Issues & Insights

On Drinking Recommendations, Bureaucrats Need a Sober Dose of Reality

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Historically, government officials haven’t had the best track-record in recommending what – and what not – to eat and drink. Dieticians and health experts have attested to the public health problems posed by the federal government’s demonization of dietary fat over the past few decades.

Now, a powerful (albeit obscure) body called the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is reversing longstanding recommendations and arguing that men should limit themselves to just one alcoholic beverage per day  based on shoddy scientific research. And because DGAC’s recommendations are taken seriously by state and local policymakers across the country, there’s a real risk of costly and regressive measures such as increased taxes on alcohol. Instead of doubling down on fear and hysteria, lawmakers must embrace evidence-based policies on diet and drinking.

Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) appoint “nationally recognized experts” to serve on the DGAC and craft a new Dietary Guidelines for Americans report. These scientists have repeatedly fallen prey over the years to faulty research, resulting in unreliable guidelines that nonetheless play a key role in shaping public policy. For more than two decades, the guidelines recommended an upper limit on total fat consumption. This was based on purported evidence that dietary fat increased the risk of heart disease and various cancers.

Not so fast with the fat alarmism. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, (cardiologist and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University) and Dr. David Ludwig, (director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital) note, “Placing limits on total fat intake has no basis in science and leads to all sorts of wrong industry and consumer decisions … Modern evidence clearly shows that eating more foods rich in healthful fats like nuts, vegetable oils, and fish has protective effects, particularly for cardiovascular disease.”

Fortunately, DGAC reevaluated the evidence and finally nixed these recommended fat limits in time for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines report.

There is now a new boogeyman: alcohol. In a recently released scientific report, DGAC recommends that men stick to just one alcoholic drink per day. This is a marked departure from the committee’s 2015 advice which recommended a limit of two drinks per day. Gone is the language from previous reports emphasizing the preventative health effects of moderate alcohol consumption. The report’s authors note, “higher average consumption is consistently associated with increased mortality risk compared to lower consumption” despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary.

Sure, heavy drinking is linked to a host of health maladies. But, even the World Health Organization (WHO) – usually a cheerleader for greater alcohol restrictions – found in a 2018 report that, “The consumption of low-to-moderate amounts of alcohol reduces the risk of diabetes mellitus due to improved insulin sensitivity.” The WHO report also found that, “alcohol had a net protective effect on ischemic strokes, preventing 33,000 ischemic stroke deaths and 0.9 million ischemic stroke DALYs [disability-adjusted life years] globally.” And, the DGAC relied on the results of just one study in halving the recommended drink limit. Experts should respond with caution to this dearth of evidence on specific drinking levels, rather than moving forward with sweeping conclusions that could form the basis of public policy.

Clearly, the evidence is more complicated than a simple, linear relationship between alcohol and health problems. It is imperative that the DGAC take all the evidence into account and qualify its conclusions with a discussion on the preponderance of scientific evidence on the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.

Policymakers across the country must have up-to-date and balanced information from the USDA and HHS before moving forward with onerous policies that succeed only in scaremongering. Just as DGAC recognized the error of its faulty fat recommendations, it must also reverse course with its alcohol alarmism. Diet and drinking recommendations should be based on the evidence, not the whims of bureaucrats.

Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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1 comment

  • I’m not sure why we revere government-pronounced dietary and health guidelines or why they’re relevant anymore in the Information Age, when any number of “experts” are a few keystrokes away on the Internet. People who care about their health will do their own research. People who don’t, won’t. A government committee won’t change that.

    Alcohol, incidentally, is a poison. It’s used as an antiseptic because it dissolves the fatty membranes of bacteria and viruses which rapidly kill them. Do you know what your brain is made of? 60% fat. The fat surrounds the cells that form the signalling pathways in the brain to keep electrical signals routed correctly, just like the plastic insulation on electrical wires. Same with the spinal cord. Fat acts as electrical insulation for the nerve bundles. Ethanol, which easily crosses the blood-brain barrier, dissolves fat. Try it yourself. Get some fat on your hands then pour alcohol on them and feel it dissolve. That’s what it’s doing in your brain and nervous system. The effects may be small at first, but they accumulate, and in cases of acute alcoholism, debilitating nervous system disorders begin to manifest. It also overwhelms the liver which has to process it.

    There is a wealth of literature on the serious adverse effect of alcohol on the body, particular the liver, brain, and nervous system. The intoxication, hangover, and vomiting from heavy drinking is nature’s way of telling you alcohol is bad for you. Then there are the societal effects. I’ll let you consider how alcohol figures in a host of problems from people killed by driving drunk to families destroyed by alcoholism to numerous other detrimental physical and mental effects. You know what they are.

    “But a couple glasses a day are no big deal. I only drink recreationally with friends, or now and then to take the edge off.” Keep telling yourself that if you want, but take some time to read about alcohol and ethanol. The recommended daily amount of alcohol for those who want optimal physical, mental, and emotional health is zero glasses a day. The choice is yours.

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