The consumption of alcohol has always been the subject of debate. Is drinking good for you or bad for you? How much is too much? Should we aim to drink no alcohol at all, or is moderate drinking okay?
Even the Harvard School of Public Health calls alcohol “both a tonic and a poison,” with the difference lying mainly in the dose. While moderate drinking offers some benefits, heavy drinking carries major risks, and there’s a fine line between the two.
In this article, we’ll discuss the difference between moderate drinking and binge drinking, the potential benefits of moderate drinking, and how you can achieve moderation.
What is Moderate Drinking?
The word moderate means observing reasonable limits and avoiding extremes. Of course, terms like “reasonable” and “extreme” are hard to quantify. When it comes to drinking alcohol, what is considered a reasonable amount?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, moderate drinking is up to one drink per day for women and up to two daily drinks for men. This refers to a single day, not an average—if you have 7 beers on Saturday and don’t drink the rest of the week, it doesn’t count.
Many people who ask, “What is moderate drinking?” are really asking how much they can safely and sensibly drink without facing serious consequences.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines “low-risk drinking” as no more than three drinks per day for women and no more than four drinks per day for men. Women who are low-risk drinkers consume no more than seven drinks per week, while male low-risk drinkers have no more than 14 drinks in a single week.
NIAAA research indicates that only about 2 percent of people who drink within these limits have alcohol use disorder.
What is NOT Moderate Drinking?
The opposite of moderate drinking is either heavy drinking or binge drinking.
The NIAAA classifies binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to .08 g/dL. For women, this typically happens after about four drinks in two hours. For men, this generally occurs after five drinks.
Heavy drinking, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), is binge drinking on five or more days within one month.
Binge Drinking Statistics
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) shares the following statistics on binge drinking:
- One in six U.S. adults binges at least four times a month. Seven drinks is the average per binge. This is about 467 binge drinks per binge drinker annually.
- Binge drinking is more common in the 18-34 age group, but people 35 and over still consume more than half of binge drinks total.
- Only 1 in 5 total binge drinks are consumed by women. Binging is more prevalent among men.
- Of those under the age of 21 who drink alcohol, most report binge drinking—often in large quantities.
- More than 90% of adults in the U.S. with patterns of excessive drinking report binging in the last 30 days.
According to the CDC, the risks of binge drinking include:
- Car crashes and other unintentional injuries
- Sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy
- Chronic diseases and cancer
- Memory and learning problems
- Eventual alcohol dependence.
Binge drinking is also expensive, costing the U.S. about $191 billion in 2010. These costs stem mostly from health care expenses, losses in workplace productivity, and criminal justice costs.
Are There Benefits to Moderate Drinking?
Clearly, binge drinking is both costly and dangerous. But what about moderate drinking? Are there any benefits to drinking in moderation?
Some studies do show some potential health benefits associated with moderate drinking. These include a 25-40 percent decrease in the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from other cardiovascular diseases. There’s a fine line, however: Consuming more than four alcoholic drinks daily increases the risk of the health problems described above.
Gallstones and type 2 diabetes are also less likely to occur in moderate drinkers than in individuals who drink no alcohol at all. A drink before a meal may improve digestion, and occasional drinks can be a social tonic that contributes to overall well-being.
Still, if you don’t currently drink, there’s no need to start now. You can gain similar benefits from increased exercise or healthier eating habits. In addition, some of the health benefits that have been attributed to beverages like red wine have been called into question by recent research.
Is Moderate Drinking Harmful?
Most of the health risks of drinking alcohol are associated with heavy drinking. Does that mean moderate drinking is always safe?
Not exactly. Even light drinkers have a very slight increased risk of some cancers. In addition, moderate drinking is linked to high blood pressure, or hypertension. And drinking and driving is always dangerous.
It’s also important to note that the effects of alcohol vary based on genetics, your overall health, and other factors. For most people drinking in moderation is safe, but only a few drinks separate moderate drinking and high-risk drinking.
How to Be a Moderate Drinker
How can you safely tread the fine line between moderate drinking and risky drinking? The key is to be mindful. Here are some helpful tips:
- Avoid drinking with heavy drinkers. Find friends or accountability partners who also drink in moderation.
- Pinpoint your heavy drinking triggers and avoid them as well.
- Pace yourself (e.g. no more than one drink per hour), and set clear limits before you begin drinking. Note that women usually lose their “off switch” after 2-4 drinks, while men usually lose their “off switch” after 3-5.
- Consider using an app or a mobile breathalyzer to monitor your drinking.
- Eat before drinking or while drinking.
- Alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Practice a polite, firm, “no thanks,” in situations when you need to refuse a drink.
- Make a list of the reasons you want to drink in moderation. Keep it in your wallet, or in an easily accessible note on your phone.
- Develop and pursue hobbies, interests, and other ways to relax that don’t involve alcohol.
- Practice a healthy lifestyle, including eating nutritious meals, getting plenty of rest, and exercising regularly. When you feel better, it’s easier to make healthy choices with your drinking.
Moderate Drinking Programs
If you’re struggling to moderate, there are also a number of programs that can help. While many people associate alcohol treatment with long-term abstinence, there is a whole, newer school of thought that is changing things.
It turns out that moderation is possible for many people—even those with chronic, heavy drinking problems. Evidence-based methods, including medication and recovery coaching, are showing a high success rate. There may be options that can help you cut back, without requiring you to quit alcohol completely.
The C Three Foundation, and Moderation Management are both good places to begin your research. There are also programs like Ria Health which can provide direct support when you’re ready for it. Ria uses medication, coaching, and digital tools to customize treatment, and delivers it all through a smartphone app. It’s even covered by many insurance plans.
The bottom line is that moderation is possible. And if that’s the choice you’re happiest with, there are more resources than ever to help you achieve it.