The federal government's recommendations on alcohol consumption did not change substantially with the release yesterday of a new version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The 2005 edition continues to stress that people who drink alcohol should do so sensibly and in moderation, which is still defined as one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
However, some updates have been made from the 2000 edition in the discussion of the potential health benefits and drawbacks of drinking. The text includes references to the latest medical research, although wine was not singled out among alcoholic beverages, despite numerous studies indicating it may have more beneficial properties than beer and spirits.
The federal dietary guidelines, first published in 1980, are revised and released jointly every five years by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines serve as the basis for the country's nutrition policies and provide Americans with advice on eating and exercise habits that should help control weight, promote good health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
Many of the 2005 recommendations are not significantly different than those of the recent past: eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean protein; limit the intake of fat, cholesterol and salt; and exercise regularly.
In the previous guidelines, the section on alcohol focused, from the start, on the negative effects of drinking. The 2005 version now acknowledges that more than half of Americans drink alcohol and begins: "The consumption of alcohol can have beneficial or harmful effects depending on the amount consumed, age and other characteristics of the person consuming the alcohol and specifics of the situation."
The new guidelines also update the wording on the potential health benefits of alcohol consumption. The 2000 edition read: "Drinking in moderation may lower the risk for coronary heart disease, mainly among men over age 45 and women over age 55." The 2005 version states that for middle-aged and older adults, the lowest all-cause mortality and the lowest coronary heart disease mortality occur at an intake of one to two drinks per day.
As in the past, much of the discussion details the well-known hazards of excessive alcohol consumption (such as cirrhosis), the risks associated with lower levels of consumption (such as motor vehicle accidents and a possible link to a higher risk of breast cancer in women) and who should not drink (among them, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions). The recommendations also note that alcoholic beverages supply calories but few essential nutrients.
One drink is still defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. The guidelines also included a breakdown of the calories in different beverages. No mention is made of consuming alcohol with meals to slow absorption, as in the 2000 guidelines.
The Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based association of California wineries, commended the federal government for its "balanced approach" to the recommendations.
"I thought the 2000 guidelines were very good, and tried to retain many of its key points," said the chairman of the dietary guidelines advisory committee on ethanol, Dr. Carlos Camargo, a Harvard University medical professor. The committee of independent experts reviewed the data from current studies and from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism before revising any wording.
Some changes were considered, but not made due to a lack of compelling data. "We explored, but ultimately backed away, from any recommendation to lower the moderate drinking level among elderly men to a max of 1 drink per day," Camargo said.
Despite recent studies concluding that red wine may provide greater protection from heart disease than other alcoholic beverages due to its higher concentration of polyphenols, the ethanol committee decided against mentioning this in the current guidelines. "While laboratory findings have suggested that red wine might have additional health-promoting compounds, this finding is not consistently translated into epidemiological data," the committee wrote.
"I think the bulk of the benefit, and harm, is due to ethanol," Camargo said.
To view the dietary guidelines, visit www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines/.
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