New alcohol guidelines – explained

Jane Murphy / 08 January 2016

Tough new drinking limits have just been issued by the UK's chief medical officers in response to major research linking alcohol to cancer risk.

Official alcohol consumption guidelines have been updated for the first time in 20 years, following a Committee of Carcinogenicity review of numerous studies linking alcohol consumption to cancer risk. These links weren't fully understood when the original limits were set in 1995.

So what's a safe level of drinking?

Actually, say the chief medical officers, there's no such thing. Regularly drinking any amount of alcohol can increase your chances of developing a range of cancers – and that risk rises with every drink you consume.

However, the new advice states that all drinkers should consume no more than 14 units a week – that's roughly equivalent to six average-strength pints of beer or seven medium glasses of wine. Limits for men had previously been set at 21 units a week.

'Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone,' says Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England. 'But if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week, it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low.'

Related: Your guide to alcohol units and strength

So if I reduce my alcohol intake now, will my cancer risk plummet?

The risk of getting some alcohol-related cancers gradually falls over time when people stop drinking, according to the Committee of Carcinogenicity review. But it can take years before the risk falls to the same levels found in people who have never drunk alcohol.

Can I save up my units for a big night out?

It's really not a good idea. People who have one or two heavy drinking sessions each week significantly increase risk of death from long-term illness, accidents and injuries. So the new guidelines also recommend that you spread your units over three or more days a week and ensure you have several booze-free days to give your body time to recover.

Also, try to slow down the rate at which you drink, alternate alcohol with water and don't forget to eat, too.

Related: Are you drinking more than you think?

But isn't red wine supposed to be good for my heart?

It's possible – but the benefits only apply for women over the age of 55, according to the chief medical officers.

Hurrah - that's me! Crack open the Valpolicella...

Not so fast! The greatest benefit is seen when women limit their intake to around five units a week – the equivalent of just two standard glasses of wine. In fact, the group conclude, there's absolutely no justification for drinking alcohol for health reasons.

And let's face it: if you want to boost your heart health, there are far more effective things you can do, such as upping your activity levels and eating a good, balanced diet.

Related: Learn more about the effects of alcohol on older people

How have others responded to these new guidelines?

Health professionals and campaigners have roundly welcomed the news. Elaine Hindal, chief executive of the charity Drinkaware, says: 'Our own research suggests that aside from the well-known impacts on the liver, broader alcohol-related health risks such as heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer are not commonly understood by many people. Lowering the limit for men to 14 units per week, bringing it in line with the maximum limit for women, may help to simplify the message that excessive drinking carries an increased risk of health harms.'

Meanwhile, Jackie Ballard, chief executive at Alcohol Concern, insists that more still needs to be done to highlight the health risks: 'To ensure the public better understand units and the risks associated with alcohol, we are calling for mandatory warning on alcohol products, as is standard practice in other countries. We also need a mass media campaign to make sure these new guidelines are widely known and understood.'

Anything else to put me off my tipple?

Days prior to the new guidelines being issued, the Local Government Association called for calorie counts to be added to bottles and cans, in a bid to highlight how alcohol can contribute to weight gain and associated health risks – something we rarely stop to consider. Did you know, for example, that a bottle of wine has the same calorie count as more than two burgers and would take more than an hour to run off?

Related: Your alcohol myth-buster

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