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U.S. Government Dietary Guidelines and Wine
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed January 14, 2005. For more information go to

Moderate consumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages remains officially healthy, maybe, under appropriate circumstances, at least for those who already drink moderately and aren't about to get pregnant or operate complicated machinery.

That's the word from the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a hefty document jointly issued every five years by the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The new guidelines - the sixth since the series began in 1980 - were unveiled on Wednesday.

Much of the media attention to the latest Guidelines has focused on its increased emphasis on fitness, urging Americans to "aim for a healthy weight" and to "be physically active each day." That means 30 minutes of exercise daily to maintain good health, 60 minutes a day "to prevent gradual, unhealthy body weight gain in adulthood," and up to 90 minutes for weight loss in adults. That's good advice for health, if not easy to incorporate in a busy lifestyle.

As in the past, though, the Guidelines are much more cautious about alcohol, suggesting, in short: "Those who choose to drink alcoholic beverages should do so sensibly and in moderation," defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. (A "drink" is defined as a five-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce serving of beer or a 1 1/2-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor.)

This discreet and distinctly soft-pedal approach is likely the result of intensive lobbying by competing advocacy groups. Indeed, both the California Wine Institute and the usually anti-alcohol Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) praised the 2005 Guidelines in statements issued within moments after its release.

Wine Institute commended the agencies "on their balanced approach." Its President and CEO Robert P. Koch added, "We support the key recommendation which maintains the emphasis on moderate consumption...Since ancient times, wine has been appreciated as an enhancement to meals and a beverage of enjoyment by cultures throughout the world."

CSPI, meanwhile, hailed the Guidelines as "the most health-oriented ever," but was silent about its advice on alcohol. "As good as the Dietary Guidelines is, it will do little to improve the public's health without vigorous efforts to improve the food environment and communicate them with the public," Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson wrote. "Industry has done little voluntarily to implement past Dietary Guidelines for Americans...government regulatory agencies need to take... action."

Behind the scenes, it appears that the government agencies were subject to a flurry of advice from Wine Institute, CSPI and other advocacy groups arguing both for and against the benefits of alcohol.

Deep in one of the supporting documents was an intriguing list of recommendations and advice that the agencies had received from the public. There was a demand that it define "moderate" as "no more than one drink a day," and a counter-proposal that it not define moderation at all. Regulators were urged to promote the purported health benefits of wine, and encouraged to downplay them. And dueling requests called on the departments to include the statement that "alcoholic beverages have been used to enhance the enjoyment of meals throughout human history," or to omit that statement. (In fact, that wording - promoted by Wine Institute - made it into the 1996 Guidelines but was absent in 2000 and 2005.) Admonitions that the agencies avoid encouraging people to start drinking alcohol for health reasons also apparently prevailed.

The full report, goes into more detail, but its "Key Recommendations" summary on alcoholic beverages boils down to three "bullet points":

* Those who choose to drink alcoholic beverages should do so sensibly and in moderation - defined as the consumption of up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

* Alcoholic beverages should not be consumed by some individuals, including those who cannot restrict their alcohol intake, women of childbearing age who may become pregnant, pregnant and lactating women, children and adolescents, individuals taking medications that can interact with alcohol, and those with specific medical conditions.

* Alcoholic beverages should be avoided by individuals engaging in activities that require attention, skill, or coordination, such as driving or operating machinery.


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