Sensible drinking

Many of us enjoy a drink or two and find it helps us to relax and socialise. While this shouldn’t do you too much harm, regularly overdoing it is associated with various health risks. Sensible drinking means knowing what your limits are and being aware of how much you’re drinking. It’s key to understand how to enjoy alcohol in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle.

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What are the drinking limits?

Proposed new guidelines recommend that you should not regularly drink more than 14 units over the course of a week. If you do drink as much as 14 units, you should spread it over three days or more, rather than 'saving up' units.

An easy way to cut back on your intake is to have several drink-free days each week.

How many units in your drink?

European law requires manufacturers to state on the label of all alcoholic drinks how much alcohol they contain. This is expressed as ‘percentage alcohol by volume’ (% ABV). Some brands also give the number of units of alcohol the drink contains on the packaging.

One unit is equal to 10ml by volume or 8g by weight, of pure alcohol. This is the amount of alcohol an average adult can process in one hour.

The number of units of alcohol in different drinks varies. It’s also rare that the usual measure your drink comes in will contain just one unit. Here are some common drinks you might order at the bar and how many units they contain.

  • One 25ml single measure of spirit (37.5% ABV) is equal to one unit.
  • A 175ml (standard) glass of red wine (12% ABV) is equal to two units.
  • A pint of beer (5% ABV) contains 2.8 units.
  • A pint of cider (6% ABV) contains 3.4 units.

Something else to bear in mind is that the same type of drink can vary in strength between different brands. For example, some wines and lagers contain more alcohol than others. What’s more, bars and restaurants offer a variety of measures. Here are some examples.


These come in measurements of 25ml, 35ml or multiples of these – a double is 50ml, for example.


Wine comes in measurements of 125ml, 175ml or multiples of these – a large glass is 250ml, for example.

If you drink three 250ml glasses of wine, you’re drinking a whole bottle of wine and three times the recommended daily units. It can be easy to do without even realising it.

For more information, see our article ‘The alcohol equation – do you know what you’re drinking?’ And to accurately track how many units you are drinking, try our alcohol units calculator. There are also apps for your phone that can help you keep track.

How to stay within the recommended limits

Drinking sensibly doesn’t mean missing out on all the fun. The first steps are to understand how much and how often you’re drinking. Start by keeping a record of how much you drink over a week. Smartphone apps can be really useful here. They often have a whole list of drinks and different brands to make it easier to keep track of exactly what you’re drinking.

You may find you’re drinking within your limits and don’t need to change your drinking habits – but not all of us can say this. If you’re exceeding the limits, think about when and where you’re drinking and how much. You may be having a glass of wine with evening meals, a boozy lunch once a week or a big night out every weekend. Here are our top tips to help you drink sensibly.

  • Have something to eat before you drink, and if possible, while you’re drinking – this will slow down how quickly your body absorbs alcohol.
  • Start your night out with low-alcohol or soft drinks, or alternate these with alcoholic drinks. You could also switch to a less alcoholic drink later on. For example, switch from a large glass of wine to a single vodka, lime and soda.
  • Pace yourself – enjoy your drink slowly. Don’t drink in rounds – this will avoid having to drink faster to keep up with the group.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the bar staff questions when you’re out. They might not be shouting about those 125ml wine glasses they’re legally obliged to stock, for example.
  • At home, use an alcohol measure so you can see how much you’re putting in your drink. Keep track with an alcohol app when you’re out on the town.
  • Don’t drink alcohol every day of the week – have at least two alcohol-free days to let your body recover.
  • Instead of going to the pub or having a drink at home, try going to the gym or doing another activity you enjoy. If you find you’re drinking after a stressful day at work for example, have a bath instead to wind down.

Finding it difficult?

If you find you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Maybe a close friend can help or if you would prefer to speak to a person outside your social circle, a support group may help. They will help you understand your drinking habits and suggest ways to cut down how much you drink. If you need help finding support in your local area, contact your GP practice.

When should I avoid alcohol altogether?

It takes about one hour for your liver to break down each unit of alcohol. The more you drink, the longer it will take for the effects of alcohol to clear. There are times when not drinking alcohol at all is the safest choice. These include the following.

  • Before you plan to drive or when you’re driving – alcohol affects people differently so it’s best not to drink at all.
  • Before or when you’re operating machinery or electrical equipment, or doing some DIY.
  • Before or during swimming or other active sports.
  • When you’re taking certain medicines – always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.
  • When you’re pregnant or trying for a baby. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage and affect the development of your baby.

Some people find that they cannot drink in a controlled way, and that completely abstaining from alcohol is the safest option for them.

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    This information was updated in January 2016 following revisions to the Department of Health’s guidelines for alcohol consumption.

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