Cut Back to Help Cut The Risk For
Serious Alcohol-Related Illnesses
Many people associate the dangers of drinking too much alcohol with drunk driving and the devastating results that can have on so many lives, including innocent people—from family and friends to strangers. However, the dangers of alcohol are multi-leveled, and many people aren’t aware of all the ways it can threaten health on a subtle yet steady pace.
According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is a global problem. Worldwide, 3.3 million people die every year due to the harmful use of alcohol—that’s nearly 6 percent of all deaths. Alcohol is a factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions. Specifically, drinking alcohol is associated with a risk of developing health problems such as mental and behavioral disorders including alcohol dependence and major diseases such as cirrhosis, or hardening, of the liver, certain cancers, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, osteoporosis, malnutrition, inflammation of the pancreas and brain damage, as well as injuries resulting from violent acts, suicide and driving accidents. Recent research has found causal relationships between harmful drinking and the incidence of infectious diseases like tuberculosis as well as the course of HIV/AIDS.
Of extreme concern is alcohol’s role in cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), alcohol is a carcinogen. Years of heavy drinking can lead to liver damage that could lead to liver cancer. There’s also growing evidence that drinking alcohol leads to breast and colorectal cancers and increases the risk of developing cancers of the mouth and adjacent structures such as the larynx, esophagus and pharynx. Your risk of lung cancer increases dramatically if you both drink and smoke tobacco.
How does drinking alcohol increase cancer risk? Cell damage that ignites the cancer process can result when certain tissues in the body, such as the mouth and esophagus, are directly exposed to alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can reduce the amount of the B vitamin folate the body gets from healthy foods to maintain healthy DNA in the genes. Alcoholic drinks are fairly high in calories—and empty, or non-nutritious, calories at that, which can contribute to weight gain, another cancer risk factor.
Because of the rush to drink among many young people, alcohol takes a considerable toll on this population. A full 25 percent of all deaths among those 20 to 39 years old can be attributed to alcohol.
There are gender differences concerning the effects of alcohol and at what level problems start. Alcohol-attributable deaths among men represent 7.6% of all global deaths compared to 4% of all deaths among women. Yet what constitutes heavy drinking is much lower for women than it is for men, and there are more severe health concerns. In pregnant women, alcohol consumption threatens baby—it may cause fetal alcohol syndrome and pre-term birth complications.
Women’s risk for breast cancer, especially after menopause, increases with greater alcohol consumption. For each standard-sized drink a day postmenopausal breast cancer risk rises by about 11 percent. If you’re at high risk for breast cancer for other reasons, consider not drinking any alcohol.
Women metabolize alcohol more slowly than men, so alcohol stays in a woman’s bloodstream longer. Because women have less water in their bodies than men, alcohol is less able to dissolve and remains more concentrated. Liver disease and other alcohol-related problems develop faster in women than in men who drink the same amount.
A very important finding in the AICR’s report, “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective,” is that the amount of alcohol you drink is what matters, not the type of alcoholic drink, correcting the misconception that wine, for instance, is less harmful than vodka.
Even small amounts of alcohol pose some cancer risk, so for the lowest risk, the AICR recommends not drinking alcohol at all. However, if you do drink alcohol, limit your intake to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
What exactly is the amount of alcohol in “one drink”? In the US, a standard drink has about 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of “pure” alcohol.
Although the following drinks have different fluid amounts, each has about the same amount of alcohol and each one counts as a single standard drink. The differences are due to the amount of alcohol by volume or “alc/vol”:
- 12 fluid ounces of regular beer @ 5% alc/vol
- 8-9 fluid ounces of malt liquor @ 7% alc/vol
- 5 fluid ounces wine @ 12% alc/vol
- 3-4 fluid ounces of sherry or port @ 17-22%
- 2-3 fluid ounces of a cordial, liqueur or aperitif @ 20% alc/vol
- 1.5 fluid ounces or a single jigger (one “shot”) of brandy, any 80-proof spirit or hard liquor @ 40% or higher alc/vol
Alcohol content can vary greatly between different types of beer, wine and malt liquor, and yet some are smaller than you might think. Many light beers, for example, have as much as 85% of the alcohol in regular beer—you can see the slight difference listed on the labels as 4.2% alcohol by volume (alc/vol) for light beer versus 5.0% alcohol by volume for regular.
To find the alcohol content of a canned or bottled beverage, start by checking the label. Not all beverages are required to list the alcohol content, so you may need to look online for information, such as the bottler’s website. For all the details on wine, malt beverage and distilled spirits labels, visit the consumer corner of the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
Although standard drink amounts are helpful for following health guidelines, they may not reflect the sizes of drinks served at a bar or restaurant—or even those you mix yourself if you’re not measuring carefully. A single mixed drink made with hard liquor could have three or more times the alcohol in a standard size.
When you’re doing the pouring, it helps to know the number of standard drinks in different bottles and cans:
12 fluid ounces = 1 drink
16 fluid ounces = 1⅓ drinks
22 fluid ounces = 2 drinks
40 fluid ounces = 3⅓ drinks
Malt Liquor Beverages
12 fluid ounces = 1½ drinks
16 fluid ounces = 2 drinks
22 fluid ounces = 2½ drinks
40 fluid ounces = 4½ drinks
Wine (Red, White, Champagne)
750 ml (standard size bottle) = 5 drinks
80-Proof Spirits/Hard Liquor
750 ml (a “fifth”/standard bottle) = 17 drinks
“Holding your liquor” or not getting drunk doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t drinking too much. At-risk or heavy drinking levels are:
- More than 4 drinks on any day or 14 drinks over the course of a week for men
- More than 3 drinks on any day or 7 drinks over the course of a week for women
About 25 percent of people who exceed these limits are considered alcoholics or alcohol abusers, and the others are at greater risk for developing these issues and more. If you drink too quickly, for instance, you can have problems even if you’re drinking less than this volume.
According to the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), both how much you drink on any given day and how often you have a “heavy drinking day,” work against you: The more drinks on any day and the more heavy drinking days over time, the greater the risk not only for alcoholism and alcohol abuse, but also for other health and personal problems.
Here are steps you can take to cut back on the amount of alcoholic beverages you drink:
- Cut down on your serving size—have 3 ounces of wine instead of 5 or a smaller can of beer.
- “Stretch out” drinks by adding water, plain or flavored seltzer, club soda or even 100-percent juice.
- Sip, don’t chug.
- Limit yourself to one standard alcoholic drink per hour or two. If you need to constantly sip, alternate booze with non-alcoholic drinks like sparkling apple cider, club soda mixed with fruit puree or a mock drink, like a Virgin Mary of low-sodium tomato juice with a squeeze of lemon, horseradish and hot sauce.
- Decide to make some days of every week alcohol-free and put a limit on drinks on the other days.
- Choose low- or no-alcohol beer or wine.
- Learn how to recognize a standard sized drink and cut your consumption at bars and restaurants that serve over-sized drinks.
- Keep a log of how much you drink. Make notes in your smartphone, mark up a calendar on your fridge or carry an NIAAA drinking tracker card in your wallet. Noting each drink before you drink it will help you be more aware of how much your drinking and know when to stop.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Food slows down the speed at which alcohol is absorbed into your system—just avoid salty items that can encourage you to drink more, like the freebies often served at bars.
- Avoid situations that trigger the urge to drink. Triggers can be people or places, times of day or feelings that encourage you to drink even when you don’t want to. Identify your triggers so you can avoid them or choose alternatives—consider developing new, healthy activities like exercise, fun hobbies. Rethink relationships that are toxic for your health. If you find you drink a lot at home, don’t keep alcohol in the house. If you rely on alcohol to feel more comfortable in social situations, to manage emotions or to cope with problems, look for other, healthy ways to deal with those issues. You may benefit from help from a therapist or a support group.
- Be polite yet firm and say “no, thanks” when you’re offered a drink you don’t want. The faster you can say no, the less likely you are to give in. Need more ideas? Check out the NIAAA’s suggestions to build drink refusal skills.
If you’re concerned that you have a drinking problem—you want to cut back, but can’t, for instance—talk to your healthcare provider or go to the Alcoholics Anonymous website at www.aa.org.
© 2005 Top of page illustration, Bascove. All rights reserved
Illustrations may not be reproduced in any form without the express consent of Self chec, Inc.
Share your experiences LESS WINING: