Dietary Guidelines: Temperance Dogma Doesn’t Belong

Government dietary guidelines must be be reasonable and based on science.

Imagine you’re at a friend’s party. You finish nursing your first beer and casually reach for a second. Everyone stops and stares. Your friends start whispering to themselves. They wonder if they should stage an intervention.

Ridiculous and unjustified, right?

Wrong! At least according to a proposal to greatly alter the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. The proposal would recommend that men have no more than one alcohol drink per day.

Government Dietary Guidelines

For decades, the US Guidelines have advised that if alcohol is drunk, it should be in moderation. That has been defined as up to two drinks per day for men and one for women. The advice has guided consumers, healthcare providers, and alcohol researchers like me.

This differing advice results from physiology, not sexism. That’s according to a federal agency (NIAAA). It explains that “alcohol resides predominantly in body water, and pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men. This means that after a woman and a man of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC, the amount of alcohol in the blood) will tend to be higher.”

New Guidelines?

But a group of advisors for new Dietary Guidelines released a draft report. It overturns this decades-old, evidence based guidance. They would set the limit at just one drink per day for both men and women.

This change is based on startlingly weak grounds. In fact, the advisory panel acknowledged that “only 1 study examined differences among men comparing 1 vs 2 drinks.”

Yes, that’s correct! This panel is relying on just one study. It would radically change the US government’s 30-year guidance on moderate drinking for men. The group also made broad-brush statements that “risk increases above zero drinks” and “alcohol is an unhealthy substance.”

Temperance Mentality

That kind of moralizing would gladden the hearts of 19th-century prohibitionists. But it has no place in modern, evidence based dietary guidelines. Alcohol use disorders among men have declined 10 percent since the Guidelines were published. In addition, they’ve dropped over 26 percent in the past decade, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

It’s telling that the advisory panel describes its proposal as “aspirational.” That’s to say, not science based. Nor is it realistic. Who but a prohibitionist would consider having more than one drink per day to be alcohol abuse?

This change isn’t merely academic. It would have real-world results. Healthcare practitioners refer to the federal dietary guidelines when screening their patients’ drinking.

We can’t seriously expect doctors to have meaningful discussions about alcohol abuse. Not if the threshold for concern is having two beers on game night. Or more than one glass of wine at a dinner party.

Of course, alcohol abuse is a serious problem for some people. And impaired driving remains a serious issue.

Most Drink in Moderation

But the vast majority of adults who drink, enjoy alcohol in moderation. Providing evidence-based guidance to inform their about drinking is critical.

The proposal to redefine “moderate” drinking for men is not supported by the latest research and scientific evidence. Government guidance on alcohol drinking that lacks credibility will be widely ridiculed. And also disregarded. Thus it would undercut the effectiveness of the US Guidelines.

Scientific Evidence Prevailed

Good news. These temperance oriented recommendations were not accepted into the guidelines. At least not this time.

Important is the fact that most news reports fail to mention the non-scientific weaknesses in the proposal. To the contrary, they imply that officials ignored the “experts.” The New York Times even suggested that it was an anti-science political decision. In fact, officials adhered to their duty. In short, the medical evience did not support the proposed change. So they properly rejected the proposal.


Standard Drinks
Dietary Guidelines
Standard Drinks

Standard drinks have the same amount of pure alcohol. That’s six-tenths of an ounce. That’s a regular beer, glass of dinner wine, or shot of spirits (liquor). A drink is a drink. Having two beers is the same as having two shots of whiskey.

Many countries define moderation at much higher levels of drinking. This reflects the long temperance history of the US. Even today, almost one in five U.S. adults favors making all alcohol drinking illegal. That is, for everyone of any age. For any purpose. Or at any time.


Edited from Fortune.