An Opportunity to Reduce How Much Alcohol You Drink

The UK has recently revised the alcohol consumption guidelines, changing from a daily limit to a weekly one and advising that men and women should drink no more than 14 units per week.

The UK has recently revised the alcohol consumption guidelines, changing from a daily limit to a weekly one and advising that men and women should drink no more than 14 units per week.

14 units each week is equivalent to about six pints of ordinary strength beer or about four large (250 ml) glasses of wine.

The announcement has been met by some apprehension. Some may find the lifestyle change difficult to make and others may be hesitant to change their drinking habits.

How much we drink is an individual choice. Our job as public health professionals is to provide you with the best available information to help you make that choice and support you in the healthy changes you choose to make.

Why you might consider reducing your alcohol consumption

Nearly one in five adults said they did not drink at all in 2013 and people are increasingly turning away from alcohol completely. In London, almost a third of adults (32%) reported not drinking at all - the highest proportion of teetotallers seen in Great Britain in 2013. Between 2005 and 2013 40% more people aged 16 to 24 reported not drinking at all.

Alcohol has a high calorie content, in fact, drinking five pints of lager a week adds up to 44,200 kcal over a year, the equivalent to eating 221 doughnuts. Alongside the potential weight loss and the likely money you can save from cutting your drinking, there is of course the impact it will have on your health.

The link between alcohol and ill health

The hard evidence on the harm alcohol causes is clear. The risks of alcohol start from any level of regular drinking and the more we consume the more our health is at risk.

Drinking less than 14 units a week is considered lower risk. Drinking above this level increases a person's risk of illness, ranging from breast, liver, bowel and oral cancers to heart disease, stroke and depression.

The risks rise according to the number of units we drink and the type of alcoholic beverage (whether spirit, beer or wine) makes no difference.

The new UK guidelines reflect the latest evidence linking alcohol to cancer. These latest studies show that between 4% and 6% of all new cancers in the UK in 2013 were caused by drinking alcohol.

While the risk of getting some alcohol-related cancers gradually decreases over time in people who stop drinking, it may take many years. But it can be assumed that reducing the amount we drink also reduces our risk of developing cancer.

Crucially, the UK guidelines take into account quality evidence that clarifies the questions over whether alcohol has any protective effect. The evidence shows that alcohol (be it red wine or anything else) only has a potentially significant health benefit in reducing the risk of heart disease in women aged over 55.

Even then it is only linked to drinking very small quantities (no more than 5 units a week or around 2 medium glasses of wine).

Any protection from heart disease needs to be weighed against the slightly increased risk of cancer - with any amount of regular alcohol consumption increasing a person's risk.

The guidance on drinking and pregnancy is particularly welcome. It tells us categorically that while planning pregnancy or while pregnant, the safest thing for the baby is not to drink alcohol at all.

Importantly, it also sends a "don't panic" message to women who may have drunk before they knew they were pregnant pointing out that in most cases it is unlikely that their baby has been affected.

An opportunity to change your drinking behaviour

The new guidelines come at an opportune time. With Alcohol Concern's Dry January coming to a close, having seen tens of thousands of people sign up, it makes sense to give your body a break and cut down on the amount of alcohol you drink.

Evidence shows that setting yourself the challenge of an alcohol free month goes some way to influencing the amount you drink going forward. In fact, last year two-thirds of those who participated in Dry January were either not drinking at all, or drinking less, six months on.

But it doesn't need to be an all or nothing approach. Some people find setting themselves alcohol-free days helps to reduce their drinking. Ultimately, how much you drink is down to you, but it's important you know the facts and the risks involved.

The new guidelines provide us with the updated evidence to work from, but this is very much the start of the journey. Armed with this new information Public Health England is working with national and local partners to help individuals and communities understand the risks, and reduce harmful drinking.