Guidelines on drinking alcohol have changed, with limits for men reduced to the same level as for women.
The UK’s chief medical officers said their new evidence showed there were greater health risks from alcohol consumption than was previously thought, particularly for cancer.
“If men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low”
The updated guidelines, published today, state men and women should not regularly exceed 14 units of alcohol per week, which is equal to six pints of average strength beer. If this limit is reached, it should be spread evenly over three days, they add.
Previous guidelines published 20 years ago focused on daily, rather than weekly, consumption. They recommended no more than three to four units a day for men and two to three for women.
Although the Department of Health had said that per week women should not exceed 14 units and men should not go over 21 units.
The group of experts who developed the updated guidance said a focus on daily ranges was “confusing” and potentially suggested an optimum range rather than a limit.
The updated version states there are health risks from drinking regularly, regardless of the amount.
“There is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol to drink when you are pregnant”
To help reduce regular alcohol consumption – defined as being most weeks – it recommends having several drink-free days each week.
For the first time, advice on single episodes of drinking is also featured in the guidelines. This includes limiting the total amount of alcohol and drinking more slowly, with food, and alternating with water.
Guidelines for pregnant women have also been updated to clarify that no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy.
Previously, guidance included the advice that if expectant mothers did drink, they should limit themselves to no more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice per week.
But this has now been removed because evidence suggested it was being viewed by some as a recommendation to drink alcohol at low levels during pregnancy.
The experts behind the guidelines also said there was no justification for drinking for health benefits – noting the perception that drinking moderate amounts of red wine was beneficial for cardiovascular risk, for example, due to some studies covered by the media.
After reviewing the latest evidence, they concluded the benefits for heart health from alcohol are less than was previously thought, and apply only to women aged 55 and over who drink at the most five units a week.
Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, said: “Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone, but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low.
“I want pregnant women to be very clear that they should avoid alcohol as a precaution,” she said.
Although the risk of harm to the baby is low if they have drunk small amounts of alcohol before becoming aware of the pregnancy, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol to drink when you are pregnant,” she added.