Alcohol and heart disease

Drinking too much alcohol can damage our hearts, so it’s vital that we understand and stick to guidelines. But our survey reveals that most of us don’t know what these are, as Sarah Brealey reports.

Most people know that too much alcohol isn’t good for our health, but how many people know what “too much” means? To find out, we asked polling company YouGov to survey more than 2,500 UK adults. We asked about drinking guidelines, what counts as binge drinking, different drinks’ alcohol content and the health conditions linked to alcohol.

Fewer than half of men (42%) could identify their recommended daily limit for drinking, which is three to four units. For women, the recommended daily limit is two to three units. While 60% of women were correct, two out of five either got it wrong or said they didn’t know.

Exceeding drinking guidelines puts you at greater risk of health problems. Awareness is especially vital as we approach the festive season, when people tend to drink more.

Alcohol is also high in calories – there are nearly 240 calories in a large glass of chardonnay (13% alcohol) for example, the same as in a 50g bar of milk chocolate – so drinking too much can lead to weight gain.

What different drinks really mean

We also asked people how many units they thought were in common alcoholic drinks. Only one in eight (12%) knew that half a bottle (375ml) of wine (13% alcohol) contains five units. It’s particularly concerning that 54% underestimated the number of units, meaning they may be drinking more units than they realise. When it came to a pint of beer (5% alcohol), fewer than one in seven people (14%) knew it was three units and, again, most (62%) underestimated this number.

Binge drinking

Binge drinking is usually defined as consuming eight or more units in a single session for men and six or more for women. This can cause additional damage to your body and increase the risk of stroke. But when we asked people to select the minimum amount of drinks that would count as binge drinking, only one in eight (12%) got the answer right for each gender. For men, the answer is eight units, which is three pints of 5% alcohol beer or three and a half standard glasses (175ml each) of 13% alcohol wine. For women, it’s two large glasses of wine (250ml each), or just over two pints of beer.

The majority thought that the minimum amounts were more than this, and one in six said they didn’t know. Worryingly, one in 20 men thought that binge drinking for them would be a minimum of ten pints of beer, or more.

Dangers of alcohol

Most people we surveyed realised that drinking too much alcohol is linked to liver disease (87%) and high blood pressure (71%). But only 37% were aware of the link to heart muscle damage and irregular heartbeat. Just 19% realised that it’s linked to breast cancer.

Victoria Taylor, our Senior Dietitian, said: “This survey highlights the confusion about how many units are in our drinks. Different glass sizes and alcohol strengths can add to this. Using tools such as the Drinkaware alcohol calculator is a good way to work out the number of units.

“As well as the amount we drink, it’s important to consider our drinking patterns. Even if you haven’t drunk alcohol Monday to Friday, that doesn’t mean you can have a week’s worth on Saturday! If you drink too much in one session, avoid alcohol for 48 hours to allow your body time to recover.”

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,606 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken 26–29 July 2013. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).