New government alcohol unit guidelines

The government’s alcohol guidelines have changed to reflect new evidence about the link between alcohol and health harms, particularly cancer. New guidance includes changes to the amount men and women can regularly drink, one-off drinking sessions and advice for drinking in pregnancy.

Here’s everything you need to know about the changes:

The new guidelines that came into effect from 8 January 2016 will help people make better choices about their drinking.   

New alcohol guidelines

The alcohol limit for men has been lowered to be the same as for women. The UK’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) guideline for both men and women is that:

  • You are safest not to drink regularly more than 14 units per week. This is to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level
  • If you do drink as much as 14 units week it is best to spread this evenly across the week

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One-off drinking

If you have one or two heavy drinking sessions you increase the risks of death from long-term illnesses, accidents and injuries.  When it comes to single drinking occasions you can keep the short term health risks at a low level by sticking to a few simple rules:

  • Limiting the total amount of alcohol you drink on any occasion;
  • Drinking more slowly, drinking with food, and alternating with water.

How much is 14 units of alcohol?

One unit is 10ml of pure alcohol. Because alcoholic drinks come in different strengths and sizes units are a good way of telling how strong your drink is. It’s not as simple as one drink, one unit.

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The new alcohol unit guidelines are equivalent to six pints of average strength beer or six 175ml glasses of average strength wine.

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Use our unit and calorie calculator to find out exactly what’s in your drinks.

Alcohol and pregnancy

The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) guidance is that pregnant women should not drink any alcohol at all.  

  • If you are pregnant or planning pregnancy, the safest option is not to drink alcohol.
  • This is to keep the risks to your baby to a minimum. The more you drink the greater the risk to your baby.

What if I’ve already drunk alcohol in pregnancy?

If you find out you’re pregnant after having drunk alcohol early in the pregnancy you should avoid drinking further. Official advice is that it is unlikely in most cases that the baby would be affected.

If you’re worried about how much you’ve been drinking when pregnant, talk to your doctor or midwife.

Alcohol and the heart

Previous research had suggested that small amounts of alcohol can have a protective effect on your heart.

However after the review, new evidence shows that benefits of alcohol for the heart only applies to women aged 55 and over.  

Why have the guidelines changed?

The old unit guidelines haven't been reviewed since 1995. During their current review the UK Chief Medical Officers found that there is significant new evidence on effects of alcohol that was not available at the time.

In particular, stronger evidence is available that the risk of cancers, especially breast cancer, increases directly in-line with consumption of alcohol. 

If you'd like help tracking your drinking and get help and advice to drink within the recommended limits, download our free Drinkaware: Track and Calculate Units app

*We will be updating all of our website and tools to reflect the new guidance*

Page updated: February 2016