In January 2016 our Government’s Chief Medical Advisor proposed new guidelines around alcohol, including new advice on consuming alcohol during pregnancy. These new guidelines have now been accepted by the Government and you can read about them here & specifically on pregnancy here.
Previous guidelines were published in 1995 so there was certainly a need for this update from the Government.
What do the new alcohol guidelines say (non-pregnant population)?
The new guidelines state a recommended upper limit of alcohol per week, rather than per day for adults who are not pregnant. The guidelines also set an upper limit which is same for BOTH males and females.
The new upper limit for alcohol suggests that we should:
“not drink regularly more than 14 units per week, to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level”.
It’s also recommended to spread this intake out over three days or more.
Previously, women were advised to drink no more than 2-3 units a day and men no more than 3-4 units a day.
What do the new guidelines say about alcohol during pregnancy?
Advice around alcohol during pregnancy has also changed, which has been quite a controversial move by the UK Government.
Previous recommendations suggested that alcohol should be avoided (especially during the first 3 months of pregnancy) but, that if a pregnant woman chooses to drink, they should have no more than 1-2 units once or twice a week.
The new guidelines take a much more hard line approach and suggest that:
“if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum”.
Why the changes to advice on alcohol during pregnancy?
Personally I was pleased to see the changes to advice on alcohol during pregnancy. There are many reasons why this recommendation has been made, and why it may seem like the Government have taken a tough approach with their new guidelines.
Firstly, the latest guidelines were based on old research and since 1995, research around alcohol intake during pregnancy has moved on. The new recommendations from the Chief Medical Officer have taken into account the most up to date research and evidence on alcohol and health from all over the world.
Additionally, what is a ‘safe’ amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy is largely unknown and is likely to vary from person to person – which makes it impossible to safely recommend any level of alcohol intake. Additionally the range of impacts that can occur from consuming alcohol during pregnancy are wide, and known under the umbrella term as “Foetal Alcohol Syndrome”. However, research on the effect that low levels of alcohol can have on a growing foetus is complicated and also likely to be minimal. However we can’t be sure that drinking any amount of alcohol during pregnancy is completely safe for an individual.
Lastly, although we usually measure alcohol consumption in units, it seems that many people don’t completely understand what units mean and how many are in drinks. Recently I was invited to a roundtable event with Diageo where the Registered Nutritionists and Dietitians attending were asked to try and work out levels of alcohol in a variety of drinks. Results varied, showing that even for professionals the advice on units may not be 100% clear. Therefore, recommending specific units as ‘maximum amounts’ to have during pregnancy is likely to be interpreted differently by individuals and therefore poses a risk towards over consumption.
To read more about units and interpretation of them you can visit the NHS website and find out more, additionally there is a ‘drink aware’ website that can help you to tot up units and calorie intakes from alcohol at a time when you’re not pregnant.
Conclusion on alcohol during pregnancy…
For now, if you’re pregnant or even trying for a baby, the best advice is to avoid drinking alcohol as we simply don’t know what levels might be ‘safe’.