Drinking guidelines have changed – is it time to cut back?

February 15, 2023

Roughly three quarters of Canadians drink alcohol. But how much is too much?  

That’s the question that the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) sought to answer when reviewing their Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.

Their new recommendations, the first update since 2011, reflect the most recent research on how alcohol affects our health.

What’s changing?

The CCSA’s 2011 guidelines recommended no more than two drinks a day for women (up to 10 per week), and no more than three drinks per day for men (up to 15 per week).

However, the new guidelines now recommend drinking no more than two drinks per week – regardless of your gender.

It’s a welcome change for Debra Kostyk, a Registered Social Worker who works with Manitoba Blue Cross’s Employee Assistance Program.

“I applaud the CCSA for showing leadership on alcohol-use guidelines that are based on both long-standing and current research,” she says. “Because it is so pervasive in society, it is easy to forget that alcohol is a central nervous system drug that has a negative impact on each person – and on society at large.”

The effects of alcohol

For years, we’ve known that alcohol can affect our health, but the new guidelines are shining a light on previously understated health effects.

According to their report, alcohol use may cause more than seven different types of cancer, with the most common being breast and colon cancer. Drinking alcohol also contributes to various cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, heart failure, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation and stroke.  

Despite the known negative health effects of alcohol, it has widely been believed that moderate drinking can help protect against coronary artery disease.  

However, as the CCSA writes in their final report, “Research in the last decade is more nuanced, with the most recent and highest quality systematic reviews showing that drinking a little alcohol neither decreases nor increases the risk of ischemic heart disease, but it is a risk factor for most other types of cardiovascular disease.”

The CCSA concludes that “Overwhelming evidence confirms that when it comes to drinking alcohol, less consumption means less risk of harm from alcohol.”

Statistics Canada notes that deaths from alcohol have risen over the last few years, with the 18 per cent increase from 2019 to 2020 being the largest in at least 20 years.

Risk levels

In their new recommendations, the CCSA breaks down alcohol intake into four categories (a standard drink is a 12 oz. bottle of beer or cider, 5 oz. glass of wine or 1.5 oz. of spirits):

  • Zero drinks per week: no risk
  • One to two standard drinks per week: low risk
  • Three to six standard drinks per week: moderate risk
  • Seven or more standard drinks per week: increasingly high risk

For those drinking more than seven drinks per week, the CCSA notes that each additional drink radically increases the risk of health consequences.

Should you revisit your alcohol intake?

For many Manitobans, the drastically reduced guidelines may come as a shock. But Kostyk encourages you to think about the role that alcohol plays in your life.

“I would first invite you to reflect on your reaction to considering reducing your use to two standard drinks per week,” she says. “How do you feel about doing this, and what is that like for you to imagine a typical week with less use or no use at all?”

Thinking about reducing your intake may give you a good idea of how important alcohol is to your day-to-day life.

Kostyk also recommends to ask yourself the following questions:

Is your alcohol use on “automatic pilot?”  

“When we start to get into a routine or pattern with our drinking, that can indicate our alcohol use has become a habit and we are starting to lose the ability to  really consider whether we should have a drink or not,” Kostyk says. “Examples of this can be driving to the liquor commission without thinking, or pouring a drink because that is what you always do.”

Do you need to drink?

“People will experience this sometimes by drinking to escape the stresses of day-to-day living,” Kostyk says. “Some will say that alcohol has been such a part of their lives that they do not need a reason to drink – they just drink all the time. Some will say that they cannot function doing certain things unless they have had a few drinks or more.”

Do other people make comments or criticize your use?

“Those around us can sometimes see the not-so-good things that we do with alcohol and its resulting consequences better than the person that is drinking,” Kostyk says. “They may be worried about our well-being, and they may have been unintentionally hurt or harmed in some way by our alcohol use. As a result, friends, family, or colleagues may share information about their observations and experiences that are hard to hear.”

Are you drinking more than you intended?  

“Many people have an idea about how much they plan to drink at any given time, or what kind of effect they are looking for when they start to drink,” Kostyk says. “When we go beyond that, that is a good indicator that the alcohol use may need to be discussed with a professional like a doctor or counsellor.”

How to reduce your intake

To start, Kostyk recommends measuring how much you drink on average per week. From there, you can set a goal for the number of drinks per week you aim to consume.

“Any reduction in use will help you reduce the negative mental and physical consequences of alcohol use,” Kostyk says. “Strongly consider two drinks or less per week.”

Kostyk shares simple ways to achieve reduced use or abstinence:  

  • Try to sip your drink slowly.
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks like water or pop.
  • Choose alcohol-free or reduced-alcohol beverages.
  • Eat a meal or snacks before and/or during drinking alcohol.
  • Take alcohol-free weeks.
  • Plan and participate in alcohol-free activities.
  • Establish accountability with someone you trust about your plan.

Seeking help

“If your attempts to reduce your alcohol use or to abstain altogether don’t work the first time, keep trying,” encourages Kostyk.  

If you want to speak with someone about your alcohol use, you can access support through Manitoba Blue Cross’s Employee Assistance Program or Individual Assistance Program. Begin the process to access counselling services here. (Sign in to mybluecross® to confirm your coverage.)

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