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What you consider “healthy” drinking may still be bad for your health.

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Having an alcoholic beverage on occasion is something that’s generally considered healthy for most adults. That is, as long as it’s done in moderation. One issue with alcohol is that the lines are often blurred between a healthy drinking habit and drinking too much.

How is that line defined? According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults of legal drinking age should limit intake in any given day to 2 drinks or less for men and 1 drink or less for women. The guideline is not intended as an average over several days, but rather the maximum amount of alcohol that should be consumed on a single day.

One issue that often arises when it comes to alcohol is that many people aren’t honest about how much they drink. They feel that as long as they’re not drinking heavily on a regular basis, they don’t have a problem with alcohol and therefore have a healthy relationship with it. So if they get together with friends over the weekend, they think it’s okay no matter how many drinks they consume. Or they don’t pay attention to serving sizes, so they underestimate their consumption.

How should alcoholic drinks be measured?

One alcoholic drink is equivalent to the following:

    • 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol)
    • 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
    • 5 fluid ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol)

What if you are drinking too much?

Many people drink more alcohol than what is considered safe or healthy. When developing the current Dietary Guidelines, approximately 60% of adults surveyed reported consuming alcoholic beverages. Of those, approximately 30% binge drink, sometimes multiple times per month. Binge drinking is defined as 5 or more drinks for males or 4 or more drinks for females in about 2 hours. Even when not binge drinking, many people’s alcohol consumption exceeds current guidance.

Drinking too much alcohol can contribute to serious health issues, including liver damage, increased cancer risk and heart disease. Plus, alcoholic beverages supply calories but few nutrients, making it harder to lose or maintain weight. Alcohol can also impair your judgment and reaction time, making it dangerous to drive and increasing your risk of accidental injury and poor decision making. Emerging evidence suggests that even drinking within the recommended limits may increase the overall risk of certain conditions, including some cancers.

How to drink less?

It’s okay to enjoy a drink or two on occasion, as long as you don’t have health conditions that would make drinking in any amount unhealthy. But if you drink more than that, here are a few tips for lowering your alcohol consumption:

    • Find alternatives for your habit. Sometimes drinking becomes entwined with other habits. For example, you always have wine with dinner or a few drinks to unwind at the end of the week. To break these habits, find new ones. Try drinking flavored seltzer with dinner. Or sipping on a cup of tea to relax. Pay attention to when you drink as part of another habit, rather than because you actually want to enjoy an alcoholic drink.
    • Find other sources of stress relief. If you turn to alcohol to help you cope with stress, do something different. Practice yoga, take a walk, call a friend or spend a few minutes doing any activity you enjoy. These habits can make you feel good naturally so you don’t rely on alcohol as a way to de-stress.
    • Avoid triggers. Some people pair situations, people or foods with the green light to drink as much as they want. If watching the big game with a group or going out with specific people results in overindulging, it may be time to avoid those situations until you feel you can better handle them without drinking too much.
    • Seek help. If your drinking is getting in the way of your life or you cannot lower how much you drink on your own, contact your health care provider or join a support group for help.

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Date Last Reviewed: February 17, 2021

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Jane Schwartz, RD

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