UK alcohol guidelines: key changes to know - plus top tips on cutting back

The Department of Health has changed the UK alcohol guidelines for the first time in more than 20 years, after having "concerns" over the old recommended limits.1

The previous guidelines were published in 1995, and since then we have gathered significantly more information on the link between alcohol and certain cancers and heart disease.

We now know that the risks of drinking start when we consume any alcohol at all on a regular basis, and continue to rise the more we consume. The new limit has been set in order to help control the risks of cancer and heart disease.

What are the new guidelines?

The new guidelines recommend that men and women don't exceed 14 units a week, which is the equivalent of;

• Around five pints of average strength beer (5.0% ABV) or

• Just under five large glasses (250 ml) of average strength wine (12.0% ABV).

This is a cut of around a third on the previous advice for men, although the limit for women hasn't changed.

However, one area that has changed for women is drinking during pregnancy. Previously women were advised not to drink more than one or two units to reduce the risk of any harm to their baby, while now they are advised there is no safe alcohol limit during pregnancy.

In addition, people who do drink on a regular basis are advised to spread their intake out across the week rather than 'save up' their units to drink all on one day - and also to have at least two or three alcohol-free days each week.

Does sticking to the new guidelines mean drinking is safe?

The answer to this is a very clear no. Instead, the new guidelines simply provide a way to minimise the risk of drinking, but consuming any alcohol at all carries an element of health risk.

Healthy drinking tips

There are so many ways to keep your drinking within healthy limits - take a look through the following suggestions and see what works for you:

At home

• Avoid stocking up on alcohol in the house as you're far more likely to drink more that way

• If you drink alcohol at meal times, serve individual glasses on the table and leave the bottle in the kitchen.

• Don't feel you need to finish wine to avoid it going off; use a wine stopper and save it for later

• Home servings of wine and spirits are typically larger than standard measures so remember to watch your servings.

If you're having a dinner party

• Give each guest a water glass and keep them topped up

• Use small wine glasses on the table, and lower-strength wine

• Offer lemonade or soda water so your guests can make spritzers

• Offer alternatives such as mixers, juices and fruit cocktails.

Going out

• Set yourself a limit and stick to it. Remind yourself of the health benefits involved and make a decision about what you're going to drink after you've stopped the alcohol

• Take a planned amount of cash with you and leave your cards at home

• Choose lower-strength varieties of your usual alcoholic drinks

• Alternate your alcoholic drinks with soft drinks such as fruit juice or a glass of water in between

• If you're feeling peer pressure to drink more, then go to the bar yourself - spritzers and shandy are easy, discreet alternatives for wine and beer

• Snack as you drink - it will slow your drinking down (avoid salty snacks, however, which make you more thirsty)

• Try to avoid buying drinks in rounds - you'll have less control over your decisions and will probably end up drinking more than you planned

• Choose your drinking partners carefully - if you go out with heavy drinkers then you'll probably drink more yourself

• If you usually choose large drinks then try reducing the size - smaller measures of wine, bottles of beer instead of pints and single spirits

• Try meeting up with friends at social venues that don't serve alcohol, such as cafés or galleries

• Literally take it easy when you're drinking - we tend to drink faster when standing and more slowly when sitting with the glass on the table.

And here are some general tips for cutting down…

• Take it slowly - set realistic targets and cut down a little each week until you reach your goal

• Do you drink every day? Set aside two regular alcohol-free days a week

• Don't choose alcohol to quench your thirst

• Pace your drinks - sip slowly

• If you have a drink at a regular time, change it. Do something else to break that habit

• If you get a spontaneous urge for a drink, try to find something else to do to take your mind off it, such as having a bath or going for a walk - the urge should soon pass

• Let your friends and family know what you're doing - they'll probably be supportive, especially if you can play the 'doctor's card' to add some medical weight to your decision by saying that you're under doctor's orders to get your blood pressure down.