What Is Moderate or Heavy Drinking? Percentages & Definitions in Consumption

If you’ve come here after searching on the topic of moderate drinking, it’s likely that you’re wondering about your drinking and whether or not you should cut back to reduce alcohol-related problems or risks for problems. If you’ve not read the previous post I recommend doing so as they build on each other.

Our goal in this series is to present you with solid empirical data on moderate drinking without blaming, labeling, or telling you what to do. What, if anything you decide to do about your drinking is always up to you. Only you can make that choice.

My research team and I have been involved in developing moderate drinking programs for 28+ years now and have published numerous peer-reviewed papers, book chapters, and developed digital tools to help people be successful in moderating their drinking. We have considerable expertise in this area.

This first post covered definitions of moderate drinking based on solid empirical research over the years. It also addressed instances where moderate drinking or a goal of pursuing moderate drinking could be hazardous to your health and well-being.

The second post focused on what’s really the first step or question to answer about your drinking? Would it be a good thing for me to change it?

The third gives you a way to compare different kinds of alcohol and encourages you to use a standard drink (Standard Ethanol Content or SEC to use research terms) and gives you a calculator for it.

The fourth post addresses your chances of success in cutting back.

The fifth post discusses concrete steps you can take to be successful at moderating your drinking.

The sixth post discusses how to deal when your efforts to moderate your drinking aren’t working.

In this post we’ll start with what moderate drinking is, and what it isn’t. 

In future posts we will provide:What is Moderate Drinking?

  • A quiz then feedback on your chances of success with becoming and remaining a moderate drinker
  • A standard drink calculator tool
  • The steps to take in cutting back on drinking
  • A guide to help you consider whether moderate drinking is a feasible goal for you after you’ve been making efforts to cut back

How Much Alcohol Constitutes Moderate Drinking

There is agreement in the scientific community about what defines “moderate drinking.” It’s no more than 3-4 standard drinks per drinking episode and a total of no more than 9 drinks per week for women and 12-14 for men. Also, moderate drinking means limiting how fast you drink and, as a result, keeping your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) below .055 (.08 is the DWI limit in all states in the U.S.).

This definition of moderate drinking prevents you from getting drunk. Moderate drinkers don’t drink to get drunk. Now if your idea of moderate drinking is a 6 pack instead of a 12 pack, this would suggest that you drink with some pretty heavy drinkers. Drinking a 6 pack of beer is heavy drinking.

The Type of Drink Makes a Difference

All drinks are not created equal though. Beer can range in the % of alcohol from 3.2 to 9+%. So while the average 12 oz beer sold in the U.S. is 5%, it pays to know the alcohol content of what you’re drinking. This is especially true for craft beers that have become popular of late. (Probably because they taste better but that’s our own opinion.) And remember, a pint of beer is 16 oz so that’s already a 1.25 standard drinks at 5% beer.

Wine is easier to know the alcohol content because it’s (usually) listed on the bottle. Liquor and mixed drinks are a whole other “kettle of fish.” How much vodka is in that Martini? How much rum is in that Long Island Iced Tea? Yes, there are standard recipes for mixed drinks and we’ll provide a searchable database later in the series of moderation posts. For now though, suffice it to say that a standard Long Island Iced Tea is almost 4 standard drinks. And if you’re having mixed drinks at a bar, the amount poured can vary widely. What to do? When in doubt, ask.

To summarize, a standard drink is equal to:

  • a 12 oz (355 ml.) beer with 5% alcohol
  • a 5 oz. (150 ml.) glass of wine (12.5% alcohol)
  • 1.5 oz. (45 ml.) of 80 proof liquor (40% alcohol)

Your Drinking History Also Makes a Difference

Some heavy drinkers who’ve experienced problems from their drinking can learn how to moderate their drinking. They can maintain moderate drinking for years at a time. Others cannot. So who’s more likely to be successful at moderation? Drinkers with a shorter history of problems and less severe problems tend to be more successful with cutting back and maintaining it. (We’ll cover this in more depth later in the series.) Drinkers who believe that alcoholism is a bad habit rather than a disease tend to do better with moderation.

Most importantly, you must first decide whether you want to stop having alcohol-related problems. If you’re not sure, consider our CheckUp. There you can take a good look at your drinking and get objective feedback. Then you can decide whether or not to change.

Cautions About Changing Drinking Habits

If you’re thinking about moderate drinking for yourself, there’s a few things to think about.

  1. If you’ve had significant alcohol-related problems and are currently not drinking, trying moderate drinking may put you at risk again for alcohol-related problems.
  2. If you’re currently drinking more than the guidelines of moderation, you will reduce your risk for problems by cutting back.

Is moderate drinking OK for anyone who wants to change their drinking?

The short answer is no and we’ll cover this in more depth in a subsequent post. In the meantime, there are a number of situations in which any drinking is not a good idea. Consider this:

  • Any drinking may be risky and could affect your health if any of the following are true.
    • If you are under the care of a doctor for a health problem (e.g., hypertension) or if you have a history of health problems. If so, consider talking to your doctor about your interest in cutting back on your drinking.
    • If you are taking any medications or supplements. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has published a brochure on alcohol/medication interactions that we recommend you look at.
    • There is no known safe level of drinking if you are pregnant.
  • If you are on probation any drinking can be a violation of your probation.
  • If any drinking will likely lead to problems in your relationships with others (e.g., your partner).
  • There is no safe level of drinking and driving. ANY alcohol in your system affects your ability to drive. We can’t emphasize this enough.
  • If you are under 21, any drinking is illegal. Many states have no tolerance for underage drinking and driving.
  • If you mix alcohol and drugs. If you are considering stopping your drug use, any alcohol in your system can affect your ability to stay away from drugs.

About the Author

Dr. Reid K. Hester, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, researcher, and the Co-Founder of CheckUp & Choices, serving as the Director of its Research Division.Dr. Reid K. Hester, Ph.D.

Dr. Hester has published over 60 journal articles on the topic of substance misuse and digital interventions including in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, the Journal of Medical Internet Research, and The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.

A leader in his field, Dr. Hester’s opinions, online resources and research have been featured in The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Vogue, and Men’s Health among others

Dr. Hester received his masters and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Washington State University in 1979.