Wine, drinking recommendations, and lifestyle

Recently the UK has published new guidelines changing the recommendations on weekly drinking allowance. The new recommendations say that both men and women should have no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, roughly the equivalent of 6 small glasses of 13% ABV wine per week. The new regulations have received a lot of flack from wine writers, who say that the new guidelines for the most part ignore the solid body of evidence that moderate drinking is healthy. They say that the new guidelines disturbingly suggest a kind of neo-prohibitionism.

In America, the home of actual Prohibition less than 100 years ago, the regulations are even stricter—12.25 units of alcohol per week. I’ll be frank; based on these new guidelines, my weekly alcohol consumption is over the US and UK limit for women. I drink on average one bottle of wine a week plus the occasional cocktail/beer or two on weekends. Most of what I drink is consumed with food, usually at dinner in the evenings, and I try to take one dry day per week. I’d estimate this ends up between 15-20 units of alcohol per week

Is this excessive drinking? According to the regulations in the US and UK, yes. According to guidelines in Spain, no. According to guidelines in Australia, about right. One of the frustrating things about drinking guidelines is that they seem to reflect a culture’s notions about drinking just as much, if not more, as they reflect medical evidence.

If we took these new guidelines at face value, one would assume that all wine critics and others who taste on a regular basis are consigning themselves to an early grave. Yet people like Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson in the UK have both been drinking wine pretty much daily for the past 40+ years and are still going strong.

Excessive drinking and alcohol addiction is a serious issue. That said, I think more productive regulations would focus less on the amount of alcohol consumed in a single week and more on the amount consumed in a single session. The most dangerous drinkers—for themselves and society at large—are binge drinkers. In the US and UK and increasingly in other parts of the world this pattern of drinking is learned in colleges and universities and transfers to drinking behavior in early adulthood and beyond.

We need to change this behavior, and the way to do this is not by making wine and other forms of alcohol seem like a deadly danger and a forbidden fruit. I firmly believe that the only way to look at wine is to consider it as a kind of food. Just like it would be unhealthy to eat a large amount of red meat or chocolate ice cream every day, so to is drinking excessive amounts. Wine, if one chooses to drink, should be integrated as a regular part of a healthy lifestyle. By ignoring this, these regulations and by extension most of our culture, will continue to fail miserably in preventing alcohol abuse.

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