Alcohol units, what are they good for?

By Posted in Health

Guest blogger, Club Soda member Matt considers the usefulness of the alcohol unit system when trying to cut down on drinking.

Alcohol units and cutting down

Alcohol units are rubbish aren’t they? A random number printed under that weird picture of the boozing pregnant woman – they have as much relation to real life as election polls.

Take the average beer. A fat can of strong lager from the offie has 2.6 units. Now the official government guidelines say that men should not regularly exceed 3-4 units daily (for women it’s 2-3) or all sorts of horrible health harms start kicking in.

So that means I’m allowed one and a half cans. Or can I get away with one and three-quarters? My ability to add up fractions always suffers after a drink. OK – so I’ve had the recommended amount. Now do I chuck the rest away? Somehow save it for tomorrow?

Yeah, right…

Alcohol measures

And don’t even start on spirits. The assumption that we should be standing in our kitchens fiddling with government-approved measures beggars belief (although the eternal student in me always fancied a set of optics for the front room).

You get the basic problem. The way units work doesn’t match how alcohol is currently sold or consumed in this country. And who decided  what constitutes a unit anyway? It doesn’t seem to take into account that alcohol affects everybody differently and the effect depends on your weight, body shape, ethnicity and a load of other factors.

Yep, units are crap. But here’s the rub: we desperately need an honest way to measure how much we drink. Liver disease is rising in the UK, as is obesity, and the truth is that alcohol plays a part in both.

The unit system isn’t perfect – but it’s currently all we’ve got. There are definitely better systems (Australia, for instance, uses the idea of ‘standard drinks’) but you can be sure that the drinks industry over here will fight tooth and nail before they accept any easy-to-use system that attempts to put a clear limit on consuming their products.

In fact, if I was cynical, I might say that the alcohol industry has a vested interest in keeping the unit system confusing. Anything clearer might make us feel quite worried – not a good look when you’re trying to promote the feel-good togetherness that booze (apparently) brings.

Cutting down on drinking

Personally, (and remember I’m not a doctor and only got a C in GCSE science) I think that the units system works best as a rough guide.

You can bitch about the precise figures, but however you work it out, if you’re having a couple of drinks most days (around four units) then it’s an indisputable fact that your risk of liver disease is rising with every glass.

This isn’t the only reason I’m trying to cut down, but as I start to close in on the big 4-0, it might well be the best.


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