Defining Moderation

The Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services are currently evaluating recommendations on the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for consumption of alcohol.

Although the guidelines are published every five years, they really haven’t changed much since 1990. Back then, moderation was defined as one drink per day for women and two for men. This year, there’s a push to change that to an average of one and two per day, with an upper limit of three drinks per day for women and four for men. Presumably, it’s not okay to abstain all week and then have seven or fourteen drinks on Sunday.

In 1990, the government felt that alcohol had “no net health benefit.” They’ve been forced to abandon that position in the face of overwhelming research that limited alcohol intake has a positive effect on the system. They now hedge their bets, citing both pros and cons of alcohol consumption.

Still, the message is the same: too much drinking is bad for you, a little bit may or may not be okay, but “moderation” is best. In this context, moderation is not really a medical prescription as much as it is a philosophical catch-all, a state of mind, a totem. What does it mean, really?

If I follow the guidelines and “just say no” to more than two drinks per day, does this somehow make me a better person in the moral sense? Presumably not, since it seems okay to succumb to temptation on the first two occasions someone offers me a glass of wine. Pushing away that third glass will not elevate me to sainthood.

If I consume only two glasses of wine per day, is my alcohol intake stable? Not hardly, considering that alcohol levels in wine have risen dramatically since 1990. Largely as a result of global warming, the 12-13% wine of two decades ago is now routinely coming in at 15-16%. Two glasses were fine in 1990 and they seem fine today, except that I’ll be consuming 20-25% more alcohol when I drink them.

Most importantly, don’t the individual effects of drinking depend on a multitude of factors—one’s health, metabolism, medical history, genetic background and personal chemistry? Aren’t there some people for whom two glasses of wine per day would be beneficial, and others for whom they would be harmful?

Personally, I’ll continue to pay just as much attention to the guidelines as I did before (none), and adhere to my cardinal rule: Everything in moderation, including moderation.