What is a Safe Amount of Alcohol?

Canada’s Proposed New Alcohol Guidelines

Having a partner who doesn’t drink alcohol has been a blessing. Before we met, I was a proud drinker, attributing my robust alcohol tolerance to my German heritage. My intake dramatically decreased once we moved in together, and even more so during the COVID lockdowns when bars and restaurants were closed. In 2020, I had a 7-month alcohol-free period and realized how much better I felt in general without drinking. I began to explore the research on alcohol and became frustrated by the Canadian drinking guidelines that falsely assured the public that drinking more than one standard drink a day was low risk.

People drink for various reasons, and I don’t intend to shame or guilt-trip anyone with this post. I still drink on the odd occasion (although not for a while now, considering I’m 40 weeks pregnant). However, I think it’s incredibly important that Canadian guidelines and health care practitioners are generally more realistic about the health risks associated with alcohol consumption.

Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines are finally undergoing some dramatic changes. The proposed update recognizes the increased health risks when people consume three or more drinks per week. This is a significant shift from our previous guidelines set out in 2011 that recommended people limit their alcohol intake to no more than 10 or 15 drinks per week, depending on their sex (Government of Canada, 2021).

Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, 2022
Photo by Ales Maze on Unsplash.

The research is now clear that no amount of alcohol is good for you, no matter what form you drink it in. Drinking a small amount of alcohol still comes with significant health risks. 

However, research has suggested that all-cause mortality (death from any cause) increases exponentially above 100g of ethanol per week, which is about seven standard 14g drinks per week (Wood et al., 2018). Multiple studies, including one from Sherk et al. in 2020, had found that the risk of death increased when people drank more than 10 grams of alcohol daily, less than one standard drink. Sherk (2020) looked at hospital stays in North America and found that more than 50% of alcohol-related deaths and hospital stays were people in the current 2011 guidelines low-risk drinking category. I think it’s pretty clear our guidelines need a serious update.

But what if you have a drink or more every night and want to change this habit but don’t know where to start? It may be best to focus on being honest with yourself and your practitioners about your alcohol use. Practice self-compassion; you likely drink for several reasons, and guilt and shame will likely make it more difficult to change your alcohol consumption. And please be careful; quitting alcohol cold turkey can be very dangerous if you have a physical alcohol dependence as it can cause seizures and even death, you may need some medical support during alcohol withdrawal.

Are you curious about how much alcohol you actually drink per week? Most people underestimate the number of standard drinks, as we are often offered drinks in amounts that are larger than one standard drink. For example, a tall can of beer that contains 5% alcohol works out to about 1.4 standard drinks, that’s 19.6g of ethanol. Consuming one of these tall cans every day of the week would amount to about 137.2g of ethanol per week (and remember, health risks go up exponentially once we go over 100g per week). Click here for a great standard drink calculator.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (n.d.). 

The good news? Although no alcohol is healthiest, we also know that long-term reduction of alcohol intake can reduce the risk of death. Wood et al. (2018) estimated that decreasing alcohol consumption from 196g a week to 100g per week might increase life expectancy by an additional 1-2 years at 40 years old. The current 2011 guidelines advise male-bodied individuals to drink no more than 15 standard drinks per week to reduce risk, that’s 210g of alcohol. It’s clear that the old guidelines may be causing a significant amount of harm with outdated information.

Still, reducing alcohol intake can be incredibly challenging. Focusing on lifestyle and addressing why we drink in the first place can often make a big difference. Getting enough sleep, working on stress levels, eating regular meals, and talking with people we find supportive (especially your health practitioners) may all be good places to start.

Related news stories

Szklarsi, C. (2022, August 30). Proposed update to Canada’s alcohol guidelines suggests as few as 3 drinks per week. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/9095085/proposed-update-canadas-alcohol-guidelines/ 

Dubois, S., & Roumeliotis, I. (2022, August 29). More than 6 drinks a week leads to higher health risks, new report suggests — especially for women. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/drinking-health-risks-study-1.6565723


Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (2022). Update of Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines: Final Report for Public Consultation. https://ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2022-08/CCSA-LRDG-Update-of-Canada%27s-LRDG-Final-report-for-public-consultation-en.pdf 

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (n.d.). What is a Standard Drink? National Institutes of Health. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink 

Robertson, J. (2021, September 14). Alcohol: What do we do here? [PowerPoint slides]. The Confident Clinician.

Sherk, A. (2020). At-a-glance – The alcohol deficit: Canadian government revenue and societal costs from alcohol. Government of Canada. https://doi.org/10.24095/hpcdp.40.5/6.02 
Wood, A., Kaptoge, S., Butterworth, A., Willeit, P., Warnakula, S., Bolton, T., Paige, E., Paul, D., Sweeting, M., Burgess, S., Bell, S., Astle, W., Stevens, D., Koulman, A., Selmer, R., Verschuren, M., Sato, S., Njølstad, I., Woorward, M., … Danesh, J. (2018). Risk thresholds for alcoholic consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinking in 83 prospective studies. The Lancet, 391(10129), 1513-1523. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30134-X