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One new US dietary guideline is worth ignoring

Bottoms up.
Bottoms up.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Lott
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On Dec. 29, the US Department of Agriculture published its dietary guidelines for 2020 through 2025, as it does every five years. Its goal is to help state and municipal health departments set healthy guidelines for their residents, and help manufacturers figure out their production and marketing schemes for this year.

But this year, the USDA ignored some of the advice of 20 external researchers and healthcare providers: It didn’t lower the recommended daily alcohol intake limit from two drinks to one for men, citing a lack of evidence from the past five years that these limits needed to be lowered. It also maintained that the limit of added sugars in any given food could be 10%, and not 6% as the same committee advised.

Previous guidance for men was that two drinks per day was acceptable for a healthy lifestyle. For women, it was just one drink per day. These differences were based on the fact that men generally metabolize alcohol more quickly than women.

The scientific advisory committee wanted to reduce the upper limit for men down to one drink per day, based on observational studies that linked alcohol consumption with health conditions ranging from cancer to cardiovascular disease to outright death. “Whatever kind of study you look at, two drinks a day is associated with a higher risk of death than drinking one drink a day. In the context of a health document, why would you endorse people drinking up to a level in which mortality increases?” Timothy Naimi, a physician and alcohol researcher at Boston University who served on the federal committee, told the Wall Street Journal.

The USDA’s guidelines can’t actually enforce how much anyone drinks; they’re merely recommendations for how people should go about making dietary decisions. (These guidelines do influence school lunch programs, but alcohol intake recommendations don’t apply in that setting.)

Technically, there’s no “healthy” amount of alcohol. At the end of the day, no matter how much we’d prefer otherwise, as the body break alcohol down, it creates a carcinogen. Although healthy livers can filter out that carcinogen within a matter of hours, it’s not a pleasant process for you or your hepatocytes. (Think about how you feel hungover.)

But also, lots of adults drink—and scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what level of daily drinking becomes dangerous. (Ignoring acute alcohol poisoning, and all the other risky behavior people who have been drinking may choose to engage in.) They do know, however, that alcohol consumption has risen steadily in the US over the past two decades, especially over the course of the pandemic. Instead of lowering the limit of recommended daily drinking levels for men, the organization recommends “limited intake.”

It’s rare that the USDA ignores the advice from its external scientific committee. “I’m stunned by the whole thing,” Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of nutrition and food studies at New York University and author of several books on the government’s dietary guidelines, told the New York Times. Meanwhile, representatives from the alcohol industry, who had criticized the scientific advisory committee’s recommendation to lower drinking levels for men, praised the USDA’s decision to leave them as is. The department “maintain[ed] the long-standing definition of moderate alcohol consumption,” a spokesperson from the Beer Institute told the Wall Street Journal.

But while the organization ignored some of the advice from its scientific committee, it heeded others. For the first time, the USDA produced guidelines for feeding infants and children, recommending breastmilk or formula through at least the first six months of life. It also recommends that parents start introducing their children to foods like peanuts, shellfish, and cows’ milk between four and six months to help their children avoid food allergies. Beyond that, the agency said, children under two shouldn’t get more than 10% of their daily caloric intake from saturated fats, and children under 14 shouldn’t get more than 2,300 mg of salt per day.