Guide to Drinking Levels
Excessive alcohol consumption is a component cause of more than 200 disease and injury conditions, including alcohol use disorder, liver cirrhosis, cancer, and physical injury.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 3 million deaths, or 6% of all deaths worldwide, can be attributed to alcohol.
WHEN TALKING ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION, HOW IS A SINGLE DRINK DEFINED?
WHAT IS A SAFE AMOUNT OF ALCOHOL TO CONSUME?
No amount of alcohol consumption is safe or without risk. The U.S. government, however, defines and recommends levels of alcohol consumption that have been found to generally carry only low to moderate risk for the general population. It is never recommended that individuals who do not drink alcohol begin to drink alcohol based on these guidelines. Women should be aware that even moderate drinking may increase the risk of breast cancer.
TWO DIFFERENT DEFINITIONS FOR LOW-RISK DRINKING
There are two slightly conflicting recommendations for what are considered “low-risk” limits for alcohol consumption. One is from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and the other is from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines. Both of these consumption guidelines list the same weekly amounts for men and women, but differ in their daily allowance. This is somewhat confusing. As shown below, according to the NIAAA, the daily drink limit for women and men is no more than 3 and 4, and the weekly limit is no more than 7 and 14, respectively. Alternatively, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines, the daily limit for women and men is 1 and 2, respectively. These limits differ in part because the NIAAA is more concerned with alcohol use disorder, whereas the dietary guidelines may be more concerned with other aspects of harms caused by alcohol, including toxicity, which is known to cause cancer.
In general, it is recommended that people intersperse days they drink with days they don’t drink, in order to give their bodies a respite from processing alcohol.
The NIAAA has defined low-risk drinking limits for developing alcohol use disorder. For women, low-risk drinking for developing an alcohol use disorder is defined as no more than 3 drinks on any single day and no more than 7 drinks per week. For men, it is defined as no more than 4 drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week.
Previous NIAAA research has found that, on average, only 2 in 100 people who drink within these limits will go on to develop an alcohol use disorder.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for American adults recommends that if alcohol is consumed, it should only be consumed in moderation — up to 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. This is not intended as an average over several days, but rather the amount consumed in any single day.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ABSTINENCE
There are certain cases in which it is recommended that American adults avoid alcohol completely. It is strictly advised that under no circumstances should individuals under the legal drinking age of 21 years old consume alcohol in any amount.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). Fact sheets – Alcohol use and your health. Fact Sheet.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (n.d.). Drinking levels defined. Fact Sheet.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2018). Alcohol facts and statistics. Fact Sheet.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services & U.S. Department of Agriculture (2015). Dietary guidelines for Americans: 2015-2020 – Eighth edition. National Report.
- World Health Organization (2019). Alcohol. Fact Sheet.