Most Americans know that consuming too much alcohol is dangerous and increases risk of early death. Moderate drinking, on the other hand, is thought by many health experts to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease and other common killers. So where exactly is the line between drinking moderately and overindulgence? According to the newly released federal dietary guidelines, just one extra drink per week can make you an “excessive” drinker.
Every five years, the Department of Health and Human Services gathers input from hundreds of studies and scientific experts to craft the federal government’s official advice on what to eat. These recommendations have broad implications, shaping which foods are included in school lunches and guiding doctors offering patients nutrition advice.
Since millions of American adults enjoy alcohol, recent versions of the dietary guidelines have included nutritional advice on responsible consumption of wine, beer, and spirits.
In 2010, the dietary guidelines advised: “Alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects when consumed in moderation.” The guidelines explained moderate alcohol consumption is associated with lower risk of heart disease, reduced risk of mortality among middle-age and older adults, and maintenance of cognitive function in old age. HHS stopped short of recommending anyone start drinking for the health benefits since drinking is also associated with increased risk of breast cancer and death from accidents – including car crashes.
Moderation was defined as up to one drink per day for women, and up to two drinks per day for men. While that definition stays the same in the 2015-20 guidance, in the updated version HHS include an expanded discussion of the risks of “excessive drinking.”
When most of us hear the term “excessive drinking” we conjure up images of the characters on “Mad Men,” who enjoy three-martini lunches before heading to cocktails after work. A woman who enjoys a nightly glass of wine and perhaps two beers on Saturday night doesn’t exactly scream “excessive” or problem drinker.
Yet in the new dietary guidelines, HHS has taken a page out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention playbook. The 2015 guidelines advise more than eight drinks per week for women and more than 14 drinks per week for men is considered “excessive drinking,” the definition long used by the CDC.
Instead of including information on how moderate alcohol consumption can play a part in a healthy diet, the new guidelines spend several paragraphs warning Americans of the financial costs and public health problems associated with “excessive drinking.”
Making the line between moderation and excess even more confusing is a new chart detailing what exactly HHS means by “one drink.”
While 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits is still considered one drink, a single glass of strong beer or wine per night now counts as 1.4-1.8 “drinks.” That means a female fan of strong IPAs or full-bodied merlots is an excessive drinker with a single standard glass a night.
None of this protects public heath. Rather, it gives ammunition to the many anti-alcohol activist groups pushing to dramatically increase alcohol taxes, slash the legal blood alcohol limit for driving, and eliminate any alcohol advertising – policies that primarily target the moderate drinkers hoping to enjoy the many health benefits research suggests alcohol consumption can provide. Instead of labeling responsible adults who enjoy an extra drink or two per week as “excessive” drinkers, policymakers should focus on the serious public health problem of alcohol abuse.
Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute.