Should We Be Drinking Less?

Can a daily drink or two lead to better health? For many years, the federal government’s influential dietary guidelines implied as much, saying there was evidence that moderate drinking could lower the risk of heart disease and reduce mortality. But now a committee of scientists that is helping to update the latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is taking a harder stance on alcohol. From a report: The committee said in a recent conference call that it plans to recommend that men and women who drink limit themselves to a single serving of wine, beer or liquor per day. Do not drink because you think it will make you healthier, the committee says: It won’t. And it maintains that drinking less is generally better for health than drinking more. That message is a departure from previous guidelines, which since 1980 have defined “moderate” drinking as up to two drinks a day for men and one for women. Government agencies have also long defined a standard drink as 12 ounces of regular beer, five ounces of wine, or one and a half ounces of distilled spirits (40 percent alcohol), amounts often exceeded in Americans’ typical “drink.”

Between 1990 and 2010, many editions of the guidelines, which are updated every five years, discouraged heavy drinking and warned pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions not to drink. But they also noted that moderate drinking was linked to fewer heart attacks and lower mortality. The 2010 guidelines mentioned that moderate drinking may even “help to keep cognitive function intact with age.” The new recommendation would be a victory for experts who have long questioned the health halo around moderate drinking. They say that studies showing it can protect health are deeply flawed, and that any potential cardiovascular benefits would be outweighed by the fact that alcohol is a leading preventable cause of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, even one drink a day increases the risk of breast, esophageal and oral cancer. The new advice is not yet final. The advisory panel is expected to include it in a report that it will release publicly in mid-July and submit to the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. Those two agencies are scheduled to publish the official dietary guidelines later this year.