According to a recent YouGov poll, two-thirds of regular drinkers say they would find cutting down on their drinking more difficult than improving their diet or exercising more, while 24% of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines.
We asked Drinkaware for the facts about alcohol and for some top tips to help us cut back and drink responsibly.
How much is too much alcohol?
The UK Chief Medical Officer's Low Risk Drinking Guidelines say that, for both women and men, it's safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.
Check our infographic to find out how many alcohol units are in different drinks.
If you regularly drink as many as 14 units per week, it's best to spread your drinking evenly over three or more days rather than ‘saving up’ and drinking them all on one or two occasions.
What counts as binge drinking?
The NHS says: 'Binge drinking usually refers to drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk.' Because everybody processes alcohol differently, it’s difficult to say exactly how many units in one session counts as binge drinking. The Office for National Statistics defines it as drinking more than eight units in one session for men, and more than six units in one session for women.
To put this into perspective, six units is equivalent to:
• Two to three 175ml glasses of wine (13% ABV)
• Two to three pints of beer (4% ABV)
What are the benefits of reducing your alcohol intake?
Cutting back on alcohol can improve your mental and physical health in a number of ways, including:
Alcohol is made by fermenting (and sometimes distilling) starch and sugar. Because of this, it's high in calories, supplying seven calories per gram – almost as much as fat, which provides nine calories.
Calories from alcohol are typically described as 'empty calories' because they provide no nutritional value. Some alcoholic drinks contain traces of vitamins and minerals, but not in sufficient amounts to contribute to a balanced diet.
When you drink alcohol, your body also burns less fat as energy. We can store nutrients, protein, carbohydrates and fat in our bodies but we can't store alcohol, so our bodies try to process it as soon as possible. This disrupts the other processes that would usually take place, including those involved in absorbing nutrients and burning fat.
Swapping alcoholic drinks for non-alcoholic options which are lower in sugar and calories may be a great way to cut down on calories and help you manage your weight.
You might think alcohol helps you nod off, but the truth is that even just a few drinks can disrupt your sleep cycle and make you feel tired and sluggish. When you fall asleep after drinking, you may fall into deep sleep quicker than usual – but over the course of the night you actually spend less time in deep sleep and more time in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, which is much less restful. This means you’re more likely to wake up feeling tired, even after a full night in bed.
In contrast, having alcohol-free days may help you sleep better and wake more refreshed next morning.
Better mental health
Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down the brain and the central nervous system. So, while it may feel as though alcohol relieves stress in the short term, in the long term it can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.
Visit the Drinkaware website for more information on how drinking affects mental health, and how you can get help.
Better long-term physical health
The more alcohol people drink, the greater their risk of developing a number of serious, potentially life-limiting health conditions, such as pancreatitis, liver disease, some types of cancer and diabetes.
However, reducing your drinking so that it is within the Low Risk Guidelines will help to keep your risk of alcohol-related harm low.
Visit the Drinkaware website to find out more about the health effects of alcohol.
How can I cut down on my drinking?
There are lots of practical ways that help you cut back.
1. Schedule some drink-free days into your week. Taking a break can ‘reset’ your tolerance to alcohol and help you enjoy some of the benefits listed above, such as better sleep and less stress.
2. Practise portion control – choose bottles or halves instead of pints, order smaller glasses of wine or have single shots of spirits with mixers.
3. Get mixing some mocktails. You can still enjoy a delicious drink without adding alcohol – try our alcohol-free cocktail collection.
4. Try the free Drinkaware app. You can track your alcohol consumption, calculate units and calories, and set goals to help you moderate your drinking.
How can I drink responsibly?
Aim to drink with a meal. Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach means alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream quicker, so try to have a balanced and filling meal before you have your first drink, or enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.
Don’t drink and drive. If you’re organising a night out, make sure you have a designated driver or pre-book a taxi home. Read more about the legal alcohol limit.
Stick to one type of drink and alternate with soft drinks. Mixing drinks makes it harder to keep track of how many units you’re consuming, so it’s likely you’ll end up consuming more. A good tactic is to alternate alcoholic drinks with water or low-sugar soft drinks.
Know your limits. When you’re planning a night out, it’s a great idea to choose a limit for yourself and make a mental note to stick to it during the evening. Choosing to buy your own drinks instead of participating in rounds can help you stay on track – and you’re likely to spend less, too.
Can I drive the morning after?
Just because you’ve been to bed, doesn’t mean that you’re no longer affected by the alcohol you've drunk. The best advice, if you are planning to drive the next morning, is to avoid alcohol the night before. In general, alcohol is removed from the blood at the rate of about one unit per hour, but this varies from person to person. Your weight, age, sex and metabolism can all affect how long it takes for your body to process alcohol.
Other factors including the type and amount of alcohol you’ve drunk, whether you have eaten and what your stress levels are. There’s nothing you can do to speed up the rate alcohol leaves your system. Having a cup of coffee or a cold shower, for example, may make you feel more alert but does little to eliminate alcohol. This means your reaction times may still be impaired without you realising it.
Find out more about the drink drive limit in the UK.
Where can I get help to tackle my alcohol drinking?
Speak to your GP if you’re worried about your alcohol intake or that of someone you care about. They will be able to suggest ways to help manage your drinking habits and also refer you for counselling or support services.
The Drinkaware website is a great online resource offering plenty of free tools, facts and advice. It also has information on, and contact details for, a range of alcohol support services.
This guide was reviewed on 4 March 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the past 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Follow Kerry on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
Drinkaware is an independent charity which aims to reduce alcohol-related harm by helping people make better choices about their drinking. It provides impartial, evidence-based information, advice and practical resources, raising awareness of alcohol and its harms, and working collaboratively with partners. Visit the Drinkaware website for more information.