Drinking three or four alcoholic drinks in a day, on occasion, is considered safe in the U.S., but in Sweden and Germany, that's well over the amount that health authorities recommend.
In fact, according to a new study, there's quite a bit of variability in what governments around the world consider to be a "safe" amount of drinking.
In the study, researchers analyzed safe drinking guidelines from 37 countries, looking at what each country defined as one "standard drink," as well as how many drinks it took to reach the recommended daily or weekly limit. [Here's How Much Alcohol Is OK to Drink in 19 Countries]
They found that the amount of alcohol in a standard drink varied by 250 percent among the countries, from a low of 8 grams of alcohol in Iceland, to a high of 20 grams of alcohol in Austria. In the United States, a standard drink is considered to be one that contains 14 grams of alcohol, which is about the amount of alcohol in a 12-ounce beer or a 5-ounce glass of wine.
The countries also had very different recommendations for the limits of daily and weekly drinking. In Croatia, India, Singapore and Sweden, the recommended limit is 10 grams of alcohol (less than one drink) per day for women, and 20 grams (about a drink and a half) per day for men. In the United States and Chile, the recommended limit for a single occasion is 42 grams for women (equivalent to three standard drinks) and 56 grams for men (equivalent to four standard drinks).
But the U.S. recommendation doesn't mean that people can drink three to four drinks everyday — the maximum that's considered safe in a week is 98 grams (seven standard drinks) for women and 196 grams (14 drinks) for men.
Many other countries have higher weekly limits. In France, the recommended limit is 140 grams (10 drinks) per week for women, and 210 grams (15 drinks) per week for men. In Poland, the recommended limit is also 140 grams per week for women, and it is 280 grams (20 drinks) per week for men. [7 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health]
"If you think your country should have a different definition of a standard drink or low-risk drinking, take heart — there's probably another country that agrees with you," study co-author Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, said in a statement.
(Rather confusingly, the United States has two different guidelines regarding alcohol consumption. The safe drinking guidelines included in the study address the risk for developing alcohol disorder, meaning that people who stay within the guidelines have a low risk of developing alcohol disorder. There is a different recommendation for the amount of drinking that's considered healthy. If people choose to drink alcohol, the U.S. recommends moderate drinking, which is no more than 1 drink per day for women, and 2 drinks per day for men.)
The study also found that in some countries — including Australia, Grenada, Portugal and South Africa — the recommendations for safe drinking were the same for men and women.
Some nations — including Canada, Denmark, Fiji, France, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland and the United Kingdom —made allowances in their recommendations for more drinking on "special occasions."
All together, the findings suggest that there is "a substantial chance for misunderstanding" when people read studies about alcohol consumption conducted in different countries, Humphreys said.
"Inconsistent guidelines are also likely to increase skepticism among the public about their accuracy," Humphreys said. "It is not possible that every country is correct; maybe they are all wrong." For example, the researchers noted that it's not clear whether recommendations for alcohol consumption should be different for men and women.
Exactly how big of an impact these guidelines have on people's health remains an important question that needs further study, the researchers said.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.