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Alcohol guidelines explained

The government’s new guidelines for recommended alcohol intake have equalised the upper limit of weekly units to 14 – the equivalent of seven pints of beer – for both men and women. So why have the guidelines been changed and what does it mean? Read on to find out.

The sobering message from Dame Sally Davies, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, is that even a solitary glass of wine a day can put you at risk of cancer. “There is no safe level of drinking,” Dame Sally said, as she announced the most wholesale revisions to alcohol guidelines for 20 years.

What are the alcohol recommendations?

The new alcohol recommendations and guidelines came into effect from 8 January 2016 and are now among the strictest in the world. Here are the main points for you to remember:

  • Both men and women should drink no more than 14 units a week.
  • Everyone is advised to take ‘several days’ off drinking to let their bodies recover.
  • Alcohol probably doesn’t protect the heart, unless you are a woman aged 55 and over.
  • Pregnant women should not drink any alcohol at all.
  • Several heavy drinking sessions increase the risks of death from long-term illnesses, accidents and injuries – limit the amount you drink on one occasion and drink more slowly, with food and alternating with water.

What do 14 units of alcohol look like?

  • 14 single measures of spirits (ABV 37.5%).
  • 7 pints of average-strength (4%) lager.
  • 9 and one-third 125ml glasses of average-strength (12%) wine.
  • 7 x 175ml glasses of average-strength (12%) wine.
  • 4 and two-thirds 250ml glasses of average-strength (12%) wine.

Essentially, the message is that alcohol poses a danger to health, however little you drink, and new evidence suggests a strong link between alcohol and health risks. In particular, there is stronger evidence than ever that the risk of cancers, especially breast cancer, increases directly in line with alcohol consumption.

CMO defends alcohol guidelines

Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, has been criticised by some quarters for “scaremongering” but has resolutely defended the new alcohol guidelines. Speaking on BBC Breakfast she said: “My job as Chief Medical Officer is to make sure we bring the science together to get experts to help us fashion the best low-risk guidelines.

“If you take 1,000 women, 110 will get breast cancer without drinking. Drink up to these guidelines and an extra 20 women will get cancer because of that drinking. Double the guideline limit and an extra 50 women per 1,000 will get cancer.

Take bowel cancer in men: if they drink within the guidelines their risk is the same as non-drinking. But if they drink up to the old guidelines an extra 20 men per 1,000 will get bowel cancer. That’s not scaremongering, that’s fact and it’s hard science.

“We have really underpinned this with the best science. We are ahead of anyone else. No one else in Europe in over a decade has reviewed the science in this way. I predict that others will follow us in these guidelines,” she added.

Recommended daily alcohol intake
You can get help tracking your drinking by downloading the free Drinkaware: Track and Calculate Units app. If you’re worried about your relationship with alcohol, reach out to someone who’s been there and can help. If you need advice on alcohol rehab, we are here to talk. We can help you find the right private rehab if your drinking has escalated to an addiction. Call our free phone line today on 08000029010 or email for specialised alcohol support.

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