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Moderate Drinking vs. Heavy Drinking: Understanding the Differences

Alcohol is legal and widely accepted in the United States. Many social gatherings, such as happy hours and holiday parties, typically include drinking, and there are many other settings where alcohol is available.

Most American adults report drinking alcohol at least occasionally. Some people can manage their alcohol consumption and drink moderately as part of a generally healthy lifestyle. However, some people struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol. Research shows that more than 14.5 million adults in the United States meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder diagnosis (AUD).

Because drinking is so common in American culture, some people may struggle to recognize unhealthy drinking patterns. Recognizing the difference between moderate drinking vs. heavy drinking is essential so that you can seek treatment when you need it.

If you or someone you love struggles with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol or needs treatment for alcohol addiction, you are not alone. Reach out to the Mandala Healing Center specialists now to explore our holistic substance abuse treatment programs.

Moderate Drinking: The Details

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends drinking in moderation. But what exactly does moderate drinking mean?

Moderate drinking is defined as:

  •  One or fewer alcoholic drinks per day for women
  •  Two or fewer alcoholic drinks per day for men

 A “drink” does not mean any alcoholic beverage. instead, it refers to a specific amount of alcohol. The CDC defines a “drink”  as:

  •  12 oz of beer
  •  5 oz of wine
  •  1.5 oz of distilled spirits
  •  8 oz of malt liquor

A drink served in a bar restaurant may contain more than one serving of alcohol. For example, some mixed drinks may contain several “shots” of distilled spirits and some oversized glasses of wine may hold multiple servings. It is important to know how much alcohol you are consuming so that you can keep track of it accurately.

Health experts believe moderate drinking is unlikely to cause significant short or long-term harm to your physical and emotional health. Still, any amount of drinking can be problematic for some people as it may lead to increased alcohol consumption over time. It is important to keep track of how much you are drinking and pay attention to new patterns that develop.

What is Heavy Drinking?

Heavy drinking can conjure up images of drunken nights out and blackouts. But it’s not that simple. Heavy drinking is defined as regularly consuming more than the CDC recommends over the course of a week.  For women, this would mean drinking eight or more alcoholic drinks during the week. For men, heavy drinking is having 15 or more alcoholic beverages weekly.

Consuming too much alcohol can increase a person’s risk for immediate harm, including:

  •  Car accidents
  •  Injuries from falling and other avoidable accidents
  •  Being the victim of a sexual or physical assault
  •  Being involved in illegal activity
  •  Alcohol overdose

Heavy drinking is also associated with elevated risks for certain cancers, heart disease, stroke, and other severe medical complications.

Drinking heavily can happen even when people aren’t aware. For example, a man who drinks two pints of beer a day would exceed the CDC’s recommendations because a pint of beer contains more than one serving of alcohol. Similarly, a woman who has two 5 oz glasses of wine per night would meet the criteria for heavy drinking.

The Differences Between Moderate and Heavy Drinking

The CDC’s guidelines for moderate drinking are intended to help people monitor and adjust their alcohol consumption to avoid the risks associated with drinking too much. Many health experts believe moderate drinking can be included in a healthy lifestyle.

But how can you tell the difference between moderate drinking vs. heavy drinking? Here are some signs that your drinking has become problematic and that you may need help:

  • You  drink more than you plan to or drink when you didn’t intend to drink it all
  • You notice that you need to drink more alcohol to get “buzzed”
  • You’ve started neglecting your responsibilities at school, home, or work because of your drinking
  • Thinking about drinking takes up a lot of your time and brain space
  • When you drink, you engage in Risky behaviors like having unprotected sex or driving under the influence
  • You have been injured or had medical problems because of your drinking
  • When you stop drinking, you experience withdrawal symptoms like tremors, nausea, anxiety, or sweating
  • You spend less time with friends and family because of your drinking
  • You drink in the morning to get rid of hangover symptoms
  • When you try to cut back, you find it very challenging and slip back into old drinking patterns quickly 

Generally, moderate drinking does not prevent you from doing what you need or want to do. Moderate drinking does not make you feel sick or ashamed, and you do not typically wonder or worry about how much you are drinking.

If you wonder about the difference between moderate vs. heavy drinking, you may need support or treatment to help you get back on track. Be aware of symptoms of alcohol abuse or addiction and seek treatment as soon as you recognize a problem.

Learn More About the Difference Between Moderate and Heavy Drinking

Learn more about the difference between modern and heavy drinking by contacting the specialists at the Mandala Healing Center now. Our intake specialists can help you explore a range of holistic alcoholism treatment programs or set up an intake appointment.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol, Retrieved October 2023 from
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Excessive Alcohol Use, Retrieved October 2023 from