Drinking Levels Defined

Concerned you may be drinking too much?

Many adults enjoy drinking the occasional alcoholic beverage, but how do you measure when you’ve had enough for the night? How can you tell when you’ve crossed the line to unhealthy drinking behavior?

What do terms like “heavy drinking,” “moderate drinking,” and “standard drink” really mean, anyway?

In this guide to levels of drinking, we’ll define these terms, look at blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels and their effects, and discuss what exactly qualifies as problem drinking.

Drinking Levels

Here are the official definitions of different drinking levels according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:1

Table of Contents

Infographic describing levels of alcohol use
Drinking During the Pandemic Statistics Infographic

Moderate drinking means no more than one drink per day for women, and no more than two per day for men. This means a weekly total of up to 7 drinks for women, or up to 14 for men, spread out over the course of the week.

Binge drinking means consuming enough alcohol to raise your blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 or above. For women, this generally means at least four drinks within two hours. For men, this means five drinks or more in the same time period.

Heavy Drinking for women means consuming more than three drinks on any given day, or more than 7 drinks per week. For men, the definition of heavy drinking is more than four drinks per day, or more than 14 drinks in a week.

Moderate drinking limits the risk of alcohol-related health effects, while both binge drinking and heavy drinking can have harmful consequences. 

Most people who binge drink don’t have a severe alcohol use disorder (AUD), but binge drinking is the most deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the U.S.2 It’s associated with health problems, injuries, violence, sexually transmitted diseases, memory issues, and an increased risk of alcohol use disorder.

Heavy drinking carries the same risks as binge drinking. But because heavy drinkers binge drink more often, these risks multiply. Like binge drinking, heavy drinking makes developing AUD more likely.

So, what is the recommended alcohol intake per day? If possible, the ideal alcohol intake is none. But if you drink, stick to moderation.

What Is a Standard Drink?

Infographic describing standard alcoholic drink size
Infographic describing standard alcoholic drink size

You may wonder, “How is ‘one drink’ of alcohol defined?” Standard drinks are measured based on the amount of alcohol in the beverage. One alcoholic “drink” is 14 grams or 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol. To accurately count your drinks, you need to know how much alcohol your drink contains.

That’s because the amount of liquid in your can, bottle, or glass is not necessarily the same as the amount of alcohol that’s in your drink. And alcohol content is different for different types of liquor, beer, or wine. 

For example, a small shot glass of whiskey at 40% alcohol is one standard alcoholic drink. A full, regular-sized glass of straight whiskey at 40% alcohol is more than one standard drink. Depending on the size of the glass, it could equal 4-8 standard drinks.

BAC Levels Explained

What does blood alcohol concentration mean?

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is used to determine a person’s level of intoxication. BAC measures the percent of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream and is calculated in grams per 100 mL of blood. A BAC of .08, for example, means your blood is 0.08% alcohol by volume. 

BAC can be measured by blood or urine tests, and it can be extrapolated from breath tests. The most common method is a breathalyzer, which measures the amount of alcohol in grams per 210 liters of a person’s breath. This measurement of breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) is then automatically converted to BAC.

Typically, blood alcohol concentration is measured to determine whether a driver is impaired, or whether a patient is experiencing alcohol poisoning. Individuals can also purchase their own breathalyzers to monitor their alcohol intoxication, and it’s a powerful way to track progress toward recovery. All Ria Health members receive a breathalyzer shipped to their door.

Infographic explaining blood alcohol concentration levels
Infographic explaining blood alcohol concentration levels

The number of drinks it takes to reach these levels varies. It depends on factors like genetics, gender, body weight, overall health, and how quickly the drinks were consumed. As a rough estimate, your BAC increases by about .02% per drink. This means it takes roughly four drinks to reach a BAC of .08, five to reach .10, and so on.

How much drinking can cause alcohol poisoning?

If we estimate that BAC increases by .02% per drink, it takes as many as 12 drinks to cause alcohol poisoning (a BAC of 0.25 and above). However, alcohol poisoning can occur more rapidly based on factors like low body weight, drinking on an empty stomach, dehydration, drinking at a fast pace, taking medication, and more.

What Qualifies as Problem Drinking?

Problem drinking exists on a spectrum, and depends on both how much you drink and how drinking impacts your life—including your behavior and your health. We can therefore offer a broad definition of problem drinking:

Problem drinking is a pattern of drinking that negatively impacts a person’s life.

Here are some examples of what that can look like:

  • Relationship issues related to drinking (e.g., arguments, avoiding family and friends)
  • Financial problems or career difficulties caused by drinking (e.g., spending too much money, missing work)
  • Alcohol-related physical or mental health issues (e.g., frequent hangovers, a weakened immune system, feeling depressed or irritable)
  • Continuing to drink despite any or all of the above

Read more about the definition of problem drinking.

Of course, problem drinking often develops gradually, and many people fall into a gray area. So, how do you know when you’ve crossed the line?

There are several levels of AUD. It’s possible to have a mild diagnosis, but still benefit from getting some help. Take our alcohol use quiz to find out where you stand:

Get Support for Problem Drinking

You don’t need to be an alcoholic to get support for your drinking. If you’re concerned about how much alcohol you’re drinking or how it’s affecting your life, Ria Health can help. Ready to change your relationship with alcohol?


Is My Drinking Normal?

Take our short alcohol quiz to learn where you fall on the drinking spectrum and if you might benefit from quitting or cutting back on alcohol.