On any given day in the U.S., 18 percent of men and 11 percent of women drink more alcohol than federal dietary guidelines recommend, according to a new study that also finds 8 percent of men and 3 percent of women are full-fledged "heavy" drinkers.
That still means the great majority of Americans stay within the advised limit of two drinks a day for men, and one for women.
"And in fact, most adults don't drink at all on any given day. But the fact remains that it is a significant public health problem that many people do drink in excess," said Patricia Guenther, the lead study author and a nutritionist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
Guenther said members of the committee that drafted the current USDA guidelines on alcohol consumption wanted to know how many adults exceeded the limits.
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She and her colleagues collected data from a nationally representative survey on health and nutrition, which included about 5,400 adults over age 21. Among other things, each was asked how much alcohol they drank the previous day.
The researchers found that 64 percent of men and 79 percent of women said they drank no alcohol at all that day, and another 18 percent of men and 10 percent of women drank within the recommended amounts.
Nine percent of men said they had three to four drinks the day before and 8 percent of women said they drank two to three alcoholic beverages, the researchers report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The heaviest drinkers of all were the 8 percent of men who had five or more drinks, and 3 percent of women who had four or more.
"Overall the study confirms that rates of unhealthy alcohol use in the U.S. are significant," said Jennifer Mertens, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, who was not involved in the study.
Regularly drinking more than recommended levels "is linked to increased alcohol-related problems," Mertens wrote in an email to Reuters Health.
"Binge drinking (more than four drinks on any one day for men and more than three on any one day for women and older adults) even one time can increase the risk of injury from falls, motor vehicle accidents, and other accidents," she added.
Among men, the 31-to-50-year-old age group had the most heavy drinkers - 22 percent. Among women, the heaviest drinkers - 12 percent - were between 51 and 70 years old.
Guenther said that's important to note because it highlights that heavy drinking is not just part of life among the college-age set.
"People need to be aware that there are people of all ages who drink to excess," she told Reuters Health.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a government-backed advisory group, urges health care providers to screen all adults for risky drinking behaviors (see Reuters Health story of September 24, 2012 here: reut.rs/Vz4Fpp).
Guenther said her team's study is also important in that it may help people recognize whether they themselves are drinking more than recommended.
"There are people who don't realize that they are drinking more than what's beneficial to their health," she said.