JAN 8, 2016 @ 01:00 PM
The British government has just updated its guidelines for how much alcohol is safe to consume, based on the latest research. The recommendations are stricter than earlier ones, which had been issued back in 1995, and were due a tweaking. And interestingly, they come in the same week as the U.S. issued its new and somewhat vaguer dietary guidelines, which sparked serious controversy in the other direction–with critics arguing they were far less strict and scientifically grounded than they should be. So should we follow the more sciencey lead of the Brits? Possibly–but remembering that moderation is generally good advice for most things.
The major change in the U.K.’s new guidelines, issued by Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, is that both sexes should follow the same advice: Men and women alike should stick to no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, which is the equivalent of five to six pints of beer, or six to seven glasses of wine, per week. The previous upper recommendation for men had been 21 units per week, and 14 units for women. So what’s really changed is that the recommendations for men have been reduced to what they’ve been for women for a long time. The hope is that the risk of disease, cancer in particular, will also be reduced with the new recommendations.
The authors add that there’s really no safe level of drinking–any level, they say, carries some health risk with it–except for women over 55. “Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone,” said Davies, “but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low.” For women over the age of 55, five units per week offers some heart benefit, but over this amount, the benefit disappears.
And for pregnant women, a glass here or there won’t do. Although total abstinence during pregnancy has in the U.S. been somewhat more a subject for debate in recent years, the new recommendations in Britain make clear that abstinence is best. “I want pregnant women to be very clear that they should avoid alcohol as a precaution,” said Davies. “Although the risk of harm to the baby is low if they have drunk small amounts of alcohol before becoming aware of the pregnancy, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol to drink when you are pregnant.”
Finally, a person shouldn’t “save up” their drinking all for one night of the week. That is, 14 units on a Saturday night is much more hazardous to one’s health than having two units per night. Binge drinking has in recent years had some damning research behind it, as at the same time it’s become clear that more people binge drink than previously thought.
Some critics have condemned the new recommendations for being too strict and serving as an example of government fear-mongering. But as Davies told the BBC, this isn’t scare tactics, it’s science. “If you take 1,000 women, 110 will get breast cancer without drinking. Drink up to these guidelines and an extra 20 women will get cancer because of that drinking. Double the guideline limit and an extra 50 women per 1,000 will get cancer. Take bowel cancer in men: if they drink within the guidelines their risk is the same as non-drinking. But if they drink up to the old guidelines an extra 20 men per 1,000 will get bowel cancer. That’s not scaremongering, that’s fact and it’s hard science.”
Whether other countries will follow suit remains to be seen. The new U.K. recommendations are now the tightest in Europe–and given how fuzzy the new dietary guidelines in the U.S. are, we may not jump on the strict-and-sciencey bandwagon any time soon. But if nothing else, maybe the U.K.’s move will make policy makers in the U.S. and other countries think about putting science first, and standing behind it.