What is Moderate Drinking?

Having a discussion about drinking can open the door to a number of debates and controversies:

  • Is alcoholism a disease or a bad habit?
  • Is there even such a thing as ‘alcoholism’?
  • Can problem drinkers learn to drink non-problematically, or is abstinence the only viable option?
  • What are the parameters for moderate or social drinking?

According to the guidelines published by Health Canada, moderate drinking for men is defined as: no more than three drinks on any one occasion with no more than three occasions per week or no more than two drinks on a maximum of five occasions per week (stated another way, a maximum of 3 in 3 or 2 in 5).

For women, moderation guidelines recommend no more than two drinks per occasion on no more than three occasions per week (2 in 3), or no more than one drink on a maximum of five occasions per week (1 in 5).

Moderation Management, a support group that seeks to help problem drinkers explore whether moderation is an achievable (and desired) goal, adds qualitative as well as quantitative aspects to the definition of moderate drinking:

A Moderate Drinker:

  • considers an occasional drink to be a small, though enjoyable, part of life.
  • has hobbies, interests, and other ways to relax and enjoy life that do not involve alcohol.
  • usually has friends who are moderate drinkers or nondrinkers.
  • generally has something to eat before, during, or soon after drinking.
  • usually does not drink for longer than an hour or two on any particular occasion.
  • usually does not drink faster than one drink per half-hour.
  • usually does not exceed the .055% BAC moderate drinking limit.
  • feels comfortable with his or her use of alcohol (never drinks secretly and does not spend a lot of time thinking about drinking or planning to drink).

A number of years ago, when I was working in a Drug and Alcohol counseling agency, I came across an essay that stuck with me. Its author – whose name has long since been relegated to the part of my brain where I forget things – argued that it was actually alcohol manufacturers and distributors who had the most to grain from promoting the notion of “alcoholism.”

To paraphrase the argument, if we as a society believe that there is a segment of our population – the alcoholics – who cannot and should not drink, and further believe based on our ‘alcoholic’ stereotype that we ourselves are not part of that segment, we are much less open to questioning our own relationship to alcohol, and honestly examining the ways it is helping us and/or hurting us.

And ultimately that’s what it comes down to. For those of us who choose to have alcohol in our lives at all, there’s a counterbalancing responsibility to be conscious and honest in assessing how it’s working in our lives. Leaving the issue of denial for another post, that means being aware of its impact on our physical health, relationships, emotional health, school or work, legal standing, etc., and ensuring that our valuing of alcohol isn’t compromising the other things in life we also value.


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