Alcohol and cancer prevention

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:

Research has shown that alcohol is particularly harmful when combined with smoking, especially for increased risk of liver, oesophageal, mouth and throat cancer.

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, which is roughly equal to seven drinks, spread over at least three days.

Lots of people in the UK drink more than this, but cutting down could make a big difference to your health. For example, we could prevent about 1 in 5 breast cancer cases – 11,000 cases a year – by not drinking alcohol.

Our Head of Health Information talks to the BBC about alcohol and cancer prevention

What is a ‘drink’?

A drink contains about 10–15 grams of alcohol, so one drink is the same as:

  • Half a pint of normal strength beer, lager or cider
  • One 25ml measure of spirits such as vodka or whisky
  • One small 125ml glass of wine

It is important to remember that drinks contain different amounts of alcohol depending on their size and strength. 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?

Scientists are still researching the ways that alcohol can lead to cancer. One theory is that when alcohol is broken down in our bodies, harmful compounds are formed that might directly damage the DNA in our cells, which can then lead to 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 and only apply to women over 55 – and even for them, the greatest reduction in risk is seen in women who drink 5 units or less a week.

Remember; a healthy diet and lifestyle can reduce the risk of both cancer and heart disease.

Does alcohol cause weight gain?

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.

Alcohol can also contribute to weight gain by increasing appetite, which means that if you drink, you might be tempted to eat more than you need.

Try our handy alcohol calorie calculator to see how alcohol adds to your calorie intake. Cutting down on the amount you drink could help you to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, which in turn can help to reduce your cancer risk.

Tips for reducing your alcohol intake

  • Opt for the smallest serving size. Remember the standard serving size may not be the smallest. Avoid double measures of spirits, even if they are promoted as ‘better value’.
  • Alternate between alcoholic drinks and water or low-calorie soft drinks.
  • Dilute alcoholic drinks – ideally with a low-calorie mixer – to make them last longer. For example, opt for a small white wine spritzer with soda water rather than a large glass of wine.
  • Aim to keep a few days each week alcohol-free

Take a look at the A Closer Look at Alcohol factsheet for more information.