Post image for Am I A Binge Drinker?

Am I A Binge Drinker?

by Oliver Klimek on May 29, 2014

If your hobby (or profession for that matter) involves the consumption of hard liqour, it is advisable to take a step back from time to time and look at your alcohol intake as objectively as possible. How often do I drink? How much do I drink? Are there any drinking patterrns that might be worrisome?

Together with tobacoo, alcohol belongs to the group of socially accepted drugs. This does not make them any less dangerous, though. But while the dangers of tobacco consumption are mainly health-related, alcohol abuse can also have a negative impact on society at large because of the effects of intoxication: drunk driving, aggressiveness, physical and sexual violence, you name it. At its worst, alcohol can literally ruin your life, not only your health but also your livelihood.

There are two things that make alcohol a very tricky – some might say devious – substance. Consumed in small quantities it is fairly harmless or in some respects even mildly beneficial to your health, and the barrier to addiction is fairly high compared to tobacco. Addiction has to be separated from intoxication. They are not the same. You can become drunk without becoming addicited, and you can become addicted without drinking heavily. The line between “relaxing with a drink after work” and “needing a drink to relax after work” is a fine one, and people who have crossed it usually only notice it in hindsight.

In most if not all countries government authorities have issued guidelines that define a “low risk” amount of alcohol that is considered acceptable to drink on a daily basis. Some, like the UK and the US have defined standard units to make it more approachable to the public. The International Center for Alcohol Policies has compiled a table that compares the alcohol drinking guidelines for many countries. While Germany is very much at the bottom of of the list with 20 to 24 grams of alcohol per day for men and half of that for women, there are also some stunning entries like for the Spanish Basque Country where the guideline maximum is 70 grams per day for both men and women. In most countries the guideline daily amount for men roughly equals 500 ml or a pint of 5% ABV beer.

This is not very much at all, and anything above will put you in the “risky drinking” bracket. Needless to say my personal drinking pattern does that too. I drink alcohol on most days, with only an occasional day off. Usually it’s a few drams of whisky in the evening, sometimes preceded by a beer or a cocktail, occasionally I also have a beer or a glass of wine with my lunch.

Some countries also have defined limits for dangerous “binge drinking” and “heavy drinking”. The American CDC defines binge drinking as 70 grams (the Basque guideline daily amount) or more in a single session for men. “Heavy drinking” is defined by the intake of 210 grams of alcohol or more in a week for men which is just above 7 times the maximum daily guideline amount of 28 grams. According to US standards, I am a heavy drinker for sure.

In the UK the binge drinking limit is 48 to 64 grams for men and 32 to 48 grams for women. This is roughly equivalent to two and a half pints of strong lager for men and one and a half pint for women. Some sources limit binge drinking to the amount being drunk in a single session or a short peroid of time while others measure it per day. I don’t go above this limit every day but it is fair to say that according to the latter definition I have episodes of binge drinking on a more or less weekly basis.

Now proper binge drinking is a very real problem. When reading the term you immediately think of groups of heavily drunk men staggering along the streets, loudly “singing” football chants, molesting random females and picking fights with their male companions. Behaviour like this is detestable and everything possible should be done to prevent this.

But do numerical definitions like these actually help here? According to a recent study, more than 50% of UK drinkers could fall under the definition of binge drinking because people tend to underestimate their drinking behaviour. Does this mean the British are a people of notorious drunkards? It should be noted that the definition of binge drinking has been softened substantially over the years. What once used to be an episode of truly excessive alcohol abuse has now become “drinking until inebriated”.

Evidently the lower the standards, the more people are considered binge drinkers. This surely helps public awareness of the issue, and it also makes great headlines. But this way a large part of the population is indirectly accused of being rough anti-social arseholes as described above. Because this is what true binge drinking is.

The key error of the modern binge dringing definition is to break it down purely on alcohol intake. The psychological component is commonly ignored. Binge drinking in the traditional sense is drinking to become drunk, drinking not for enjoyment but for the sake of drinking itself. True binge drinkers drink in order to lose their inhibitions. They want to have what they consider “fun” which apparently can only be obtained by the excessive consumption of alcohol. All the negative consquences I described are much more likely to happen when people get purposefully drunk. If you drink alcohol for enjoyment, becoming too drunk is actually something undesirable because it prevents enjoyment. So even if you might already be over the “official” binge drinking limit you are much more likely to know when to stop than those who drink without the intention of stopping anytime soon.

In this respect I find it quite offensive to call anyone a binge drinker who has drunk more than two and a half pints of beer. Because actually most people do know when to stop. But if you are in the “drink to get drunk” mindset, guideline daily amounts are just a laugh for you. Better education about the effects of alcohol is needed, not arbitrary numerical limits.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Meleklerin Payi May 29, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Great read.. Reminds me Charles Bukowski’s famous quote from “Women”

“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”

Reply

Oliver Philp May 29, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Wise words. The limits defined in most countries are set by heuristic judgements against a social context that varies widely, the wide range of limits you point to supports this.

That social context is very important too. Let’s contrast, say, France and my country, Scotland. Scotland has among the highest rates of alcoholism, heart and liver disease and drink-related social ills (from murders to domestic abuse) in the whole of Europe and one of the lowest life expectancies. France on the other hand has quite a respectable record on these counts. However, guess which country drinks more alcohol per head? To generalise somewhat, the French have a better diet and drink wine (in itself healthy in moderation), with meals and throughout the day. A Scotsman would rarely have a drink at lunch but is probably more likely to be found in a gutter with a kebab, having consumed ten pints of lager in one evening. How can ‘official guidance’ help this picture?

Incidentally, the narrowness of the debate about minimum pricing in Scotland astounds me. Health ‘experts’ and politicians are almost unanimous in their opinions that raising the price of alcohol above already eye-watering levels (way above those in France) will have a beneficial effect on our health. They seem blind to the actual facts and figures when it comes to our European neighbours. Nor do they care about the responsible drinkers who will be hit in their pockets for the turpitude of others. Do we tax every driver because some break the speed limit? No, we target the bad drivers. In Scotland we need only contrast ourselves with England to see that the culture of binge drinking and its associated problems is markedly worse north of the border despite identical pricing across the UK. Price, in isolation is no magic lever. The issue is cultural.

Reply

Florin May 29, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Very interesting topic Oliver. In particular the points about what defines a binge drinking episode. Time is a key element here, too: Four full drams (or pints) may make binge drinking if consumed in 1/2h, but what if you do this, like me, over 4 hours? What is at play here? The psychological effects (getting drunk or not), the social aspects (unacceptable behavior or not), the short- and long-term impact on your body, i.e. the ability of your liver to process the alcohol?

Reply

William Ricker May 30, 2014 at 3:51 am

Excellent points all.
And Whisky Live or other Grand Tasting with a sequence of 4ml / 0.25oz “wee drammie” pours while taking notes is yet again another social context. The goal is to record and remember the flavors, drunkenness is an impediment !

Reply

Basidium June 8, 2014 at 11:54 pm

WTF’s a gram? I don’t have shotglass, bottle, whisky glass, tumbler, or glencairne glass with “gram” written on the side. I went back and checked all my booze bottles – nothing about grams on them.

Reply

Oliver Klimek June 9, 2014 at 5:27 am

A gram is a metric unit of weight used in all but 3 countries of the earth. 454 grams are a pound.

Reply

William Ricker June 9, 2014 at 6:04 am

“Basidium” said his shot-glass isn’t calibrated in grams. Whether the standard serve line is at 5cl or 1.5oz ~ 45ml or 2oz ~ 60ml or multiples of such, it’s not calibrated in grams. He’s right.

Does anyone actually have classware calibrated in grams-Alcohol for various common %ABV values? Why not? Without it, this standard is theoretical only !

The problem with applying nice scientific “grams alcohol” limits is the drinks are labelled in %ABV (or US Proof, twice that). Since there is some solution and since alcohol is not same specific gravity as water, we can’t directly convert from %ABV to grams-per-5cl pour.

Weight Watchers and AA have both found that simple systems have better compliance than complicated ones. WW recommends having a small serving of something satisfying; AA takes an even simpler approach, agreeing with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” answer to drugs. (It works for some people, particularly [some of] those with addiction issues.)
But customers calculating Grams is not simple enough to ever achieve widespread compliance.
To make it “easy”, would need bottles labelled in gm-ETOH/cL as well as %ABV, gm-ETOH listed on bar menus for each beer, wine, cocktail, and scotch; or maybe computed with an app and printed on the bar tab slip (and phone app for home use?). Is that easy enough? Probably not.

My theory of drink less, drink better, is aligned with WW’s advice on desserts/sweets/snacks.

Re snark about “all but three countries” … Uh, even the USA has official use of ISO metric units, it’s just not /exclusive/ use. Our liquor is sadly in 750ml (as closest approx to 4/5 old US Quart = 1/5 gallon, to minimize price gouging at changeover) not the 70cl now in use elsewhere, but it is metric, as are fizzy drinks which are in 1L (“soda”,”pop”,”tonic”, “coke” regionally), but not gasoline (petrol) or milk (milk, lait), still in gallons (which never matched Imperial gallons). [And it’s not us that still report weights of people in pre-imperial “Stones” !]

Reply

Tyler Kent June 16, 2014 at 4:19 pm

It is difficult (at least for an American not having daily familiarity with metric liquid measurement) to easily grasp the practical meaning of “grams of alcohol” in the country guidelines for the very reason that others here have mentioned. If I drink a two-ounce glass of scotch bottled at 40% ABV, how many grams of alcohol am I drinking? And how would one compute it?

Reply

Carol June 17, 2014 at 5:20 am

If you put this into google or duckduckgo: ‘ (28g/.4) in ounces ‘
you get: 2.469 oz of 80 proof alcohol being the limit.

or, as you asked: ‘ (.4*2oz) in grams ‘ which is 22.68 grams of alcohol.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: