As part of the process to publish the latest edition of federal dietary guidelines, an advisory committee has suggested cutting the daily maximum number of drinks for men to one. The departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, which have final decision-making authority on whether to adopt the advisory committee’s suggestion, should resist the rubber stamp. The science is not supportive of such drastic change.
Supporters of the near-prohibition agenda recently asserted that “the preponderance of scientific medical knowledge … makes crystal clear that the recommendations reflect the best science.” There’s obviously a misunderstanding of the term “preponderance,” given that the advisory committee relied on a single study to support its conclusion around new alcohol standards.
This is not the first time agenda-driven players have cherry-picked evidence to justify a desired outcome, although there is typically more than one piece of evidence to drive that result.
Shaky science around alcohol and health extends well beyond the dietary guidelines. For every study connecting one or two drinks to negative health consequences, another exists suggesting the opposite. For decades, research has supported the idea that moderate consumption is linked to modest health benefits. Although alcohol should never be treated as the fountain of youth, substantial evidence ties moderate drinking to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and all-cause mortality. The potential heart health benefits should be of particular importance considering cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.
To overwhelm the pool of existing science, some researchers have reverted to a kitchen-sink strategy. The latest craze is to connect as little as a single drink per day to an assortment of cancers. In fact, a recent Consumer Federation of America and American Institute for Cancer Research op-ed claimed that “drinking alcohol is the third most significant cause of cancer that is within a person’s control, behind smoking and obesity.” Only one problem: They intentionally combine moderate alcohol use with the consequences of alcohol abuse. They also ignore family history, one of the largest factors in cancer diagnosis.
Oversimplification is a useful tool to convey a straightforward concept. Think of seat belt requirements and “Click It or Ticket.” But it does nothing to explain nuance or provide clarity when the issues are complex. No one would argue that being one pound overweight is the same as being morbidly obese. Likewise, having a glass of wine with dinner is not equal to consuming a whole bottle on a routine basis. Researchers who play that game should be ignored.
Investigations into the impact of moderate drinking are riddled with other flaws. The studies often rely on survey-based data in which participants must recall food and drink patterns going back years, self-reported information that is likely inaccurate. It doesn’t take a neurologist to understand that human memory is far from perfect. I can’t even remember what I had for dinner last Thursday. How often did you eat steak last year?
In addition to foggy memory, findings often lack context. Although some analyses are able to scrape together a statistically “significant” result, the conclusions are often not meaningful. A 2017 study indicated that consuming a small glass of beer, wine, or spirits per day raises the risk of breast cancer. But the question is: By how much? And will it be enough to overcome the study’s design pitfalls? After applying the findings to the odds of a cancer diagnosis for a 40-year-old woman, the absolute risk rises by less than one-tenth of 1% — not exactly a reason to stop the presses.
The public should never dismiss new science regarding human health, but the debate should be based on evidence, not on preconceptions or prejudices. Moderate drinking is not a miracle drug, but it’s not a one-way ticket to the afterlife, either. The new federal dietary guidelines should reflect that nuance and maintain current recommendations until a strong scientific consensus emerges.
Richard Berman is the executive director of the American Beverage Institute.