Sensible drinking

Expert reviewer, Dr Melanie Hill, Bupa Clinics GP
Next review due October 2023

Many people enjoy having a drink. It may be part of your social life or something you enjoy at home. For most people, drinking in moderation shouldn’t do too much harm, but it’s important to remember that drinking alcohol does carry some risks.

Here you’ll find advice and information about what ‘sensible drinking’ means, and tips to help you keep your risks low. Knowing how to enjoy alcohol in moderation is a key part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

What are the drinking limits?

It’s not possible to know exactly how much alcohol is ‘safe’ for you to drink. Drinking any amount of alcohol, whether that’s regularly or every now and again, can affect your health. But, there are recommended guidelines to help you make the right choice about how and when to drink alcohol. By following these guidelines, you can take steps to limit the effects of alcohol on your health.

The guidelines are the same for men and women. You’ll see that they talk about units of alcohol. For an explanation of what this means, see our section: How much alcohol is in my drink?

Regular drinkers

If you're a regular drinker (you drink most weeks), current guidelines recommend not drinking more than 14 units of alcohol each week. And try to spread your units evenly over at least three days of the week. A helpful way to cut back on your intake is to have some alcohol-free days each week.

Occasional drinkers

You may not be a regular drinker but just like to have a drink from time to time. If so, it’s important to be aware of the risks associated with occasional drinking. Drinking too much, too quickly, can increase your risk of accidents and injury. And you might do things you wouldn’t normally do, such as have unprotected sex or get into fights.

If you’re an occasional drinker, you can help to keep yourself safe by:

  • limiting the amount of alcohol you drink at any one time
  • drinking slowly and alternating your alcoholic drinks with water
  • having something to eat while drinking alcohol
  • drinking in a safe environment with people around you that you trust
  • planning how you’ll get home safely, if you’re out

If you are pregnant

If you’re pregnant or think you might be, the safest thing is not to drink any alcohol at all. This is because drinking alcohol can harm your baby. The more you drink, the greater the risk to your baby.

If you were drinking small amounts of alcohol before you found out you were pregnant, the risk to your baby is probably small. Try not to worry but if you’re concerned, speak to your midwife or GP.

How much alcohol is in my drink?

When following the recommended guidelines for drinking alcohol, it’s important to understand how much alcohol your drink contains. There are several ways to describe the alcohol content of a drink. The usual ways are given here.

  • Units of alcohol. One unit is equal to 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. This is the amount of alcohol an average adult can process in one hour. But remember that the amount of alcohol anyone can actually process in an hour varies from person to person. The recommended guidelines for drinking (no more than 14 units per week for men and women) refer to units of alcohol.
  • Percentage of alcohol by volume (% ABV). By law, alcoholic drinks that contain over 1.2% ABV must have a label that clearly shows how much alcohol they contain. They must also show how much drink is in their product (the volume).

How to work out the units in your drink

Some brands give the number of units of alcohol the drink contains on the packaging. You can also find online calculators or apps to work out how many units your drink contains. To find out more, see our section: Other helpful websites below.

If you can’t find the units of alcohol on your drink packaging, you can work it out using this calculation.

(Volume of drink (ml) x % ABV) ÷ 1000

For example, if you have a pint of beer (568ml) that is 4% ABV, multiply 568 by 4. This equals 2272. Divide this by 1000 and you get 2.3. So, a pint of 4% ABV beer contains 2.3 units of alcohol.

Units of alcohol in common drinks

The number of units of alcohol in different drinks varies. Here are some examples of common drinks you might order at the bar and how many units of alcohol they contain.

  • A single (25ml) measure of spirit (40% ABV) is equal to one unit.
  • A standard (175ml) glass of wine (12.5% ABV) is equal to 2.2 units.
  • A pint of beer (4.2% ABV) contains 2.4 units.
  • A pint of cider (4.5% ABV) contains 2.6 units.

Watch out – drinks can vary in strength

How much alcohol you’re drinking depends on the strength and size of your drink.

The strength of a drink can vary greatly between brands. For example, one bottle of wine may be 11% ABV, while another is 14% ABV. One can of lager may be 2.8% ABV, while another may be 4.8% ABV.

The size of your drink can vary too – even if you’re drinking in a bar or restaurant. A single spirits measure may be 25ml or 35ml – so, a double could be 50ml or 70ml. A glass of wine may be 125ml or 175ml. So, a large glass could be 250ml or 350ml.

Try to be aware of the size your drink, and the strength of the particular type of drink you’re having. You might find it helpful to get an app for your phone to help you keep track of how much you’re drinking.

Bupa's units of alcohol in a drink opens in a new window (PDF, 1.3MB)

Bupa's units of alcohol in a drink

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Tips to help you drink sensibly

If you’re planning to enjoy a drink, here are some practical tips to help you drink sensibly and within the recommended limits.

  • If you’re drinking at home, try using a measure rather than free-pouring your drink.
  • Eat before you drink so alcohol is absorbed more slowly by your body.
  • Go for a spritzer or a shandy – this can help to dilute (water down) the amount of alcohol in your drink.
  • Opt for smaller measures where you can – a single measure of spirits, a small glass of wine or a bottle of beer (rather than pint).
  • Choose lower strength alternatives to your usual drink. You may not notice much difference in taste.
  • Steer clear of rounds and don’t be pressured into drinking more quickly than you feel comfortable with.
  • Swap in soft drinks. Where you can, alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. At home, stock some of your favourite low-sugar soft drinks or create some tasty mocktails.
  • Keep tabs on how much you’re drinking and remember to include any top-ups.

When should I avoid alcohol altogether?

There are times when the safest choice is not to drink alcohol at all. These include the following.

  • When you’re going to be driving – alcohol affects people differently so it’s best not to drink any alcohol at all.
  • Before or when you’re operating machinery or electrical equipment at work or at home.
  • Before a sports or a gym session.
  • When you’re taking certain medicines – always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you need advice, ask your pharmacist.
  • When you’re pregnant or trying for a baby. For more information on this, see our section: What are the drinking limits? above.

Why not test yourself by having a go at our alcohol quiz?

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Related information

    • UK Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking guidelines. Department of Health., published August 2016
    • What is an alcohol unit? Drinkaware., accessed August 2020
    • Drink driving and the legal alcohol limit. Drinkaware., accessed August 2020
    • Can alcohol affect sports performance and fitness levels? Drinkaware., accessed August 2020
    • Alcohol units. Alcohol Change UK., accessed August 2020
    • Weights and measures: the law. GOV.UK., accessed August 2020
    • Food labelling: giving food information to consumers. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)., last updated November 2017
    • FAQs: Alcohol. British Nutrition Foundation., published November 2017
    • Managing drug and alcohol misuse at work. Health and Safety Executive (HSE)., accessed August 2020
  • Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, October 2020
    Expert reviewer, Dr Melanie Hill, Bupa Clinics GP
    Next review due October 2023