The Easiest Way: To keep to government drinking guidelines

In January 2016, the government came out with the nerve-jangling announcement that there is no such thing as a ‘safe drinking level’ – any amount of alcohol can increase the chance of developing cancer.

Terrifying though this thought might be, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should all become teetotal – study after study has shown that moderate drinkers (may) have better life expectancy, and the risk increase remains modest. Some of the best documented evidence concerns the link between alcohol and breast cancer, where the risk increase with drinking is greatest: a woman has a 10.9% risk of developing breast cancer throughout her life. If she drinks 1-14 units a week, that rises to 12.6%, and between 14-38 units it’s 15.3%. So drinking at the upper limit of the government’s new guidelines actually raises the risk of breast cancer by 1.7%. You know this isn’t an excuse to plough through a stiff gin at 6pm, a bottle of wine with dinner and a snifter afterwards – we all know that.

The new recommendations are that everyone, men and women, stick to fourteen units and have at least two booze-free days a week.

When you pour yourself a glass of (14%) wine, does it look like the large (250ml) measures in a pub? That’s 3.5 units – so you’re only supposed to have four of those a week, and not all in one evening…

Here’s how to stick to the guidelines without feeling hard done by:

One day on, one day off, plus Saturday night. See the bottom of this post for a simple table illustrating this in more detail.

We can all go without a glass of wine for a night, right? If not, perhaps it’s time to look closely at your relationship with alcohol. This habit means you can have a glass of wine every other night, and half a bottle (of 11% ABV wine) on Friday and Saturday night – not so Spartan after all (and it has two units spare for some wiggle room…).

Two things are key to the success of this regime:

Firstly, address your free pour. You know how at French brasseries you get those titchy little glasses? That’s how they can drink ‘all the time’ on the Continent without our alcohol and obesity problems. A huge glass might look great (though actually a smaller opening can help red wine taste better), but your 125ml suddenly appears a measly serving to be gulped down. A little glass makes it seem more generous, and you’ll drink more slowly.

Secondly, remember that all wines, beers and spirits are not created equally in ABV.

Units infographic
Infographic from

Beers range equally widely – Carling lager is 4%, BrewDog’s Punk IPA is 6% and Leffe Blonde is 6.6%, but there are beers from 0.1% to 55% ABV. Even the harder stuff isn’t always all it seems: a shot of Bombay Sapphire gin is 40%, but Gordon’s sloe gin is 26%.

Of course there will be big nights out or accidentally enthusiastic nights in, but just like the days when we eat badly, don’t beat yourself up or think, ‘I might as well just drink what I want this week as I’ve already ruined it.’ Tomorrow’s a new day and our willpower resets every morning – just have a few nights or a week off the sauce and drink sensibly for a while.

For 95% of the time, my handy little chart will help you keep your liver, your doctor and your purse happy, hopefully without leaving you feeling deprived: