On any given day in the United States, 18% of men and 11% of women drink more alcohol than federal guidelines recommend, according to a study that also found that 8% of men and 3% of women are full-fledged "heavy drinkers."
That means the great majority of Americans stay within the advised limit of two drinks a day for men and one for women, according to the study that appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"And in fact, most adults don't drink at all on any given day," said lead author Patricia Guenther, a nutritionist at the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
"But the fact remains that it is a significant public health problem that many people do drink to excess."
Guenther said that members of the committee that drafted the current USDA guidelines on alcohol consumption wanted to know how many adults exceeded the limits.
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% of men and 79% of women said they drank no alcohol at all that day, and another 18% of men and 10% of women drank within the recommended amounts.
Nine percent of men said they had three to four drinks the day before and 8% of women said they drank two to three alcoholic beverages, the researchers said.
The heaviest drinkers of all were the 8% of men who had five or more drinks, and 3% of women who had four or more.
"Overall the study confirms that rates of unhealthy alcohol use in the US are significant," said Jennifer Mertens, a research medical scientist at Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, California, who was not part of 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-30-year-old age group had the most heavy drinkers, at 22%. Ammonal women, the heaviest drinkers - 12% - 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 set.
"People need to be aware that there are people of all ages who drink to excess," she told Reuters Health, adding that the new study is also important because 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.