What is Considered Normal Drinking

What is Considered Normal Drinking

At your annual check up, your doctor asks, “Do you drink?” And if you do, you say, “Yes.”

Then your doctor asks, “How much?”

And you respond with some amount – generally in terms of, “now and then” or “a glass of wine with dinner” or “only on the week-ends.” And you wonder… “Is that too much?”


What is considered normal drinking

There is actually a number, now, thanks to recent brain and addiction related research that is helping scientists understand the impacts of alcohol on the brain. In other words, how it is that alcohol chemically changes brain function because of the way alcohol interrupts the brain’s normal communication system (brain cells talking to one another and to and from others throughout the body via the central nervous system). This happens when a person drinks more alcohol than their liver can process (which is about one standard drink/hour). This is because alcohol bypasses the digestive system moving on into the small intestine and from there into the blood stream where it travels to body organs that highly vascularized (lots of blood vessels) and high in water content, such as the brain. When a person drinks more than their liver can metabolize on a timely basis, the alcohol “backs-up,” if you will, and “sits” in these body organs, until it’s metabolized by enzymes in the liver.

Given the brain controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does, it’s alcohol changing brain function that causes a person’s behaviors to change when they drink too much. When their behaviors change – they engage in drinking behaviors, which, in turn, causes secondhand drinking impacts for others. But that’s a different post…

For now, the focus is on what is considered “normal drinking,” aka “low-risk drinking.”  Below please find NIAAA’s image that explains the drinking pattern that is considered “normal” or “low-risk” drinking.


NIAAA Rethinking Drinking Explains "Normal" or "Low-risk" Drinking

NIAAA Rethinking Drinking Explains “Normal” or “Low-risk” Drinking


Putting this image into words, “low-risk” or “normal” drinking is defined as:

      • For women: No more than 7 standard drinks/week, with no more than 3 of the 7 on any one day.
      • For men:  No more than 14 standard drinks/week, with no more than 4 of the 14 on any one day.

Notice the words, “standard drinks.” Because ingredients and distilling processes are so different, the amount of alcohol in various types of alcoholic beverages varies widely. Here are the amounts for a standard drink of various types of alcoholic beverages:

      • Wine = 5 ounces
      • Regular beer = 12 ounces (so a tall beer = 2 standard drinks)
      • Champagne = 3.3 ounce
      • Ale or lagers = 8-9 ounces
      • 80-proof Hard Liquor (tequila, scotch, vodka, gin, bourbon) = 1.5 ounces


Why these amounts

Notice how the above definition contains a daily limit and a weekly limit. The daily limit of “no more than 3 in one day” for women and “no  more than 4 in one day” for men is to help a person avoid binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as 4 or more standard drinks for women and 5 or more for men. It’s been found that binge drinking is what causes a person to lose their ability to think straight and act responsibly. Check out this short video, “How Much is Too Much? “At-Risk” Drinking Explained.”

The weekly limit of “no more than 7 in a week” for women and “no more than 14 in a week” for men is to help people who choose to drink maintain their overall health. This is because each alcoholic beverage contains approximately 100 calories and very little (if any) nutritional value. Thus if a person is consuming 2-3 drinks/day, they are getting 200-300 unnecessary calories/day (in that there is no nutritional value for the calories being consumed).


These numbers are just targets, however

"Low-risk" or "Normal" driving limits are only a target. Even these amounts can be a problem for some people.

“Low-risk” or “Normal” drinking limits are only a target. Even these amounts can be a problem for some people.

And while these numbers give us a target, you will also note the words, “low-risk.” Even these amounts can be risky for people who are:

Bottom line

New science helps us understand levels of drinking that are considered “low-risk” — meaning low-risk for developing a drinking problem and/or losing control of one’s brain functioning due to alcohol consumption. If you are concerned about your drinking or want to learn more or find tips for cutting down, check out NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking website. There is a wealth of information there.

And before I close this post, contrary to popular opinion, not everybody drinks. NIAAA Rethinking Drinking reports that approximately one-third of American adults NEVER drink ANY alcohol — a little-known fact, to be sure! Not only that, but approximately one-third of the American adult population always drinks within “low-risk,” “normal” drinking limits.


Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

4 Responses to What is Considered Normal Drinking

  1. Liz Bigger says:

    This is so interesting to know! I have often wondered and this was very informative…thanks so much for the blog post!!!

  2. Hilary says:

    I really appreciate these guidelines. Having been a person who stopped drinking at 20 with a rough family history and my own personal struggle at a young age, I have started drinking again in the past year after almost 7 years without it. I rarely drink during the week, and when I do drink I have 2-3 tops. However, on occasion I have more and my husband hates it. He isn’t a drinker himself, and doesn’t understand why/when people over-consume. It is not worth my marriage to keep ‘hurting him”, but I don’t want make these changes if the root issue is more about his own insecurities. What do I do?

    • Hi Hilary – it’s difficult to answer this based on what you’ve written here. If you’d like to call me – I’m happy to talk with you further – my office line is 650-362-3026. I’m on PST, and if I don’t answer, I will call you back. Lisa

Leave a Reply to Hilary Cancel reply