Alcohol and cancer risk

Does alcohol increase your cancer risk?

There are lots of good health reasons for cutting down on alcohol – and reducing your cancer risk is one of them.

We have strong scientific evidence that all types of alcoholic drinks are a cause of several types of cancer:

For some cancer types, alcohol is particularly harmful if you also smoke.

To reduce your cancer risk as much as possible, we recommend not drinking alcohol at all. If you do choose to drink alcohol, follow national guidelines. In the UK, the guideline is to drink no more than 14 units a week, spread over at least three days for both men and women.

Lots of people in the UK drink more than this, but cutting down could make a big difference to your health.

cancer prevention icon for alcoholOur recommendation is don't drink alcohol – find out how 

What is a ‘unit’?

One unit contains 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol.

  • One 25ml measure of spirits such as vodka or whisky is 1 unit.
  • One small 125ml glass of wine is 1.5 units.
  • One pint of normal strength beer, lager or cider is 2 units.

It is important to remember that drinks contain different amounts of alcohol depending on their size and strength. This affects the number of units in a drink. In recent years, the standard serving sizes and the strength of many alcoholic drinks has increased, making it easier to drink more than you realise.

How does alcohol increase cancer risk?

Alcohol may make it easier for other dietary or environmental cancer-causing compounds, such as those in tobacco smoke, to get into the cells and cause DNA damage.

When alcohol is broken down in the body, compounds are formed that can directly damage the DNA, which can then lead to cancer.

Drinking alcohol can also lead to liver cirrhosis (scarring), which is a known cause of liver cancer.

Are there any health benefits to drinking alcohol?

Alcohol doesn’t have any benefits in terms of cancer prevention – in fact, drinking any amount increases your risk. So to protect yourself against cancer as much as possible, we suggest not drinking alcohol at all.

The latest evidence suggests that the benefits of drinking alcohol for heart health are less than previously thought. Benefits are seen at low levels of consumption (less than five units, or two and a half/three drinks a week) and only in specific population groups, whereas a healthy diet and lifestyle can protect most people against both cancer and heart disease.

Alcohol and calories

  • A pint of beer or lager contains about 170 calories – similar to three chocolate chip cookies.
  • A large 250ml glass of wine contains about 190 calories – similar to a butter croissant.

Alcohol can be surprisingly high in calories. They are often called ‘empty calories’ because alcoholic drinks don’t contain vital nutrients such as protein, vitamins or fibre. The lack of fibre means it is easy to drink large volumes without feeling full. Try our handy alcohol calorie calculator to see how alcohol adds to your calorie intake.

How much alcohol do adults in the UK drink?

  % drinking alcohol in previous week
Men 63
Women 51

Of those who drank alcohol in the last week, 28 per cent of men drank more than 8 units on their heaviest drinking day and 25 per cent of women drank more than 6 units on their heaviest drinking day.

Figures from 2016

Alcohol statistics come from the Adult drinking habits in Great Britain: 2005 to 2016, Office of National Statistics.
 
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