In the 30 years since the U.S. government issued its first dietary guidelines, surprisingly little has changed. Pretty much, the official advice tells us to eat our vegetables and go easy on the fat and empty calories from sugars and simple carbohydrates. More recently, there has been more emphasis on exercise.
So it goes in the new guidelines, which the government is obligated to issue every five years. These guidelines form the basis of food and nutrition policy, so even if you don't pay any attention to them, they affect what you're going to see on food packages and advertising.
Advice about alcohol consumption, missing in the early days of the guidelines, started to appear in more recent editions. The 2005 version had a whole chapter on alcohol, and the good news was that it acknowledged that moderate consumption could actually be good for us. There was even a separate section that acknowledged the long history of wine. The new version restates the same ideas, but the section on wine is gone, and it puts the recommendations in a chapter titled "Foods and Food Components to Reduce." This is because, the document notes, "some people consume too much alcohol."
But the language also is clear on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. One paragraph carefully tells us: "Strong evidence from observational studies has shown that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderate alcohol consumption also is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality among middle-aged and older adults and may help to keep cognitive function intact with age."
See, there's the problem with official government publications. Like tax law, it's a mistake to expect them to make sense. The logic can often be serpentine. If we know that moderate consumption of alcohol reduces mortality and helps us think better, can prevent heart disease and benefit us in so many ways, why lump it in with fats, sodium and sugars?
The answer is in the intent of these guidelines, produced by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The main thrust of the recommendations, this time around, is to combat what health professionals see as an obesity epidemic. The previous chapter to "Foods and Food Components to Reduce" is "Balancing Calories to Manage Weight." The next one, "Foods and Nutrients to Increase," tells us to eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and use oils instead of solid fats.
None of this is news, but one troubling aspect is how the language of these recommendations takes care not to state anything too strongly. As nutritionist Marion Nestle wrote in my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, "Nutrient-based guidelines require translation. You have to delve deeply into the 95-page document to find the food translations. Eat fewer solid fats means cakes, cookies, pizza, cheese, processed and fatty meats and ice cream. Less sugar? The major sources are sodas, sports drinks and fruit drinks.
"Why don't the guidelines just say so? Politics, of course." If the government tells us to eat less meat, for example, that riles up the meat industry.
So it's not surprising that the document soft-pedals what it says about alcohol, or makes no distinction among beer, spirits and wine. And that's too bad, because America has a different relationship with wine than it did when the guidelines first appeared. We have become a wine-drinking country. We consume wine more regularly than we did then, and I don't care how mealy-mouthed the guidelines are, I think that's a good thing.