Drinking alcohol – do the maths

We all need to do the maths when it comes to drinking alcohol, according to a new study. Nearly half of UK adults don’t know the Government’s weekly recommended alcohol limits and more than half (54%) say the Government should think of a better way of explaining what a ‘unit’ of alcohol consists of, according to new research by the Priory Group. The findings come two years after the Government refreshed its drinking guidelines after hearing “sufficient concerns” from experts about the health risks of drinking alcohol.

The Department of Health’s limits – which came into effect in January 2016 – stated that both men and women should drink no more than 14 units in a week (Fourteen units being equivalent to six pints of 4% beer, or 5 glasses (175ml) of 13% wine.) Previously the guidelines were 14 units of alcohol a week for women and 21 for men.

Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Niall Campbell, one of the UK’s leading experts on alcohol addiction, based at The Priory’s Hospital in Roehampton, south-west London, said: “These findings show that we need to transform the way we talk about alcohol so we all understand exactly how much we are drinking – and what it is doing to us.

These findings show that we need to transform the way we talk about alcohol so we all understand exactly how much we are drinking – and what it is doing to us.

“This is especially important because we all want to live longer – and may be expected to work longer – in good health. To talk about ‘units’ of alcohol frequently confuses people, because many think a unit is a glass of wine almost regardless of its size, and some pubs and restaurants only serve large glasses. In truth, a large glass of 13.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) wine consists of more than three ‘units’, so drinking two large glasses quickly can constitute binge drinking for some people.”

The NHS defines binge drinking as “drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk”. UK researchers commonly define it as consuming more than six units of alcohol in a single session for men and women, with six units equivalent to drinking between 2-3 standard glasses (between 350-525ml) of 13% strength wine, and around 3 pints of 4% strength beer. The definition used by the Office of National Statistics for binge drinking is having over eight units in a single session for men, and over six units per women.

Only 10 minutes after having a drink, 50% of the alcohol will be in your bloodstream.
Charity DrinkAware says: “Your body can only process one unit of alcohol per hour. Two large glasses of wine may not seem like very much. But drinking six units of alcohol in a short space of time – an hour, say – will raise your blood alcohol concentration and could make you drunk very quickly. The risks of short-term harm like accidents or injuries increase between two to five times from drinking five-seven units.”

Dr Campbell added: “Overall, more older people are drinking and it’s a burgeoning public health issue. As part of normal aging, you don’t metabolise alcohol as well. And the ability of the organs to respond to alcohol, which is a toxin, diminishes.
“What surprises most people is the low threshold that makes drinking become binge drinking or takes you over your weekly ‘limit’. But there has never really been a public health campaign about alcohol in the same way as there has been around, say, smoking, and now is the time. People still don’t link what they are drinking – and how much they are drinking – with their health, both physical and mental.

“’Drinking responsibly’ is promoted by everyone from public health officials to beer and wine advertisers, but it’s unclear how many people understand what that means.
“According to a 2017 ONS study, more than a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds are teetotal, a four-fold increase on the rest of the population, with just one in 10 seeing drinking as ‘cool’. That is very positive. Now we need to tackle alcohol intake among those in their 30s, 40s and older, because these are the people I am seeing at the Priory whose lives have been wrecked by alcohol.”

How many units? The maths…
To calculate the number of units you have drunk, you need to know the strength of the drink (%ABV) and amount of liquid in millimetres (one pint is 568ml; a standard glass of wine 175ml).
You multiply the amount of drink in millilitres by the percentage ABV, and then divide by 1,000.
For example, if you order a pint of strong lager at 5% ABV:
1 pint (568ml) x 5 = 2,840
Divided by 1,000 = 2.840, or 2.8 units

A quick glance at units in drink
Standard (175ml) glass of wine, 13.5% ABV – 2.3 units
Large (250ml) glass of wine, 13.5% ABV – 3.4 units
Pint of standard lager – 2.3 units
Pint of premium lager – 2.8 units
Pint of strong cider – 4.7 units

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