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Alcohol: How much are you really drinking?

Dry July has recently kicked off in some parts of the world, and for those where summer is now in full swing, this time of year is associated for many people with grilling, parties and beachside holiday cocktails.

Although some types of alcohol (such as red wine) have in the past been associated with potential health benefits, the majority of evidence suggests that alcohol generally has a negative overall effect on our health. We often tend to associate the risks of alcohol with excessive drinking, but research indicates that what many of us might consider 'drinking in moderation' is also linked to increased risk for negative health outcomes including diabetes, liver disease, cognitive and mental illnesses, overweight and obesity, breast cancer and gastrointestinal cancers. It can also alter gut microbiota composition, which can be another pathway to inflammation and disease.

In particular, there are strong associations between alcohol intake and cancer, with a recent study finding that 741,000 new cases of cancer in 2020 were attributable to alcohol. The majority of these were in males, and most were linked to oesophageal, liver and breast cancer. Risk of developing cancer was increased when intake exceeded more than 1 standard drink per day (10g alcohol). Other research from the UK has found a strong link between alcohol consumption and brain function, and concluded that there’s no safe limit of alcohol when it comes to brain health. Even moderate intake was associated with negative effects on volume of grey matter (important for movement, memory and emotions) and white matter (involved in learning and brain function). Effects were seen at already at intakes of 1-2 standard drinks per day, and increased as intake escalated.

If drinking alcohol is something that you enjoy occasionally, then you may not need to cut it out completely. However it's important to be aware of how much you're actually drinking, and the impact alcohol can have on your health. It can be easy to underestimate your consumption, especially since we often pour more than a 'standard drink' at home. Intake can also increase at certain times of the year with holidays, special occasions, Christmas and more.

Based upon the increasing evidence regarding the detrimental health effects of alcohol, several countries have revised their guidelines, with some concluding there is no safe intake level for alcohol. Other countries have recommendations suggesting a specific limit of standard drinks per week (for example Australia, where it's recommended to drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week for healthy men and women over 18 years).

What is a standard drink?

🍺 285 mL of full strength beer

🍻 425 mL of low strength beer

🍷 100 mL of wine (red and white)

🍸 30 mL of spirits

🍹 275 mL bottle of ready-to-drink beverage (5 per cent alcohol content).


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