New U.S. Dietary Guidelines Ignore Scientists’ Advice on Alcohol Limits

New U.S. Dietary Guidelines Ignore Scientists’ Advice on Alcohol Limits
Photo: Carl Court, Getty Images

The newest dietary guidelines from the U.S. federal government are out, and there are some surprising omissions. While the guidelines continue to emphasise the value of a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, they don’t recommend that American men substantially cut down on alcohol — contrary to the advice provided by outside experts commissioned by the government earlier this year.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans are updated every five years and are meant to reflect the current scientific consensus on nutrition. Though they’re obviously only recommendations, they do shape federal policies and programs focused on nutrition, such as school meal programs, as well as influence the food and restaurant industry at large.

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As part of the updating process, the government brings together a panel of outside advisors to go over the latest nutrition research and suggest any changes if needed. In July, their draft report was released. Among other things, the panel called for a clear change on how much alcohol men should drink. They asked for the guidelines to recommend that men drink no more than one alcoholic beverage a day on days they do drink, down from the previous cap of 2 drinks a day. Women, as before, would be recommended to keep it to one drink a day as well. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s fine to have one drink every day, just that you should limit yourself to one on days you do drink (which is hopefully not every day).

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This change was meant to acknowledge the growing research showing that even light alcohol use isn’t as safe as widely believed and to encourage Americans to cut down on drinking if possible, the report’s authors said at the time. Alcohol contributes to fatal car accidents, raises the risk of cancer, liver and heart disease, and can affect cognition.

The final version of the guidelines, released Tuesday, do include other changes suggested by the panel, such as touting the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding and recommending pregnant women eat seafood that’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury. They also contain language stating that the “evidence supports limiting intakes of added sugars and alcoholic beverages to promote health and prevent disease.” But they explicitly do not endorse the recommended changes to lower alcohol consumption as well as added sugars, arguing that the “evidence reviewed since the 2015-2020 edition does not substantiate quantitative changes at this time.”

The dietary guidelines are the result of a collaborative effort between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Human and Health Services. Throughout the now-ending Trump administration, both federal agencies have been accused by outside scientists and lawmakers of eroding science-based policies as well as silencing and punishing officials who disagreed with the White House. At least some nutrition experts aren’t too pleased with the language now stripped from the dietary guidelines.

“Despite repeated claims that the guidelines are science-based, the Trump agencies ignored the recommendation of the scientific committee they had appointed, and instead reverted to the recommendation of the previous guidelines,” Marion Nestle, a nutrition scientist and well-known author, told the New York Times.

Just because the new guidelines don’t tell us to limit our booze, though, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cut down a little. After all, a large global study in 2018 concluded that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. At least a quarter of American adults engaged in binge drinking last year, while 14 million Americans are thought to have alcohol use disorder. Overall, alcohol is estimated to kill about 95,000 Americans a year, making it the second deadliest drug behind tobacco.