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Ask Tufts Experts November 2017 Issue

Drinking in Moderation: What That Means and Why It's Recommended

[Updated April 30, 2018]

Q: If we drink, we’re advised to do so in moderation (limiting it to one drink daily for women, two for men). What is the basis for this advice?

Alice H. Lichtenstein, ScD, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts’ Friedman School, says:

A: “The definition of drinking in moderation for the US population is based on observational research looking at the association between different amounts of alcohol intake and risk of mortality (dying) and morbidity (disease). It represents a general, population-wide recommendation.

“But drinking in moderation means different alcohol amounts for different people. There are a number of factors that alter the body’s response to alcohol intake. According to the CDC, these include age, sex, race or ethnicity, physical condition (such as weight and fitness level), the amount of food consumed before drinking alcohol, how quickly the alcohol is consumed, use of certain drugs or prescription medicines, and family history of alcohol problems. And, there are many people who should not drink, such as women who are or who may be pregnant and people with certain medical conditions.

“The lower alcohol limit advised for women is because a single alcoholic beverage affects women more than men. That’s due in part to differences in body size and body composition, which result in higher peak blood alcohol levels in women versus men for the same amount of alcohol intake. And compared to men, women are more likely to have lower levels of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol, so alcohol tends to remain in women’s bodies longer. These differences also increase women’s risk of long-term health problems related to drinking.”

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