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Is a Drink Really Just a Drink?

Is a Drink Really Just a Drink?
Here’s a deeper dive into various types of alcohol and how to tell how much you’re really drinking.

U.S. News
By Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN
March 31, 2022, at 7:00 a.m.

This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.

When you look at the guidelines for what is a drink, it says 12 fluid ounce of beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof liquor like vodka or rum. But is every bottle of beer the same? Do they each contain the same amount of alcohol? There’s a lot more to “a drink” than the amount of alcohol in your glass.

Why Are There Alcohol Recommendations?

Many folks do like to kick back with an alcoholic beverage for various reasons. Plus, “consuming alcohol as part of a balanced lifestyle can have its benefits,” says Amanda Berger, vice president of the Science & Health Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. However, “no one should be drinking alcohol to achieve a potential health benefit.”

Berger explains that research has found that moderate consumption of alcohol may be associated with certain health benefits for some adults, including a protective effect against cardiovascular disease, some types of stroke and diabetes, as well as a reduced risk of certain types of cancer.

It should also be noted that consuming alcohol can also pose health risks. Some folks should not drink any alcohol, and if you choose to drink, it should be done responsibly and in moderation.

Berger explains that “this definition of moderate consumption is based on the preponderance of evidence that drinking in excess of recommended limits is associated with a greater likelihood of alcohol-related health risks.”

Recommended Alcohol Guidelines

The 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans include the following recommendations if you choose to drink:

  • Adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed.
  • Drinking less is better for health than drinking more.
  • There are some adults who should not drink alcohol, such as women who are pregnant, are under the legal age for drinking, have certain medical conditions or are taking certain medications that can interact with alcohol, are recovering from an alcohol use disorder or if they are unable to control the amount they drink or plan to drive or take part in other activities that require skill, coordination and alertness.

A big misconception is that a certain type of alcohol is better than another type. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s the amount of alcohol consumed that affects a person most, not the type of alcohol.
“Whether it is in distilled spirits, wine or beer, the effects of ethanol (the pure alcohol that is in all beverage alcohol) on the body are the same,” Berger explains. It’s important for individuals to discuss their alcohol consumption with their healthcare providers, who can help determine what is best for that person based on individual risk factors, such as family history, genetics and lifestyle.

The Practice of Moderation

The 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans recommend that if you choose to drink, men can consume up to one drink per day and women can consume up to two drinks per day. As described above, a drink is defined as 12 fluid ounce of beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof liquor like vodka or rum.

“When it comes to alcohol, there is no beverage of moderation, only the practice of moderation,” Berger says. “The standard drink equivalents of distilled spirits, beer and wine contain the same amount of the same pure alcohol, ethanol. There is no scientific, public safety or public policy basis to differentiate between them — especially when some products, such as ready-to-drink beverages, may have the exact same alcohol by volume. Alcohol is alcohol, and treating beverage types differently sends the dangerous message that some forms of alcohol are ‘safer’ than others.”

Drinking Affects Men and Women Differently

There are also different recommendations for males and females for various reasons. Although most people think the different recommendation is only based on body weight, that’s only one factor. Berger provides another reason: Females have less water in their bodies, therefore, “if a female and a male of the same size and weight drink the same amount of alcohol, a female is likely to reach a higher blood alcohol concentration.”

Calculating Your Alcohol Intake

However, just because you have only one drink by volume, doesn’t mean you’re getting the same amount of alcohol. That is where the percent alcohol by volume (% ABV) comes in. According to the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans, one standard drink or “drink equivalent” contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol.

Here are examples of 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol, which is considered one standard drink:

  • 12 fluid ounces of beer (5% ABV).
  • 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% ABV).
  • 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (40% ABV).
  • 12 fluid ounces of a canned, ready-to-drink beverage (5% ABV).

Many alcohol beverages now have more than the standard % ABV listed above. If you want to do the math, for a 16-ounce can with 8% ABV, it would be: (16 x 0.08 ABV) ÷ 0.6 = 2.13 standard drinks. That’s slightly more than two standard drinks.
Don’t worry. You won’t have to do the math because DISCUS has created a drink equivalent calculator so you just have to input two pieces of information, and the standard drink equivalent pops up for you.

You’ll need to enter:

  • Volume (typically shown as ounces or mL).
  • Alcohol by volume (typically shown as % ABV or ‘proof’).

Bottom Line

Percent alcohol by volume plays a big piece of the moderation puzzle when it comes to alcohol. If you want an easy way to find out how many standard drinks your alcoholic beverage has, use the consumer calculator created by DISCUS and remember to drink responsibly.