Are you drinking more alcohol than you think?

Health correspondent ( 08 January 2016 )

Why you should watch your units and alcohol strength.

Relaxing at home with a glass or two of wine each night could amount to more than is good for you. We may be drinking less overall, but with more units of alcohol per drink it seems we are consuming more alcohol than ever before, without even realising it. Before you sigh and think, 'Oh not another alcohol health warning', please do read on...

Alcohol strength

The strength of wines and beers has quietly been increasing over the decades without anyone batting an eyelid. In the 1970s, it used to be a lot easier to work out how much drink you were getting. A pint of beer used to equal two units, a shot of spirits one unit. Nowadays, beers, lagers and wines are all generally stronger and spirits are commonly sold in measures that are over a unit.

For instance, in 1970 a bottle of wine may have been around 10 per cent in ABV (alcohol by volume) and now the same bottle is more likely to be around 13-14%. So what does this mean? Just a three per cent increase in a bottle of wine can have repercussions on your health. This works out to be an extra three units per bottle.

Wines from the ‘New World’ tend to be stronger, as the hotter climates produce sweeter grapes. As sugar turns to alcohol during fermentation, it means a stronger wine.

Equally, we have seen stronger lager become much more popular over the past couple of decades, with the growth of the five per cent ‘premium’ lager sector. It may be that the majority of consumers are not aware of ABV and don’t even notice. So despite a greater societal concern with being healthy... by stealth we are drinking more pure alcohol than ever.

Related: Do you know how much alcohol remains in food after cooking? Read our alcohol myth-buster and find out

Units and glass size

One unit equals 8mg of pure alcohol and the liver can only metabolise one unit an hour. Alcohol packs the liver cells with fat, making them susceptible to damage and meaning they don’t do their jobs as well.

Our glass sizes have also increased, from 100ml to 175ml and 250ml which could mean we are drinking three units in just one glass. This, coupled with the fact that home-pouring negates any notion of knowing how many units are being consumed, means that we may be putting our liver under undue pressure without knowing. For instance, a bottle of 14% wine contains 10.5 units and a pint of five per cent lager contains three units.

Related: Read our guide to alcohol units

The liver

The liver is our largest internal organ. Among hundreds of jobs, it has to deal with the alcohol we drink. If we drink too much, our liver has to literally soak up the punishment. With few nerve endings to signal pain we wouldn’t know if our liver was complaining.

If somebody is drinking a lot on a regular basis, chances are that they will not feel anything happening until their liver has had enough. The harm to your liver at this stage will be severe – and could even be fatal. But your liver does have an incredible capacity to regenerate, and cutting down the amount you drink will improve your liver’s health.

This isn’t to say you should stop drinking altogether: rather, that you should be more conscious of the units consumed. It can be easy to underestimate how much alcohol you are drinking and often difficult to stop after a certain number of drinks, especially if somebody else is hosting and pouring.

To learn more about alcohol and the liver, visit the British Liver Trust at

Facts and figures

Research has also shown that even though the volume of alcoholic drinks consumed has remained constant, the number of strong wines and lagers on the market means that Britons are drinking 10%  more alcohol than in 2000.

While older people drink fewer units per session than younger adults, those aged 45-54 consume more on average than those aged 35-44.

To find out how many units are in your drink, use this units and calories calculator on the Drink Aware website.

The Department of Health has recently issued new guidelines, and now recommends that men should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week, the same level as for women.

Drinks labelling: what to look out for Only a third of drinkers find labelling easy to understand. The British Liver Trust is currently feeding into a consultation on drinks labelling calling for mandatory changes to ensure consumers have the opportunity to be better informed on what is in their drink and know the impact it may have on their health. Currently, the drinks industry regulate themselves and only 15% of alcoholic drinks labels carry alcohol by volume (abv) and unit information.

With this lack of information on the drinks you buy it might be fruitful to learn about what the average unit content is of your favourite tipple. See below for a guide:

  • Pint of beer, ale or stout (5%): 2.8 units
  • Pint of lager at 5% abv: 3 units
  • Pint of cider at 6% abv: 3.4 units
  • Large glass (250ml) of wine at 12% abv: 3 units

 Unit calculator

Undoubtedly, units are confusing, and after a few glasses or pints, people tend not to care. If you are drinking bottled drinks or cans and they don’t have the number of units on its label you can easily work it out yourself using this simple method:

1. multiply the % alcohol content by the volume

2. divided by: 100 if volume stated in centilitres (cls) or

3. divided by: 1000 if volume is stated in millilitres (mls)

Another solution to managing your units is to choose lower abv beers and wines. Even though there is not usually a wide selection in bars and pubs, more options are becoming available in supermarkets. There is usually not a difference in taste and it may put a bit less pressure on your liver.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.