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  • How Much Can I Drink?

    January 18, 2013 | 4 comments

    This Week On Drink Your Carbs, We Answer: How much alcohol is too much?Drink Your Carbs launched in December of 2011. Since that time we’ve received a ton of feedback. We’ve been called everything from geniuses to morons. We’ve also fielded countless question on topics ranging from diet sodas and ranch dressing to whether knitting counts towards exercise. Through all of the inquiries we’ve received, however, one question has never been asked: How much alcohol is too much?

    We very deliberately never offer an opinion on the number of alcoholic drinks people can or should healthfully consume. This is not because we believe that alcohol consumption should be limitless. It should not. The reason that we have never made a blanket recommendation is we have no idea what to recommend.

    It would be easy to run with the recommendations from the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. “If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.” If we thought there was any consensus behind these numbers, we might have adopted them. We are, however, a long a way from agreement between various governmental agencies and researchers.

    The International Center for Alcohol Policies maintains a list of International Drinking Guidelines. It turns out that over 30 countries have weighed in on the debate and offered their own recommendations for healthy alcohol consumption. Not only do these recommendations disagree, they differ wildly from one country to the next.

    If you are Italian, you can safely consume twice as much alcohol per day as a German or a Swede. You can also drink one-third more alcohol per day than the average American. This is all according to guidelines published by the Italian Ministry for Agriculture and equivalent agencies in the other countries. To take these guidelines at face value we would have to assume that Italians are somehow genetically better adapted to drinking. Many of our Italian friends would love to believe this, but we think that conclusion is premature.

    Italy is by no means a drunken outlier. Spaniards are assured to be healthy while consuming a full 25% more alcohol than Italians. In fact, Spaniards from the Basque region of Spain can consume even more. According to the Basque Country Department of Health & Social Security both men and women alike can safely drink a full bottle of wine every single day. We have no idea if anyone follows these recommendations, but it is worth mentioning that the Basque region has one of the highest life expectancies of any region in Europe.

    • Allow us to share some of the more interesting observations we have teased out of these data:

      You can healthfully drink more alcohol in countries that allow bare breasts to be shown on television. This may be correlation not causation, but we mention it because a possible interpretation is that viewing breasts is somehow protective.

      Austria defines “hazardous drinking” as beginning at 40 grams of alcohol per day. Coincidentally, this is the same number cited as healthy by Italy, Spain and Japan.

      The Czech Republic has among the lowest recommendations in the world at 24 grams of alcohol per day. These Czech guidelines are 15% lower than the American equivalent. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, the average Czech citizen drinks 74% more alcohol per year than the average American. At a minimum, this suggests that the Czech government should consider publishing its recommendations in a larger font.

      Residents of the Eastern European nation of Moldova drink the most alcohol per capita of any nation where consumption is tracked and reported. This works out to roughly twice as much per year as the average American. Nonetheless, they see no reason to wade into this debate. Moldova has yet to release guidelines.

      Recommendations for women are typically two thirds of the number of drinks recommended for men, unless you happen to be French, Swiss, Italian, Swedish, Spanish, Basque, Romanian or Australian. Those countries make no distinction for gender. This is either egalitarian or reckless depending on the guidelines from your country of origin.

      On average, members of the Axis powers in WWII may healthfully drink more than members of the Allied forces. We have no idea what to make of this, but felt compelled to point it out.

      The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which is part of the US National Institutes of Health, has put out its own recommendation for healthy drinking. Oddly, their acceptable number of daily drinks is a full 50% higher than the figure from the USDA. To be fair, the NIAAA recommendations for weekly consumption are identical to those from the USDA. In other words, if we were to distill the NIAAA position to a T-shirt slogan it would read: “Drink More Less Often.”

      Source: All of our international drinking guideline numbers came from the International Center for Alcohol Policies. All of the source data is reported in grams of pure alcohol. If you are over the age of five, outside the US and/or a heavy cocaine user, converting these numbers is easy. Our American education, however, left us ill prepared for the task. It took far longer than you might think to convert these numbers to recognizable drinks.

      If you find errors in our math, please send your corrections directly to the US Department of Commerce Office of Weights and Measures. This is the governmental department responsible for rejecting the Metric System. They hold the blame for the fact that the average American is unable to convert simple measurements such as centimeters into liters.

      ICAP also tracks other global alcohol-related policies such as drinking age, blood alcohol limits for driving and required warning labels. If you unearth anything new or noteworthy in the data please be sure to share it in the comments below.

    Clearly, consensus among the nations is lacking. Even doctors disagree with their own country’s recommendations. Earlier this year, the British Physician, Dr. Michael Mosley, stirred controversy on BBC Radio by airing his contempt for the alcohol consumption guidelines of England. When asked for his thoughts Dr. Mosley replied, “Those limits were really plucked out of the air. They were not based on any firm evidence at all.”

    Although Dr. Mosley was speaking about British recommendations, we are confident that he would feel the same about the guidelines from the US government.  First, the US recommendations are nearly identical to those from the UK. More importantly, Dr. Mosley is convinced that the British recommendations are far too high. If he were in charge he would cap daily alcohol consumption at one-quarter of a pint of beer, or—and we did calculate this—one shot of Nyquil.

    Perhaps it will turn out that Dr. Mosley is right. Or, in time, it may be deemed healthier to wash down Basque Tapas with a full bottle of vino. We are rooting for Basque Country, but we will keep an open mind as new studies continue to pour in.

    Any recommendation we might offer today would be arbitrary. Our number would be selected randomly from the available sources. We would have no way of knowing if we were right and no way to justify the quantity if questioned. If asked, “How did you come up with that number?” we would be forced to answer with the standard refrain of publishers of creationist textbooks: “Our facts are faith-based.”

    • Fact: We’ve long been fascinated by the publishers of creationist textbooks. Their decision making process is so far from our own that we can only imagine the conversations that take place at their board meetings:

      “What do we tell people if they ask how we know that Adam and Eve rode a Triceratops?”

      “Great question, Jane. First, I’d like point out that this rarely comes up since we stacked the school boards. But if anyone does enquire, show him or her this crudely drawn cartoon depiction. I used it last week in front of a House Subcommittee and they all agreed that it provides more than sufficient evidence.”

    Before you take our lack of a recommendation as permission to start shot-gunning beers, we want to make it absolutely clear that we think binge drinking is both unhealthy and dangerous. Unfortunately, we cannot say at exactly which drink healthy drinking ends and binge drinking begins. One again, even the vaunted experts disagree. An often-cited study from the US sets binge drinking at four drinks per day for women and five drinks for men. By contrast, a study out of Sweden set the bar at more than twice the American level: half bottle of spirits or two bottles of wine on the same occasion. The Royal College of Physicians in England has entered the fray as well at seven drinks per day for women and 10 for men. (Source: ICAP)

    The negative health impacts of binge drinking are universally recognized even if the quantity is still being debated. On the bright side, if you’re on Drink Your Carbs you should never hit these limits.

    How Much Can I Drink On Drink Your Carbs? Allow us to reiterate a few facts. We are not your doctor. We are not your mom. Nor is either of us a nurse, nutritionist, biologist, anthropologist or anything that might validate our opinion. We have only one advanced degree between us. Steven has a Masters degree in Godzilla.

    • Fact: Ideally this is a question you should ask of doctor instead of looking for guidance from people who are better qualified to field your questions about vintage monster films.

    We apply a simple rule in our own lives. Others have successfully adopted our rule as well. It is not, as the USDA favors, a hard number. Our rule is behavior-based. It is designed to keep alcohol consumption to a reasonable level and give feedback the moment it gets out of hand. It’s so effective that we made it a fundamental part of Drink Your Carbs. Stop following this rule and you are no longer on the diet.

    Our answer to ‘How much is too much?’ is: Exercise. Alcohol is limited on Drink Your Carbs by the fact that we require exercise. And by “exercise” we don’t mean “The Executive Workout” where your hang out in the gym talking to friends, do a couple of reps on a bench press machine and head to the steam room. Exercise requires a serious routine that elevates your heart rate for at least 20 minutes and burns significant calories.

    Exercise is not optional. Exercise is required for both overall health and weight loss. Most importantly, exercise turns Drink Your Carbs into self-correcting system. If you can’t get out of bed in the morning to fully commit to your workout, you are drinking too much. It’s time to dial it way back.

    • Fact: If you don’t know your target heart rate for exercise, ask your doctor or personal trainer to help you figure it out. If he or she does not know how to do this, run. The person in front of you is neither a doctor nor a trainer. He or she is very likely trying to distract you while accomplices, in an adjacent room, max out your credit cards with fraudulent purchases.

    You should never workout with a hangover because you should never drink enough to be hungover. In our own lives, we apply this rule as follows: the moment a night out partying impacts a workout we cut way back. In severe cases, we dial our drinking all the way down to zero, or as we call it, Nightmare Mode.

    This rule is probably not sufficient to satisfy the various National Institutes of Health, except perhaps the one in Basque Country. Nonetheless, we have found it incredibly effective. On the rare occasions when we attend a birthday part or wine tasting and drink too much, the feedback is immediate. Corrective action kicks in the very next day.

    • Fact: Instead of a recommended number of drinks or grams of alcohol we offer a biofeedback loop. Or, if you prefer the language of a yoga retreat, we offer a Yin-Yang with alcohol on one side and exercise on the other.

      If neither of these analogies resonates, perhaps these are the words to motivate you: Beer tastes better when you’ve earned it. If you still stink from the gym and people are fleeing from adjacent tables, this is doubly true.

    One final note to the rare outliers who can drink large quantities and still make it to the gym in morning: we acknowledge that everyone is different. For most people, our exercise requirement is more than sufficient to cap alcohol consumption at a healthy level. However, there are undoubtedly a few people who can drink right up to the British and Swedish definitions of binge drinking and still function well enough to fulfill the exercise requirement. To these rare few we say: just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.

    Ignoring the potential negative health impacts—since you are obviously disregarding them—drinking two bottles of wine or a six-pack of beer a day adds more than 1000 calories to your diet. There is no realistic way to offset a number that large through healthy eating and exercise. Even in Austerity Mode, the leanest version of Drink Your Carbs, it would be nearly impossible to offset so many calories. Nor is it realistic to try to burn them in the gym; it would take a 9-mile run. You might be able to do it once or twice—assuming you’re not too hung over—but it’s not a realistic daily plan. This is the reason heavy drinkers tend to put on weight.

    In the end, you must find your own formula for balance if our rule is not sufficient. Let us know what you come up with, and how it works.




  1. Andrea 05:22pm, 01/18/2013

    No errors in your math but I did find an error in your spelling “If you find errors in out math”

    Love you guys!

  2. Andrea and Steven 11:08pm, 01/18/2013

    @Andrea My hero. Thanks for the help. It’s all better now.


  3. Clement 12:25pm, 03/02/2013

    Robert Cameron lived to 98 years of age and died in 2010 or 2009. He followed his diet from 1961 or 1964.

    He never exercised.

    Japanese drink and smoke a lot and have the least amount of cancer and heart disease and they work long hours?? Maybe its the Coral Calcium from the reefs mandated to be put in their water thats helpful.

    Drink what you want. Don’t get drunk. I drink 1 beer and 3 scotches a day every day and if I feel not to drink I don’t. I play soccer because I love it…you love knitting do it. When you exercise the main thing is feeling joy not dredgery.

    The Japanese hardly have time to exercise but live long lives drinking and smoking.

    Get a lot of sun without sunscreen.

    Robert Cameron is you proof…..99% of the American population or North American population don’t follow this advice so hard to find more Robert Camerons.

    Finally, don’t listen to your doctor or AMA ( the AMA has a snake on its emblem…should tell you all). They tell you all lies.

    Like the Basque…they drink a lot and live long….do it….“Seek and Ye will find.”

    “Think for yourself .” Warren Buffett.

    Buffett hardly drank water but 5 cherry cokes or pepsi ( in the 1950’s ) so for 50 years Warren had a lot of pop. Now at 78 he got some cancer. Warren never drank nor smoked. If he drank he would have been in better health…...only if his mind enjoyed it (not talking about being high ). So Warren has lived a long great life drinking what he wanted…..

    If you want to drink beer and alcohol do it and don’t feel guilty. Drink to enjoy not to get toasted or high.

    Good luck

  4. Lyndsi 02:21pm, 10/20/2013

    Hey guys,

    Overall I love the blog. As a 20-something I believe it is unrealistic to drink just one cocktail. Let’s be real and live a life with a drink in one hand and lettuce in the other.

    That is why I support this website and wanted to share my blog that stresses a similar mission:


    Would love to hear your thoughts! Thanks.

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