A Dietitian Explains How to 'Drink in Moderation'—and What That Actually Means

We hear this advice constantly—but what does it look like?

<p>5PH/Getty Images</p>

5PH/Getty Images

The holiday season means it’s time for nostalgic movies, festive decorations, homemade cookies—and plenty of celebratory, alcoholic drinks. But even once the marathon of holiday socializing and events is over, the temptation to open a bottle of wine is hard to resist, especially during the shorter, darker days of winter.

It’s no secret that overdoing it on boozy beverages isn’t the best choice for our health—which is why healthcare professionals dole out this familiar advice again and again: “Drink in moderation.” But what does it really mean to drink in moderation? Is it a technical term, an intuitive guideline? Here’s how specific alcohol recommendations are defined, as well as some tips to help you drink moderately (while still enjoying life!).

Related: 9 Healthy Things That Happen to Your Body When You Stop Drinking for 30 Days (or More)

How Alcohol Impacts Your Health

Not to be a buzzkill, but alcohol can negatively influence our health in a few different ways  in both the short and long term. In general, alcohol does increase inflammation throughout the body, a contributing factor to many of the chronic diseases linked to long-term, excessive alcohol consumption, including pancreatic illness, liver disease, heart disease, and several types of cancer.

Alcohol’s inflammatory effects are particularly pronounced in the gut, negatively impacting the intestinal lining and the balance of microorganisms making up the gut microbiome. The impacts of alcohol on gut health alone are significant because of its ripple effect—the microbiome is closely linked to brain health, immune health, gastrointestinal health, and much more.

Additionally, as a depressant, alcohol can affect the brain through disrupted sleep, mood, cognition, and performance. This myriad of impacts has resulted in more stringent recommendations on alcohol consumption from healthcare professionals over the years, coining the terms ‘drinking in moderation’ and ‘drink responsibly.’

Related: Here’s Why Drinking Gives You 'Hangxiety'—and How to Reclaim a Sense of Calm

What Does ‘Drinking in Moderation’ Mean?

It sort of depends who you ask.

National Guidelines and Recommendations

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a set of nutrition recommendations for Americans across all lifespans that is updated and released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (UDSA) every five years.

The current 2020-2025 version defines moderate drinking as one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men.

What counts as "one drink"?

According to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “one ‘standard’ drink (or one alcoholic drink equivalent) contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol.” Here’s what that looks like, depending on different types of beverages:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer (typically about 5 percent alcohol)

  • 5 ounces of wine (typically about 12 percent alcohol)

  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (about 40 percent alcohol)

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 defines moderate drinking as one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men.

These recommendations have been adopted by many healthcare professionals as the general definition of “drinking in moderation.”

However, some critics of the above guidelines feel that they’re actually too generous given the data we have about the health impacts of alcohol. For instance, in January of 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement saying that no level of alcohol is safe. They share that “risks start from the first drop” and increase with every additional sip of alcohol. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in March 2023 also concluded that not even low to moderate alcohol consumption provided any healthy benefits, despite past research suggesting so.

Nutritionist Recommendations

As a registered dietitian for nearly a decade, I typically recommend somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum. That might look like two to three, possibly four, drinks per week. However, the more conservative the better!

If my clients can achieve those numbers on a monthly basis, that’s excellent—but that’s often unrealistic for many, which is perfectly OK. It's important to meet yourself where you are and make small steps towards healthier practices from there.

Related: The 10 Healthiest Types of Alcohol to Drink, According to a Registered Dietitian

What Is Binge Drinking?

While drinking in moderation can look different for different people, there is a clearly defined line for when it tips over into binge drinking. Binge drinking is well defined and something we should all strive to avoid for best health and safety.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) binge drinking is defined as: “a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent—or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter—or more." This typically takes place if four drinks or more are consumed within two hours for women, or when five or more drinks are consumed in the same time period for men.

Binge drinking is not only associated with all the acute and chronic illnesses we highlighted above, but it also puts individuals at greater risk for bodily injury, alcohol poisoning, car accidents, violence, and other risky behaviors. For all of these reasons, binge drinking is highly discouraged as an unsafe practice for everyone’s health.

Related: 7 Dry January Apps to Help You Drink Less

How to Drink in Moderation: Easy Tips for Drinking Less

Thankfully, there are many ways to cut down on your drinking to a more modest place. Here are some practical strategies, tips, and reminders to help you drink more mindfully and moderately.

Dilution is your friend.

If you’re looking to enjoy more than one drink in a sitting, diluting your drinks is a great way to stretch a smaller amount of alcohol. To do this, simply cut the amount of your hard liquor, cocktail, or wine in half and mix with sparkling water (flavored or plain) or just plain old filtered water. Depending on the drink and your taste preference, you can also add fresh fruit juice.

Go one for one.

Another common practice to encourage moderated drinking habits is the concept of ‘one for one’ where you alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Many opt for water for their non-alc option (hydration boost!), but you can choose anything you’d like (bonus points for something without added sugar).

Be honest with loved ones.

If your friend group, family, or work colleagues frequently enjoys happy hours, nights out, and other alcohol-centered activities, it can be a struggle to try and cut down. However, an honest conversation goes a long way! Most people will completely understand your pursuit of new drinking habits and offer their support. They might even be trying to cut down themselves, you never know.

Center social gatherings around other activities.

In that same vein, shifting your social gatherings towards activities that aren’t centered around drinking can make cutting down much easier and take the pressure off the temptation or the pressured obligation to drink. There’s an endless number of fun things to do with loved ones that involve no drinking whatsoever. Some options include going to the movies, enjoying nature, hosting a game night, cooking a meal together—the sky’s the limit.

Set concrete, actionable goals.

If drinking less or less often than you typically do is something you’re committed to, pull out a pen and paper and write down some concrete goals for yourself. This provides you with the opportunity to create a plan that feels good to you and increases your accountability to those goals.

Explore non-alcoholic alternatives.

So many people are invested in drinking less alcohol for one reason or another, and in response, the zero-proof spirit market has exploded. Tons of beverage brands offer delicious non-alcoholic drink options from Surely Wines and Ritual Zero Proof Spirits to Little Saints and even Heineken.

Related: Our 8 Favorite Mocktail Recipes for Dry January and Beyond

Opt for healthier drinks.

And our final tip is When you do imbibe, shoot for healthier drinks that help mitigate some of the health impacts of alcohol. Generally, these healthier options will be low in (or free of) added sugars. (Added sugars in alcoholic beverages typically come in the form of sugary mixers like soda, sweetened juices, and simple syrups.) Great alternatives to these would be 100-percent, no-sugar-added juices (the fresher the better!), sugar-free flavored sparkling waters, or seltzer. When it comes to nutrient-added drinks, this could look like opting for resveratrol-rich (an anti-inflammatory plant compound) red wine or choosing a mixed drink made with nutrient-rich ingredients like fresh vegetable juice.

Through understanding the different ways ‘drinking in moderation’ can look, you can decide how you’d like that to look for you. Drinking responsibly will not only result in longer-term health pay offs, but lovely added bonuses like fewer headaches and hangovers, too.

Related: The 3 Healthiest Types of Wine, According to Registered Dietitians

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