Cheers for Alcohol Awareness week

14th-20th November is alcohol awareness week so a good time to take a look at what we drink and how it might affect our health.

Traditions about what time of day it’s acceptable to start drinking abound. When I was younger I frequently remember my parents talking about whether or not the sun was over the yardarm. Turns out it’s an old naval term used by sailors waiting for an acceptable time of day to have their first alcoholic drink. The yardarms on a sailing ship are the horizontal timbers from which the square sails are hung. When the sun could be seen over the top of the yardarm it was considered to be the right time for the first drink of the day. The exact time would depend on the time of year and where the ship was but in many cases it would have been some time between 11am and noon. Since becoming a mum I have become very familiar with the term “wine o’clock” which scarily seems to be anytime after the end of the school day i.e. from 3.30pm. I shudder to think how much some people drink starting at 3.30pm and going on into the evening. The earlier you start drinking the more you are likely to drink.

The time of day that you drink does matter. At low doses alcohol has a stimulating effect, which is noticeable about an hour after you’ve had a drink. At higher doses alcohol makes you sluggish and this lasts several hours. However, there is a rebound stimulant effect 2–3 hours after blood alcohol concentrations fall close to zero. This means that if we have been drinking in the late afternoon/evening we experience the stimulant effect in the middle of the night and become restless or even wake up. The long and short of all this is that alcohol in the afternoon/evening is not going to help you get a restful and refreshing night’s sleep.

But before you rush off for lunchtime drinks instead remember that how much and how often we drink is important in relation to our health.

We know that for healthy men and women who drink 14 units of alcohol each week the overall risk of dying from any alcohol related cause is 1 in 100 (1%.) This is considered low risk drinking and is the basis of the limit set by the UK government. Of course, we are all different and if you already have a medical condition, a family history of certain medical conditions or if you have had cancer in the past that risk will be higher.

It’s advisable to have several alcohol-free days each week as this will help you keep your alcohol intake below the limit whilst also taking care not to binge drink. In other words, if you do drink as much as 14 units a week you should spread this over 3-4 days.

So what is a unit? Well to be honest it’s not as simple as we like to think. The strength of beers and wines varies and so does the size of glass. I keep some of my parents’ old wine glasses in the cabinet and it’s a real eye opener. My parents’ glasses purchased in about 1975 contain 125 ml compared to a standard glass these days at 250ml! You can work out the units in any alcohol using the alcohol by volume (ABV) ie the strength and the volume you are drinking (in ml). The formula to use is:

Strength (ABV) x volume (ml) ÷ 1,000 = units

Use the table below as a general guide to common drinks and amounts but remember that strength and volume can vary a lot. This is especially true with drinks made at home where we tend not to measure and often use lots more than we think. 

Drink

Strength ABV

Amount

Units

Wine

12%

Small 125 ml glass

Standard 150 ml glass

Large 250 ml glass

1.5

2

3

Beer

3.6%

1 pint

2

Beer

5.2%

1 pint

3

Alcopop

5.5%

275 ml

1.5

Spirits

40%

Small 25 ml shot

Large 35ml shot

1

1.5


If you are watching your weight, alcohol can pile on the calories. I’ve had several clients who decided to opt for a "dry" month and they all enjoyed steady weight loss. They also told me that they had so much more energy, some slept better and some had a better mood when they were not drinking.

So what can you do to help yourself stick within the limits?

Get well informed

Just as you do with food start checking labels. See if you can find low strength drinks that you enjoy and start buying these in place of higher strength varieties. Get a measuring jug and work out the volume you usually drink at home. Make a big label and stick it on the fridge/wine cabinet reminding you how many units there are in the drinks you most commonly have. This has been a huge shock to many of my clients who thought their one glass of wine was one unit only to find it was actually 3!

Get more self-aware

Keep an alcohol diary for a week using the information about strength, volume and units. Drink more mindfully take the time to really savour what you are tasting and smelling. You will find it much more enjoyable and will probably end up drinking more slowly and so drink a lot less. If you are due a night out have a think beforehand about the pros and cons of drinking and not drinking alcohol at the event. You might find you actually enjoy it more if you don’t drink alcohol or if you drink less by alternating alcoholic drinks with soft drinks.

Get organised

Take a look at your diary and work out when you are going to have those alcohol free days. You should be doing this every week not just when you haven’t got anything on. Think about what else you could drink instead and make sure you have access to it. Perhaps infuse some sparkling water with wonderful flavours of fresh fruit or get some recipes for alcohol free cocktails. They will probably be very sugary so you still can’t go mad but if anyone else if having a treat then why not. My neighbours who don’t drink at all gave me a delicious drink that was simply sugar -ree blackcurrant with lime juice and fresh mint.

Get supported

It’s much easier to cut back on alcohol if your nearest and dearest are doing it too. Have a chat with friends and family and see who’s in. Even if people don’t want to change make sure they know they you are making a big effort and explicitly ask them to help you stick with it. Simply not re-filling your glass is a good first step.

Many of us enjoy a drink but just make sure you are aware of the risks and take steps to stick with low risk drinking.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Stephanie Fade

Dr Stephanie Fade is an experienced dietitian and lover of food, science and health. She has a BSc in nutrition (first class honours), a postgraduate diploma in dietetics and a PhD. She is passionate about busting nutrition myths and empowering people to make well informed and positive choices about what they eat, drink and feed their families.… Read more

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