Alcohol content varies in different types of alcohol.
Beers are usually four to 14 percent alcohol, though most average five percent. Wines range from five to 20 percent, with 12 percent alcohol content as the average. Liquors are 35 to 60 percent, with an average of 40 percent alcohol content.
Many organizations list the metrics for what is considered to be a “standard alcoholic drink.” When you drink alcohol, you are probably consuming far more alcohol than these definitions outline.
Consuming more than two standard drinks per day will qualify as heavy drinking by most standards.
The classic definition of what constitutes a standard drink is defined by organizations like the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA). It is used to offer a common measure of the amount of alcohol in specific types of beverages.
This classic definition defines:
The standard drink definition is based on what amount of an alcoholic beverage contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol (14 g of pure alcohol). Ethyl alcohol, the alcohol used in alcoholic drinks, is essentially the same alcohol from beverage to beverage.
Although this measure is used across numerous contexts, it does not necessarily reflect the amount of alcohol you are consuming when you drink alcoholic beverages.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and NIAAA understand that the standard drink definitions are probably not reflective of what people drink in the real world. Let’s examine the above definitions and how they compare to what you are probably drinking.
When you purchase an alcoholic beverage in most states, it is a requirement that the percentage of alcohol in the beverage or the proof of the alcohol is stated on the label.
Many times, distilled spirits or liquor will report the alcohol content in terms of its proof.
If liquor does this, you can determine the percentage of alcohol in the liquor by dividing the proof in half. For instance, liquor that is labeled as 80 proof is 40 percent alcohol ABV.
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If you know the proof of the liquor you are drinking or the ABV of the alcoholic beverage, you can figure out how much alcohol you are consuming.
If you are drinking a 10-ounce glass of wine that is 14 percent ABV, you are consuming about 1.4 ounces of pure ethyl alcohol (10 oz x 0.12 ABV). If you are drinking a pint (16 oz) of 12 percent ABV beer, you are consuming about 1.92 ounces of pure alcohol.
As a general rule, your liver can metabolize (breakdown and eliminate) about one pure ounce of alcohol per hour. Thus, in the above scenario where you have consumed 16 ounces of 12 percent ABV beer, your liver will have metabolized and eliminated the alcohol in that beer after about two hours on average.”
The liver metabolizes alcohol before metabolizing any other substances in your system. In general, drinking a lot of water and eating food will not speed up the process significantly. Every ounce of pure alcohol that you drink raises your blood alcohol content about 0.015 percent.
Your blood alcohol content (BAC) is a measure of the percentage of alcohol in your system. It is generally accepted that having a BAC of 0.08 percent defines legal intoxication in the United States, although some municipalities may have lowered this level.
Your personal BAC after drinking a certain volume of alcohol will depend on many individual variables, including your age, weight, sex, metabolism, and other variables.
Tables provided online can give you a general idea of how much alcohol, given your sex and weight, will result in a specific BAC level. However, the actual measurement can vary due to numerous circumstances. The Cleveland Clinic outlines potential BAC levels here.
In general, the definitions of moderate drinking, heavy drinking, and binge drinking can be a bit hazy.
The CDC and NIAAA define moderate alcohol use as two or less alcoholic drinks a day for men and one or fewer drinks per day for women.
Heavy drinking is often defined as five or more drinks at one time or 15 or more drinks over one week for men, and four or more drinks on one occasion or eight or more drinks over one week for women and anyone over the age of 65.
Binge drinking refers to drinking a similar amount of alcohol in a much shorter time (an increase of your BAC to 0.08 percent or higher within two hours of drinking). Some definitions of heavy drinking consist of one or more instances of binge drinking per week.
In all of these cases, the above definitions of the “standard drink” are used. When you compare yourself to these standards, remember that you are probably drinking more alcohol per drink than the standards define.
Heavy drinkers and binge drinkers are far more likely to develop problems with alcohol abuse (alcohol use disorders) than those who engage in moderate use of alcohol.
Drinking Levels Defined. The National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink
(January 2018) Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
(March 2019) Alcohol Content in Wine and Other Drinks (Infographic). Wine Folly. from http://winefolly.com/tutorial/alcohol-content-in-wine/
(November 2017) How the Body Processes Alcohol. Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319942.php
(2019) What is BAC? Stanford University. from https://alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/buzz-buzz/what-bac
Calculate Your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC). Cleveland Clinic. from https://www.clevelandclinic.org/health/interactive/alcohol_calculator.asp