Alcohol units or booze common sense?

Understanding alcohol units

A new study on people’s understanding of alcohol units has been in the news recently. Based on focus group interviews, it looked at how well UK adults know the recommended drinking limits and guidelines, how they feel about them, and whether people find them useful.

Not surprisingly, most people don’t think that “units” are particularly relevant for them. For example, as the guidance is given in terms of daily consumption, it may not seem to fit someone who only drinks at weekends. It is also difficult to convert actual things people drink, such as bottles of beer or glasses of wine, into the alcohol guidance units (but see this helpful Drinkaware infographic which shows the recommended daily guidelines using common drinks).

The weekly drinking recommendations were also not seen as very realistic. Even though it is widely understood that there are health risks with drinking, a binge once a week isn’t seen as such a big deal by most people. Apparently the current UK guidelines are in fact under review, so they may well change soon.

Personal drinking limits

And of course most people don’t just drink as much as they possibly can every night. They can moderate their consumption perfectly well without thinking about units at all. As the study rightly points out, people have their own ways of keeping track of how much they think they should drink, and how much they’ve actually drunk each day. This is not driven by abstract drinking guidelines though. Rather, it is due to personal circumstances, such as work, childcare, or other commitments the following day. Or just knowing that you will have a massive hangover if you drink more than a bottle of wine with your dinner.

Kathleen Volk Miller, who tries to be careful about her drinking, writes about her own limits in Salon: “I measure out my drinks. Two drinks if it’s a weekday and I have things to do early the next morning. Three if I don’t. Four if I’m on vacation … sometimes … a bottle of wine if I’m out for a long dinner. I make choices.”

How to keep track of your drinking

Here are some possible ways of keeping track of how much you are drinking:

  • There are lots of smartphone apps that let you track the number of drinks you’ve had. Here are some recommended by Men’s Fitness magazine.

  • Some of the apps will also estimate your blood alcohol level from the number of drinks you’ve had – but remember that the reliability of these apps is very poor, so never trust them if you are about to drive a car for example!

  • Without an app, you can always use the old-fashioned method of pen and paper.

  • Sometimes it isn’t easy to make notes, either on paper or using your phone. A clever and discreet way is to shuffle coins in your pockets. Just drop a coin in your pocket for each drink you’ve had, and then you can always check your drinks by seeing how much change you have in your pocket.

  • Some German bars have a practical way for both the venue and their customers to keep track: each table has a slip of paper where every order is written down. So you have a constant reminder of how many drinks you’ve had, right in front of you the whole time.

The study discussed above was published in Addiction journal and is freely available if you want to have a closer look.

Guest blogger Matt also talked about units in May.

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