The hangover

A night out in London. A few drinks. A good time.

But I had just become a binge drinker.

This was a bit of a surprise. I know what binge drinking looks like; I have seen it on the news and in the papers and it is ugly. And my night out did not look like that. So what happened?

The recommendations given by the government (their “lower risk guidelines”) are that:

  • Women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units (16-24g of alcohol) a day; and
  • Men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units (24-32g of alcohol) a day.

In one night I had easily slipped beyond the 10 unit mark and was possibly into the low teens. And that is enough to classify my evening as one of binge drinking. This interesting NHS report explains that “binge drinking is usually defined as drinking twice the daily limit on one occasion”.

It goes on to say that “some researchers now think that binge drinking may increase the risk of long-term health problems, in particular cardiovascular disease”. While the research that supports this assertion classified binge drinking as drinking more than 6.25 units of alcohol (a Bad Thing for me – remember that I was somewhere north of ten units), it also considers the effect of doing this on at least one day a week (rather than a one-off, so a Slightly Better Thing as far as my night out was concerned). The benchmark may not be as high (it’s only 6.25 units, compared with 8 units in the definition above) but the research was looking at the effects of doing this week in, week out.

But how easy is it to reach 6.25 units in one sitting?

The old rules don’t apply anymore

It used to be accepted that one unit was half a pint of beer, a glass of wine or a single measure. Luckily for us we now have a much more interesting choice in front of us at the bar (or bottle shop or supermarket). But it does mean that this rule-of-thumb is out of date. Trying to work it out in your head is likely to be harder than you remember but you can calculate (roughly) how many units are in a drink using this NHS calculator. I have played around with a few numbers, to show a range of outcomes from the calculator:


Looking at it another way, this is how you can drink over 6.25 units in one sitting:


If you have a smartphone (that caveat is only really needed for people like me who are still living in the mobile phone dark ages) then there are apps that you can download (NHSDrinkaware) to help you keep track.

The comedown

This is all a bit sobering. I can rightly remind myself that I rarely exceed the daily lower risk guidelines, but the NHS report mentioned earlier concludes by saying that “we know with certainty that heavy drinking is bad for health and longevity, and evidence is accumulating that even an occasional binge is bad for you too. The risks or benefits of light to moderate alcohol intake are less clear.”

The Drinkaware website has a simple summary of the possible implications for your health, depending on which of the following best fits your circumstances:

  • Lower risk – Your typical drinking falls within the lower risk guidelines
  • Increasing risk – You regularly drink more than 3-4 units (men) or 2-3 units (women) a day
  • Higher risk – You regularly drink more than double the upper limit (8 units for men, 6 units for women)

I believe that a line still needs to be drawn between evenings like mine and those that make the papers. I was not antisocial. I did not put myself at a massively increased risk of harm through “unintentional injuries such as traffic accidents, violence, risky sexual behaviour and alcohol poising” (NHS). I didn’t punch a policeman.

But I was surprised to find that the distance from one pint to the recommended lower risk guideline to binge drinking was not as great as I thought it was. I had not realised how easy it was to reach a point that qualifies as binge drinking. And, although it is not the highest-risk form of drinking, the research indicates that occasional binge drinking can still be detrimental to my health through an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Probably not a dramatic risk, but a risk nonetheless. And I was not aware that I was doing it.

But it’s beer…

And I enjoy it. I enjoy the many and varied styles and flavours. I enjoy trying new ones and revisiting old favourites. It’s a bit sad and a bit geeky, but I find it interesting. The Right Thing for my health would probably be to say no to alcohol completely, but I cannot see that as the Right Thing for me to do as a whole.

This is a tough one, but at least I feel that I have a few more facts at my fingertips now.

Running Buffet is not run by a health expert, nor a food scientist. I did once get a food hygiene qualification but that was a long time ago and I have since lost the certificate. I am, instead, an enthusiastic amateur. So please do not rely solely on anything I have to say in these posts, but you may be able to use them as a starting point, a jumping-off point, from which to build up your own opinions on what is right and what is not. I will provide links to various websites, but please be aware that I am not responsible for those sites, nor do I necessarily agree with what they say.


4 thoughts on “The hangover

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  2. As an addendum to the above post, the Office for National Statistics have recently released some data about the drinking habits of the UK between 2005 and 2013. Their definition of binge drinking “refers to men who reported drinking more than eight units of alcohol on their heaviest drinking day in the week before interview, and women who drank more than six units.”

    You can find five visual snapshots of this data here:

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