What are the health risks for those who drink two to three drinks a day but don't binge drink?
A new report out from the government says that binge drinking is on the rise — and at an alarming rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more than 38 million Americans binge drink four times a month, drinking an average of eight drinks per binge-drinking episode. According to the CDC, drinking four or more drinks for women (five or more for men) during a single occasion is considered binge drinking.
There's plenty of research on how harmful binge drinking is on the body. Binge drinkers are at a higher risk for a number of health issues including liver disease, some cancers, heart disease and sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. But what if you're someone who drinks two to three alcoholic beverages a day — less than what's considered "binge drinking" yet more than the dietary guidelines of one drink maximum a day? What are your health risks or even benefits, as alcohol in moderation has been shown to have health perks?
Having two to three alcoholic drinks a day is really a grey area when it comes to health, says Melanie Greenberg, a clinical health psychologist in Marin County, Cali., who also writes a blog for Psychology Today. While drinking two to three alcoholic beverages a day is considered "heavy drinking" and may lead to other issues such as unintentional injuries, violence and alcohol abuse or dependence, drinking alcohol in moderation — which is one to two drinks a day for women — has been found to reduce the risk of mortality significantly around the world.
"There is no clear evidence of increased risk but also less protective benefits against heart disease," she says, adding that "even moderate drinking increases risk for breast cancer. Alcohol is a known carcinogen."
Finding the true risk of this grey area comes down to the true size of your drink and how quickly you go about drinking them (the faster you drink, the more likely it is that you're binging). A drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of spirits, but many drinks we order at bars (or even pour ourselves at home) are much larger than that. So, while we think we just had one drink, we actually had more than that, says Helene Laurenti, licensed psychologist.
"As a society, we've gradually conditioned ourselves to expect larger portions, for food and alcohol," Laurenti says. "Many people deceive themselves and think they are drinking less than they actually are due to portions served."
Family history also plays a role.
"If you have a maternal history of breast cancer, you should drink less or not at all unless you take your folate regularly," Greenberg recommends, as alcohol inhibits your body's ability to absorb folate. "Also consider effects on relationships, as alcohol can impair judgment. Women who are drunk may be more likely to say 'yes' to sexual contact and then regret it later. Blackouts with binge drinking are another problem. Certain cultures (e.g. Asians) can't process alcohol properly and are at higher risk."
Her recommendation? Try to cut it down to one drink a day.
"If you have a second drink occasionally, it's probably not much reason to worry, but take your vitamin B and don't drive," Greenberg says. "If you're having two drinks each day, you are a heavy drinker, so cut down."
Also, don't have a drink with the purpose that it will relax you or help you sleep, Laurenti says.
"Drink mindfully and slowly to reduce intake. Alternate with water to rehydrate," she says. "Do not drink if there is any possibilty that you may be pregnant. Try to find healthier alternatives to unwind physically and mentally — working out, reading, and having sex are all much healthier for the brain!"
Does this information surprise you? How many drinks a day do you usually have? Will you drink less? Tell us!
Jennipher Walters is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomedGirls.com and FitBottomedMamas.com. A certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and regularly writes about all things fitness and wellness for various online publications.