By Neil Ridley

What's Your Poison?

Calculating your daily intake
Here's a question for you all. How much do you think you drink? By that, I mean, really actually drink?

Truth be told, I haven't got the faintest idea how to answer such a question.

Let's put it another way: How many people look at every label on the food in their cupboards and plan a perfectly balanced calorific week of meals? Those with a keener - possibly meaner eye than most, that's who.

The reason I bring this up is not to point the finger at how unbelievably lazy the majority of us are (as a nation of gluttons and drunks), but actually to highlight the absurd difficulty in accurately calculating quite what we all consume.

Until last month, the suggested limits for alcohol consumption in the UK were troublingly ambiguous. Regulatory guidelines set by the Government back in 1995 sought to establish that anything over 21 units a week for the average man was probably too much, whilst 14 units was deemed the threshold for women. They didn't really make any provision as to the recovery time of one's liver and made no attempt to hint that drinking all 21 units in one go was probably not such a good idea. Quite why the fairer sex was also singled out for less of a good time is questionable, but let me ask you again. Would you really be able to identify exactly what 21 (or 14 units, ladies) looked like, if I handed you a variety of wines, beers and spirits? It's not a trick question. If anything, it's an impossible question to accurately answer.

January's change in stance from the UK health authorities has bought some much needed clarification on what is deemed to be 'safe drinking levels', but in the same sentence, it has also opened up debate - and predictably, more ambiguity on the subject. We are now told that both men and women should consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, giving our bodies a rest period of 48 hours in between drinks. It points out that scientifically, having an entire month off has pretty much no health benefit whatsoever and that moderating your intake across the week (ie, not drinking every day) is a more sensible option.

Good. Ok, so far, this all makes more sense. Hmmm. Well not quite.

On one hand, the new rules also say that actually, no alcohol consumption is probably better for you, but in the same breath also confusingly states that for women over 55, there is a slight health benefit to the heart by consuming five units a week… should we be flipping a coin here, or taking both pieces of conflicting information with a pinch of salt?

To compound this further, Dame Sally Davies, the UK's Chief Medical Officer, was recently on the receiving end of much criticism for remarking that she thinks about the risk of cancer before every glass of wine she plans to drink, urging women to 'do as she does'.

Realistically, any changes to recommended alcohol limits are meaningless - if we still don't actually know what 14 units looks, or tastes like.

Surfing around various websites and information portals, I just about managed (with some degree of difficulty) to identify that a 'standard' glass of wine was 2.1 units, whereas a large glass was three units. With beer, a 'regular' 4% pint was 2.3 units, whereas a 'strong' beer (5%) was 2.8 units. Cider? you might as well forget it. An 8% cider is a whopping 4.5 units.

There are now helpful apps available to monitor one's alcohol intake, accurately measuring units consumed.

Of course, the one thing I missed out here was spirits. Why? Because they are simply so much easier to measure. ONE measure of spirits (ok, a 25ml measure, not a 'gentleman's pour') is… , you've guessed it… ONE unit. Brilliant.

So where does this leave whisky? Actually, in rather rude health when you think about it. Drinking 14 units a week effectively equates to 14 different whiskies. Think of the sheer variety available here: you could cover off every region in Scotland by Thursday and still leave room for Japan, America, Ireland, Tasmania and India over the weekend…

Of course I'm being extremely flippant here, but it makes the ongoing debate about safer drinking a bit more fun, does it not?