It’s been said that “buying someone a drink is five times better than a handshake.” That could be good advice for many of us during the COVID-19 crisis. The U.S. government recently issued some drinking advice of its own, and unfortunately, that advice may be wrong.
A final report released by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will direct the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services as they prepare to update the next edition of its Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In their report, the committee notes that, “The majority of U.S. adults consume alcohol, and alcohol can be a source of enjoyment for many.” If only they had stopped there.
Instead, they chose to tighten the recommendations for men from two drinks per day down to one, and down to one half of a drink per day for women (which is rounded up to one). That recommendation will soon be reviewed by the USDA.
Right now, this is likely the wrong advice. Due to the coronavirus quarantine, some people are experiencing serious side effects from the lack of social contact. One study warns of anywhere from 28,000 to 154,000 “deaths of despair” as a result.
Needless to say, alcohol is dangerous when used irresponsibly or by people prone to addiction. Yet we also know that alcohol consumption is “one of the most effective” ways to trigger the release of the neurochemical endorphin, which is crucial to sustaining friendship networks. In 1954, Mississippi state Rep. Noah S. Sweat understood this when he suggested that if a few drinks “enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows,” then he was all for it.
In part, the new dietary guidelines will base their recommendations on the fact that alcohol has “minimal nutritional value.” So, for example, if it comes down to a helping of broccoli or a cocktail, then, nutritionally speaking, you would be better off consuming broccoli.
This is a perfectly factual, but limited, perspective. It reminds me of the days when a far-less scientific “Song of the Temperance Union” claimed you shouldn’t eat cookies “because they have yeast, and one little bite turns a man to a beast.” The song goes on to ask, “Oh, can you imagine the utter disgrace of a man in the gutter with crumbs on his face?”
The flaws in the guideline analysis are far more forgivable, but they’re worth noting. First, they used notoriously unreliable 24-hour recall data, in which 60% of respondents in these studies don’t recall eating enough food to even stay alive. The self-reported data will obviously be worse when they’re asked how much they drank. Some researchers have found that people consume two to three times as much alcohol as they report, meaning that the recommendations for one drink a day should actually be based on two to three drinks per day.
To make matters worse, the report uses “continuous risk curves” to indict low alcohol consumption. If applied to a tall building, a continuous risk curve says — because you will die if you jump from five floors up — you will somehow suffer some degree of injury when jumping from a height of only 12 inches.
The point is not to downplay the risks of alcohol use. It’s merely to acknowledge that (as with many of the things we consume) there are both benefits and drawbacks. Moderation is key.
Consider that the last edition of Dietary Guidelines indicted excess drinking with health issues, but they didn’t include a 2020 study which compared men and women with healthy lifestyles (healthy diets and weights, no smoking and a lot of exercise) who drink moderately to those who abstained. The moderately drinking men lived nearly a year longer and the moderately drinking women lived three years longer. The reason? Fewer cases of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
We have had new dietary guidelines every five years now for the past four decades. While they may influence government programs, they don’t have a lot of influence on individual choices — and in plenty of cases, that’s probably a good thing.
Hopefully, the coronavirus will soon run its course. When that happens, and when it’s safer, let’s all live a little longer by buying a friend a drink. Maybe two.
Richard Williams is a senior affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and former director for social sciences at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.