Following the government’s first major review of them for 20 years earlier this year, alcohol limits were reduced earlier this year. Men are advised not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week; to spread these across the week if they do drink that amount; and to have several alcohol-free days a week.
It means the male limit now matches the existing weekly limit for women. That’s six pints of average-strength beer or six 175ml glasses of average-strength wine. Pregnant women should not drink at all.
The guidelines also say there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption. Any amount of alcohol can contribute to your risk of disease. The limits do not mean that it is safe or advisable to drink 14 units a week.
The new limits have been set following a review of current medical research, in order to reduce the nation’s risk of cancer and other serious diseases. The previous limits were set in 1995, and based on out-of-date research that underestimated the damage caused by alcohol and overestimated the benefits.
Newer, stronger evidence shows that alcohol increases the risk of some cancers, especially breast cancer. And previous findings that small amounts of alcohol have a protective effect on the heart are now “considered less strong”, except perhaps in women over 55, and then only in small quantities.
It is also being highlighted that health risks apply to people drinking very low amounts, not just to binge drinkers or those who drink every day.
Alcohol and the over-50s
The findings could particularly affect over-50s, since research published on BMJ Open last summer found that there was an increasing problem of “harmful drinking” among our age group, and referred to it as “a middle-class phenomenon”.
The study said: “People in better health, with higher disposable income, higher educational attainment and an active social life are more likely to drink at harmful levels.”
Research by UCL into UK alcohol consumption found that the average Brit underestimates their weekly alcohol consumption by as much as 60 per cent.
So why are we drinking so much?
“People in their 50s are often in a better financial position and they drink alcohol as a way of rewarding themselves for working hard all their life,” says Georgia Foster, a hypnotherapist who specialises in alcohol reduction programmes.
“Some, on the other hand, may have found that life hasn’t turned out the way they thought it would and they use alcohol as a way of escaping the anxieties of life.”
This can include predictable life changes, too, such as filling the new time and space afforded by the ’empty-nest syndrome’.
“People can get into a habit of cracking open a bottle of wine regularly a few times a week and it can be so easy for those levels to creep up and become part of an established routine,” says Dr Ian Drever, consultant psychiatrist at Woking’s Priory Hospital, an expert in alcohol addiction.
“To have a problem with alcohol, you don’t have to be the proverbial down-and-out, living on the street drinking cheap vodka.”
Alcohol units: do you know how much you’re drinking?
One unit is equivalent to 10ml of pure alcohol, which is what the average adult can process in an hour so that there is none left in the bloodstream. The new limit of 14 units a week equates to six pints of four per cent ABV beer, or six 13 per cent ABV 175ml glasses of wine.
However, calculating exactly how many units you’re consuming depends on the size of your drink and its strength. The ABV (alcohol by volume) content is crucial, as similar drinks can vary a lot.
For example, lagers can range from 3.5 to five per cent ABV and wines can range from 11 to 14 per cent. So by drinking a pint of strong lager or a large glass of wine you could easily exceed the maximum.
A 175ml measure of an 11 per cent ABV wine contains 1.9 units of alcohol, but the same size glass of a 14 per cent wine contains 2.4 units.
When it comes to bottles, a 750ml bottle of an 11 per cent wine contains 8.2 units, whereas the same sized bottle of 14 per cent wine contains 10.5 units.
Are you in denial about your drinking?
“I think there is an element of denial going on,” says Georgia Foster. “Many people don’t want to admit how much they are really drinking.
“Many people drink for reasons that they are not consciously aware of. Alcohol shuts down the critical part of the brain – that inner critic that constantly tells you you’re not good enough – and a lot of people drink to silence it. Many people use alcohol as a means of escape.”
The sobering truth is that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to a whole host of health problems. This can range from the lower end of the scale, such as tiredness, through to depression and weight gain right up to liver problems, high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart attack and various cancers.