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If you regularly have more than two drinks a day, you could be binge drinking without realizing it. Getty Images
  • A drinking “binge” is more than five drinks within a two-hour period for men or four drinks in a two-hour period for women.
  • A standard drink is 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol.
  • Many drinks at restaurants and bars contain more than the standard 0.6 oz. of alcohol per serving because of the different ingredients they contain and the size of the glasses in which they are served.
  • To be considered low risk for alcohol use disorder, men shouldn’t have more than four drinks in a single day and no more than 14 drinks per week. Women shouldn’t drink more than three drinks per day and seven drinks per week.

It’s the weekend, and you’re having a night out with friends. You’re having a good time but being responsible by keeping track of your drinks so as not to overindulge.

Yet, despite your efforts, there’s a good chance that you could end up binge drinking without even knowing it.

A drinking “binge” is defined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as five or more drinks within a two-hour period for men and four drinks in a two-hour period for women.

That guideline may seem clear, but in actuality, it can be a lot harder than it seems to get a clear picture of how much you’re drinking.

That’s because even when you’re tracking your drinks, those drinks may have more alcohol in them than you’d expect.

“A pour of a drink is significantly greater than the cutoffs that are identified as a standard volume for drinks,” said Dr. Harshal Kirane, medical director of Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research in Calverton, New York.

“In a typical context, someone’s already consuming probably 1.5 to two drinks when they may think they are only consuming one drink,” he said.

Part of the NIH’s new strategy to inform Americans about binge drinking — which they’ve rolled out in a new website called Rethinking Your Drinking — is to help them clearly understand their drinking behavior in as objective a manner as possible.

It’s a task that may sound simple, but it can actually be difficult for many people when they’re at a bar or in other social situations where alcohol is present.

“There are so many potential variables that can distort [the quantity of alcohol in a drink]. Unless the individual is making the drink themselves or measuring out these quantities, these ratios could vary significantly,” Kirane said.

A standard drink is defined as 0.6 fluid ounces, or 14 grams, of pure alcohol. Generally, this works out to be one:

  • 12-oz. beer (5 percent alcohol)
  • 5-oz. glass of wine (12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5-oz. shot of hard liquor (80 proof/40 percent alcohol)

Assessing your alcohol intake gets more difficult if you like cocktails or other mixed drinks.

Using the NIH’s cocktail calculator, you may be surprised to see that many cocktails contain more alcohol than a standard drink.

A mojito is actually closer to 1.3 drinks; a gin and tonic, 1.6 drinks.

For drinks traditionally served in larger glasses, you’re definitely getting more than one standard drink.

A margarita is closer to 1.7 standard drinks. A piña colada can pack the equivalent of two drinks in one.

“There are a lot of people who don’t realize that a cocktail could be more than one drink, because there are multiple kinds of alcohol put in it or the amounts are more than a shot or a glass of wine would be,” said Dr. Casia Horseman, a psychiatrist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The size of your drink also matters.

A pint of beer, which is a common serving in a bar or restaurant, is actually 16 oz., or about 1.3 drinks.

So, keep in mind what a standard drink is, and be aware that the size of your glass could be deceptive in how much alcohol you’re consuming.

Creating responsible drinking habits is also about looking at your drinking patterns in the long run. While a single episode of binge drinking may not be indicative of a problem with alcohol, persistent binge drinking can be a sign of alcohol use disorder.

To be considered low risk for alcohol use disorder, men shouldn’t have more than four drinks in a single day and no more than 14 drinks per week. Women shouldn’t drink more than three drinks per day and seven drinks per week.

Again, it’s not the actual number of drinks you’re consuming, but the amount of alcohol in them.

While you may only be knocking back a couple of margaritas or piña coladas a night, that amount of alcohol could likely be placing you in binge-drinking territory more often than you realize.

“If you end up being in the high-risk or intermediate-risk category, it doesn’t mean anything bad about you as a person. It just means, like with any other health issue, you probably need to make some lifestyle changes to start with at least,” Horseman said.

Individuals who drink more than this are at risk for alcohol use disorder. Both binge drinking and alcohol use disorder are known to have significant negative health effects on the body and the brain.

In the short term, binge drinking can lead to poor decision-making and increased risk of bodily harm and injury.

“You might be more likely to drink and drive if you’re binge drinking because your judgement is impaired, or you might be more likely to have sex with someone in an unprotected way because your judgement is impaired,” Horseman said.

Potential acute effects of alcohol intoxication from binge drinking also include increased blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and alcohol poisoning.

Public health experts have attached more significance to binge drinking as a problematic behavior in recent years as it tends to disproportionately affect certain populations, such as adolescents and young adults.

Binge drinking occurs most frequently in individuals between the ages of 18 and 34.

Both Kirane and Horseman say the information and tools rolled out by the NIH should be helpful for better informing people about their drinking behavior so they can make smarter decisions.

“The really contemporary conversation we should be having about alcohol and other drugs of abuse is not to wait until it’s at the terminus of the process, but instead to be much more proactive in assessing whether these behaviors are emerging in someone’s life,” Kirane said.

“At some level, at least the positive take on this would be that binge behaviors would represent, at least for some, an early phase of a progression that can lead to much more severe challenges, so it’s a domain where interventions can really be of tremendous value to the individual,” he said.

If you’re looking for some additional motivating factors to cut back on the amount of alcohol you’re drinking, consider some of these ways in which drinking less can give you more.

Are you trying to get in shape or lose weight? Well, alcoholic drinks are typically packed with calories. (A piña colada can pack upward of 500 calories per drink.) Limiting alcohol consumption is a great way to make strides toward your fitness goals or simply improve your overall diet.

Using an alcohol calorie calculator is an easy way to see how many calories you can cut by limiting your drinking.

If you’re on a budget or just want to save up for that next thing on your wish list, forgoing a trip to the bar is a great way to put some extra cash in your wallet.

Want to know how much those nights out at the bar are draining your bank account in a week, month, or year? There’s a calculator for that, too.

The alcohol spending calculator on the Rethinking Your Drinking website can help you estimate the amount of money you’re spending on alcohol — a number that may be larger than you expect.

By taking advantage of these free tools, you can get informed about your drinking, make smarter decisions, and still have fun.

“Let’s take an honest and critical assessment of patterns in regard to alcohol use and really try to assess how much an individual is drinking, what other health impacts that may represent, and whether that is aligned with other efforts to stay healthy in general,” Kirane said.