A Guide to Units and Measures of Alcohol

Top Tips
  1. While there is no harm in drinking a little alcohol – it may, in fact, be good for you – it’s crucial to keep things in moderation.
  2. Drinking to excess can lead to liver complications and may increase your risk of certain cancers. It may also jeopardise your career and harm your personal life.
  3. Health experts advise that men should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week, with women advised to keep their consumption below 14 units.
  4. Both men and women are also advised to try and have at least two alcohol-free days per week.
  5. If you do break the rules – for example with the office Christmas party – try and have 48 alcohol-free hours afterwards.
  6. Make use of bottle labels and online tools and apps to work out how many units you’re drinking.
  7. Only filling your glass when it’s empty and using measures rather than free-pouring wines and spirits can help you keep tabs on your drinking.

How Much is Too Much?

When it comes to drinking, both the Department of Health and the Royal College of Physicians advise moderation. That is, while the odd drink – and even the occasional big night – is fine, drinking to excess or even drinking a little each day can increase your risk of liver disease, obesity, heart disease, certain types of cancer and other health complications. So what are the recommended safe limits of alcohol consumption?

  • Men should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week and no more than four units in any one day.
  • Women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week and no more than three units in any one day.
  • Both men and women should try and have at least two alcohol-free days a week.
  • Pregnant women should try and abstain from alcohol completely or, failing that, drink no more than two units of alcohol once or twice a week.

If you do exceed these recommendations – which isn’t hard to do, particularly on holiday or during the Christmas and New Year party season – then you should try and have two alcohol-free days in a row straight afterwards.

Working out Alcohol Units

All this advice assumes that everybody knows what one unit of alcohol is. But this is far from the case. In fact, relatively few adults in the UK have a good idea of how many units of alcohol they are consuming, despite the best efforts of the government, doctors and the drinks industry itself. So, what is one unit of alcohol? Quite simply, one unit is measured as 10ml of pure alcohol. This means, therefore:

  • A pint of beer has between two and three units of alcohol, depending on the ABV.
  • A small glass of wine (125ml) has 1.5 units of alcohol.
  • A bottle of wine has nine units of alcohol.
  • A single shot of spirit (25ml) has one unit of alcohol.
  • A bottle of alcopops has 1.5 units of alcohol.

Note, however, that the above are just guidelines; exact unit measurements can vary according to ABV or volume size. As such, it’s always a good idea to check the label before you have a drink or, if you’re ordering wine or spirits by the glass, request to see the bottle or ask bar staff how many units one glass contains.

How to Keep Track of your Drinking

Keeping tabs on how many units of alcohol you’re drinking is not easy – nor is it particularly fun, especially when you’re on a night out. However, there are a number of simple but effective ways you can keep track of what you’re drinking. Try, for example:

  • Using measures at home; rather than free-pouring your spirits or wine, use measures. You can order a special cup marked with various measures through Drinkaware.
  • Only filling your glass once it’s empty. If you keep topping up, it can be hard to keep track of how much you’ve actually had.
  • Making use of technology: a number of smartphone apps, including the MyDrinkAware app let you record each drink you have, giving you real-time updates of how many units you are consuming.
  • Keeping a diary. If you worry you may be drinking too much, try keeping a diary of everything you drink in a week or a month and then working out how many units you are consuming. You can then use this figure to work out a plan for going forward.

How Many Units Can I Have If I’m Driving?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to the above question. Unlike medical guidelines, the law does not measure your alcohol intake by the number of units you drink. Instead, they measure how much alcohol is in your body whilst you are driving. The limits are as follows;

  • 35 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath.
  • 80 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood.
  • 107 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of urine.

Aside from how much you’ve had to drink, a range of other factors can effect what this figure will be if you should be tested. These include;

  • The type of alcohol you’ve drunk.
  • How long ago you were drinking.
  • Your size, gender, age and metabolic rate.
  • Whether you’re on a full or empty stomach.
  • Your stress levels.

Given all the variables that can effect how much alcohol is in your blood, breath or urine there’s no foolproof way to guarantee that you’ll be staying below the limit if you do decide to drive after drinking. It’s also important to remember that even a legal amount of alcohol will have a negative impact on your driving and can increase your chances of having an accident.

With all this in mind, it really is better to avoid drinking and driving all together. There are number of ways you can plan your night out to reduce the chances of anyone ending up drunk behind the wheel;

  • If you are reliant on using a car, take turns allocating a designated driver amongst your friends on your nights out.
  • If your area has good public transport links, plan out your return route in advance and leave the car at home.
  • In either case, carry the numbers of a couple of reliable taxi firms with you as a back up option.

It’s well worth making these efforts as, if you do make the mistake of driving over the limit, you could face severe penalties, even if you don’t cause an accident. These could include;

  • Six months in jail (or 14 years if you cause death by careless driving).
  • A £5,000 fine (or an unlimited fine if you cause death by dangerous driving).
  • A year’s driving ban (or at least two years if you cause death by dangerous driving).

In addition, you’re likely to find that your car insurance premiums rise significantly and, if you drive professionally, having a conviction on your license could make it harder for you to find work. Such a conviction can also effect your chances of obtaining a visa for the USA and certain other countries.

How to Lower Your Alcohol Intake

Again, drinking to excess can seriously damage your health. It can also jeopardise your employment prospects and even affect your personal life. As such, it’s a good idea to keep your drinking in check. Good ways of enjoying drink in moderation include:

  • Drink smaller measures. This is one of the most effective ways of reducing the number of units you drink. So, ask for small glasses of wine (125ml) rather than being talked into buying a larger measure. Similarly, resist the temptation to ‘double-up’ on your spirits and, if you’re a fan of strong lagers or ciders, drink halves rather than pints.
  • Alternate between alcoholic drinks and soft drinks. Not only is this better for your liver, it’s also better for your wallet.
  • Opt for a spritzer if you’re usually a wine drinker or a shandy if you’re a beer or lager drinker. This way, you’ll get the same volume but with fewer units of alcohol.
  • Enjoy an alcohol-free night out every once in a while. Prove to yourself that you don’t need to drink to have a good time and opt to stay sober all night; you’ll certainly feel better the morning after.

Further Reading

  • Use this alcohol calculator tool from the NHS to work out whether you might be drinking too much.
  • If you’re aiming at a healthier lifestyle, read our guide to foods to avoid and complete your new regime.

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