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Reduce Men’s Alcohol Limit by Half: USDA Dietary Guidelines Report

July 30, 2020

Data showing increased drinking among American men and calculations of its impact on society prompted national experts to suggest the government cut the daily recommended alcohol limit in half.

The recommendation came this month in “The Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee,” a report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is scheduled to update federal dietary guidelines this year. The current daily alcohol limit for men is two and the committee suggested changing that to no more than one drink a day.

“We have more data than we did 30 years ago, which is the last time these guidelines came out,” said Dr. J. Craig Allen, vice president of addiction services for the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network, who noted that other countries have already made such alcohol recommendations. “No amount of alcohol is safe. If you do drink, then limiting it to one drink a day or less considerably decreases the risk of developing alcohol-related problems.”

The report marked the first time an advisory committee examined the broader impact of alcohol on the nation’s overall health and rates of mortality from all causes, not just those specifically tied to alcohol use.

“This committee is looking at public health where the biggest gains take place at a population level. Men consume most of the alcohol in the U.S., so decreases in men drinking will have the greatest benefits for society,” Dr. Allen said.

The recommendation, he said, is well-rooted in data showing that men who drink more than one alcoholic beverage a day are at a higher risk of death. That risk, the committee noted, begins to increase between one-half and one full drink per day. In the United States, a standard alcoholic drink is equivalent to 12 fluid ounces of 5 percent alcohol-by-volume beer or 5 fluid ounces of 12 percent ABV wine or 1.5 fluid ounces (a typical shot) of 40 percent ABV (80 proof) distilled spirits.

“Studies show significant increase in risks when levels exceed one drink per day,” Dr. Allen said. “This is not implying that alcohol affects women the same as it does men; it is saying that everyone shows an increase in the risk for negative outcomes if they drink more than one alcoholic beverage a day.”

In fact, he said women are affected differently than men when exposed to the same amount of alcohol, developing substance use disorders and co-morbid physical problems faster and more often. One reason is the higher level of body fat in a woman’s body, which increases water distribution. Alcohol is water-soluble, so women reach higher blood alcohol levels faster than men, Dr. Allen stated. Also, women have lower levels of an enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach, so more alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream.

Alcohol consumption — the second-leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death in the United States — ideally should be zero, the report noted. But maintaining a one-drink daily limit significantly lowers one’s risk of problems. The committee’s recommendation also addresses the fact that there are more American men drinking than women, and their drinking is more likely to cause harm. The group believes in cutting drinking in men, it would have a greater impact on population health problems.

Dr. Allen said the timing of the report’s release – as overall drinking is up due to COVID-19’s disruption of daily structure and schedules and the resulting increase in stress – is key, too.

“Alcohol use, driven by marketing and cultural acceptance, always seems to increase during stressful times but what starts as a solution often end up being part of the problem,” he said.

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