What Is Moderate Drinking or Drinking in Moderation?

What is moderate drinking? Unfortunately, official guidelines describing moderate drinking provide very conflicting information to consumers. Yet the medical evidence already exists about what levels of drinking promote good health and longer life. It also exists about what levels are associated with harms. And its available to governments everywhere.  

An examination of official guidelines in dozens of countries all over the globe found great disagreement among them. There is disagreement about what is moderate drinking on a daily or weekly basis. There is disagreement about whether or not moderate drinking guidelines should be different for men and women. And, if so, how they should be different. There is disagreement about whether the guidelines should be different for people of different ages. In short, there’s a lot of disagreement about what the public should be told. Answers to the question, ‘what is moderate drinking?’ vary widely1

Dr. Richard Smith was a member of the committee that established the official drinking guidelines for the U.K. He reported that the numbers established were not based on medical evidence but “were really plucked out of the air.” He acknowledged that “It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee.”2

Drinking guidelines appear to be highly arbitrary. They’re not necessarily based heavily on scientific evidence. Instead, they largely reflect cultural and political forces. The U.S. has a temperance background. Even today, almost one of every five adults in the country favors making drinking illegal. This causes the U.S. guidelines to be at the lower end of the scale.3

Not surprisingly, much research finds better health and greater longevity linked to drinking above the US government guidelines.

But even if the guidelines were based solely on the medical research, they would still be low. That’s because people tend to under-report their consumption. Studies indicate that self-reports of drinking under-report the volume consumed, often by 40 to 60%.4 This strongly suggests that both healthful and risky levels are substantially higher than believed.

For example, a study may find that having two drinks per day improves health. But respondents under-report their drinking by one-third, then it’s actually three drinks per day that improves health. If respondents under-report by half, then actually four drinks a day improves health.

The same is true of the drinking levels found to increase various risks. No one should abuse alcohol. But it appears to take much more alcohol to increase risks than U.S. government guidelines suggest.

References for “What is Moderate Drinking?”

  • 1 Furtwaengler, N.A. and de Visser, R.O. Lack of international consensus in low-risk drinking guidelines. Drug Alco Rev.,, 2013, 32(1), 11-18. 
  • 2 Norfolk, A. How “safe drinking” experts let a bottle or two go to their heads.  The Sunday Times (UK), October 20, 2007.
  • 3 Almost One in Five Americans Favors Alcohol Prohibition.
  • 4 Midanik L. The validity of self-reported alcohol consumption and alcohol problems: a literature review. Brit J Addict., 1982, 77, 357-82.