What is moderate drinking and how does it damage your health?

A pint of beer contains about two standard drinks, a bottle of wine contains seven

A study into the effects of alcohol consumption which showed that even moderate drinking has damaging effects on the brain has sparked interest about how exactly moderate drinking is defined.

There is a lot of confusion about the measurement of alcohol intake, in part because units are defined differently in Ireland from the UK – our measures tend to be bigger!

In Ireland, a standard drink, or unit, has about 10 grams of pure alcohol in it.

Examples of standard drinks include a half-pint of beer, a pub measure of spirits or a small glass of wine. So, a pint of beer or a large glass of wine is two units, not one. A bottle of wine contains about seven standard drinks, or units.


The HSE’s guidelines for low-risk drinking are a maximum of 11 standard drinks a week for women, and 17 for men. However, this allocation should be spaced out over the week, it says, not consumed together.

Light drinking is consuming less than 5½ units a week – about six small glasses of wine or 2½ pints. Consumption above this but below the weekly recommended limit is considered moderate drinking.

Ireland has high levels of alcohol consumption, and we’re top of the class for binge drinking. This is defined as having six or more standard drinks at the one sitting – the equivalent of three pints.

That might seem low to some people, but driving with alcohol was considered normal until recent years.

Consumption over the 17/11 weekly threshold, or binging, is considered hazardous drinking that can lead to future health problems.

Harmful drinking is defined as when a person is over the recommended weekly limit and has related health problems. Finally, dependent drinking is when the person is addicted to alcohol.

The health effects of heavy drinking are well-known but as the HSE says the problem with alcohol is “not all about red noses and liver damage”.

Even moderate drinking has been linked to a raised risk of breast cancer and reduced fertility among women. On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest that low to moderate alcohol consumption may have a protective effect against coronary heart disease in women.

As Alcohol Action Ireland points out, this latest study again shows the public needs to be aware of the risk associated with consumption of alcohol at any level.