Moderate Drinking


Excellent story by NPR on moderate drinking as a goal. One of the things they didn’t give a lot of space to was the definition of moderate versus heavy drinking, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Of course, when we talk about “a drink” we need to know what that is. I’ve known people for whom “a beer” meant a 24 ounce or even a 40 ounce container. NIH has a specific meaning in mind, which is that a drink is 0.6 ounce of pure alcohol. this translates to one twelve ounce beer at five percent alcohol, one five ounce glass of wine at twelve percent alcohol, or a single 1/5 ounce shot of eighty proof (40%) distilled spirits. As we know, many beers run to more than 5%%, and wines these days may run 14-15% alcohol.

So moderate drinking, according to NIH, is one drink a day for women, one or at most two drinks a day for men. And no, you can’t save them all up for Saturday night and have seven at a time.

That’s fine. But is heavy drinking everything more? No. An unhealthy level of drinking, according to NIH is five drinks at a time for men, four drinks at a time for women. So there’s a gray area of 3-4 drinks for men, 2-3 drinks for women.

Many of the people I work with are surprised to find that the level of drinking considered safe and healthy is so low. But hey, I didn’t make up the numbers, someone else did. What’s interesting to me clinically is that there really are a significant number of people who, when told that they are drinking more than is healthy for them, simply change their habits. As an example, there are people with depression who, when told that their medication doesn’t work well if you drink on it, just stop drinking. The depression is troubling, and they really want to recover from their depression. For some people, it’s really that easy. For other people, to change to moderate drinking is more of a project. For some people it’s a struggle, and for others it’s a losing battle.

As the NPR piece points out, quoting one person, if it’s too time-consuming a project trying to manage your drinking, maybe it’s easier to just be a non-drinker. You don’t have to go to AA if you don’t feel like it, especially if it’s not that hard to stay away from booze on your own. I know at least two people who successfully quit for more than a year and for personal reasons decided to join AA even after having quit. Whatever works. And as the NPR piece concludes, you can always go the abstinence route if moderation doesn’t work.

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About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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