mentally alert
  • if you are underage
  • if you are currently or planning to become pregnant
  • if you have health problems in which alcohol use is not recommended
  • if you are depressed, as alcohol use worsens clinical depression and contributes to suicidal thinking

Low Risk Drinking

NIAAA (2011) reminds us that low risk drinking is not no-risk drinking. However, if you choose to drink, NIAAA recommends the following guidelines for low risk drinking:

Low risk drinking for men involves drinking no more than four drinks on any given day, and consuming no more than 14 drinks in a single week. Because women generally weigh less than men and weight is a factor in calculating blood alcohol level, it is recommended that women consume no more than three drinks per day and no more than 7 drinks in one week as illustrated below:

low risk drinking limits