Moderate Drinking vs Heavy Drinking: How to Tell the Difference


difference between moderate drinking and heavy drinking

How much you drink matters because drinking too much alcohol can be bad for your health and increase your risk of becoming addicted to alcohol. But how do you know how much is too much? Understanding how the different drinking levels are defined and what the difference is between moderate drinking and heavy drinking can help you better understand your relationship with alcohol.

What is Moderate Drinking?

Drinking in moderation can be safe, and is the only way to consume alcohol without impacting your health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, published by the Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, says that adults of legal drinking age (21+) can choose, if they desire, to engage in moderate drinking, which is defined as, “limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed.”[1]

The more you drink, the more risks you are taking with your health. It is better to drink less than it is to drink more.

But what is considered a standard drink? A standard drink contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, which can be found in:[2]

  • 12 ounces of regular beer
  • 5 ounces of wine which is usually the equivalent of one glass of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (such as vodka or whiskey) which is the equivalent of one shot

What is Heavy Drinking?

There are a couple of different definitions of heavy drinking or heavy alcohol use. The National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy alcohol use as:[1]

  • Having more than 4 drinks on any day or having more than 14 drinks per week for men
  • Having more than 3 drinks on any day or having more than 7 drinks per week for women

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month.

What is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is a type of heavy drinking characterized by men having 5 or more drinks within about 2 hours or women having 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours.[1] Binging on alcohol can increase your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08%, which is the point when the effects of alcohol become apparent and coordination and judgment are affected. Binge drinking also increases the risk of accidental injury, poor decision-making, and alcohol poisoning.

The Dangers of Heavy Drinking

Binge drinking or other patterns of heavy drinking can harm your health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 140,000 deaths are attributed to alcohol each year.[3]

Short-Term Risks

Immediate risks associated with drinking too much alcohol include:

  • Accidental injuries
  • Violence and crime
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Poor decision-making
  • Miscarriage or stillbirth in pregnant women
  • Memory loss or “blackouts”

Long-Term Consequences

Drinking heavily over a long period of time can harm your physical, mental, and social health. Long-term health risks of heavy drinking include:[3]

  • Alcohol dependence
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Digestive issues
  • Certain types of cancers (breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum)
  • Cognitive issues
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Family issues
  • Unemployment
  • Homelessness

The best way to avoid these consequences is to drink in moderation. Moderate drinking is not associated with these risks.

Signs of a Drinking Problem

It is possible to drink heavily without having an alcohol use disorder. People who have an alcohol use disorder, or AUD, experience two or more of the following symptoms:[4]

  • Drinking more or longer than intended
  • Wanting to stop drinking or trying to, but failing on more than one occasion
  • Spending excess time drinking or recovering from drinking
  • Cravings or obsessing over alcohol
  • Having trouble with work, school, or family as a result of drinking
  • Continuing to drink despite negative consequences
  • Giving up responsibilities or things you enjoy in order to drink
  • Getting into situations where you put yourself in danger as a result of your drinking
  • Continuing to drink despite the ways it is hurting your physical or mental health
  • Needing to increase the amount you drink to feel the effects (tolerance)
  • Having symptoms of withdrawal when you stop drinking (dependence)

The more symptoms you have, the more severe your drinking problem is.

Can Alcoholics Drink in Moderation?

Many people who drink heavily are not dependent on alcohol nor are they alcoholics, however, alcoholics cannot drink in moderation. People who struggle with alcoholism have difficulty controlling how much and how often they drink. Even when they try to drink in moderation, they find themselves binging, drinking far more than they intended.

If you regularly drink more than you intend to drink, it’s likely that you have a problem with alcohol.

Find Help for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Today

Living with alcoholism is no way to live–especially when there are resources for recovery available to you. Anyone can get sober and stay sober, no matter how far they’ve fallen.

At Moving Mountains Recovery, we meet you exactly where you are with compassion and understanding. Our New Jersey alcohol rehab center can not only help you get sober, but also achieve long-term alcoholism recovery.

The objective at Moving Mountains is to help clients recover in a safe and comfortable environment, with an abundance of peer and clinical support. We have therapies available to empower clients through their own recovery while uncovering their passion in life without the use of drugs or alcohol. Our staff is equipped and ready to help with any questions or concerns. Make the life-changing phone call today.


  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH): Drinking Levels Defined, Retrieved Jan 2023 from
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH): What is a Standard Drink?, Retrieved Jan 2023 from
  3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Alcohol Use and Your Health, Retrieved Jan 2023 from
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH): Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder, Retrieved Jan 2023 from
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