New research has prompted the government’s 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to recommend that men limit alcoholic drinks to one per day. It could be a tough sell: The suggestion that the definition of “moderate” drinking for men be lowered from two drinks per day to one comes during a pandemic when alcohol consumption — already at a 20-year high — is spiking further.

In its July report, the committee itself wonders how this recommendation will be greeted — acknowledging that such guidelines are “aspirational.”

Behind the recommendation

The advisory committee’s recommendation — which may or may not become part of the official 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, scheduled to be released at the end of this year — was driven by recent studies that have suggested that consuming two alcoholic drinks per day is associated with slightly increased risk of death from all causes, compared with stopping at one drink per day, regardless of gender. (One drink per day has long been the recommended level for women.) And newer research is contradicting earlier, perhaps flawed, studies that linked moderate drinking to protection from heart disease.

In the report, the committee concedes that many men consume more than one alcoholic drink per day, and may not be able to — or want to — stick to the suggested limits, at least not every day. “Nonetheless, although guidelines may be aspirational they are important for communicating evidence around health, stimulating thought around behavior change, and prioritizing policies that may lead to changes in consumption,” the authors write.

Among the concerns the committee hopes to highlight through its recommendation is the fact that research cited in the report shows that nearly half of people who drink — across all age categories — report binge drinking at least once in the past month. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks in the same occasion for men or four or more drinks for women.

But given that drinking well past “moderate” has been normalized in our society (think about all the television shows and movies that glorify drinking in excess, often without apparent consequences), a couple of experts outside the committee whom I consulted with also weren’t very hopeful that an update to government recommendations that many people aren’t even aware of will lead men to change their drinking behavior.

“Whenever I educate clients or speak to groups and mention the previous guidelines, I get a lot of surprise and even anger,” said Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist at Champagne Nutrition and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Many people actually aren’t aware of the guidelines, and exceeding them is so normalized that I do think change and reduction will be challenging.”

Melissa Abbott, a vice president at the Hartman Group, a food and beverage consumer research firm based in Bellevue, Wash., said that although the new recommendations will probably create a greater awareness about the benefits of drinking less, most consumers don’t look to the government for nutrition guidance or believe they need to. “We’re a very individually driven society, and many people don’t feel that these recommendations apply to them,” she said.

A silver lining?

But perhaps all is not lost. Hultin and Abbott pointed to one trend that might help the new guideline take root: the rising interest in and sales of low- and no-alcohol beverages.

Nielsen sales figures from mid-2019 show that nonalcoholic beverages, including kombucha, were worth $7 billion more than they were in 2015, and that sales of hard seltzers — many of which are lower in alcohol — during the first three months of the pandemic quadrupled from the year before. Nielsen survey results also showed that, in 2019, 66 percent of millennials reported making efforts to reduce alcohol consumption, far more than the average of 47 percent among all drinkers age 21 or older. Abbott said Hartman Group research also indicates a big difference in how millennials (24 to 39 years old) think about alcohol compared with Gen Xers and baby boomers.

“Millennials are much more aware of what they’re putting in their bodies and how it makes them feel,” Abbott said, and this includes alcohol. She said some older consumers, such as those on the upper end of the Gen X range — around ages 50 to 55 — may reduce alcohol intake if it helps them, say, manage their blood sugar, but most older consumers are less likely to associate feeling tired or subpar the next day with drinking the night before.

Another positive aspect of the low- or no-alcohol trend is that it has made the concept of what it means to consume alcohol more fluid. Abbott said drinking used to be more black and white — people either drank or were a teetotaler — but today, more people are describing themselves as “sober curious” or “sober sometimes,” observing Dry January and creating demand for low- and no-alcohol beverages that still feel a little special.

As Exhibit A, Abbott points to the boom of attractively packaged mocktails-in-a-can (or bottle) — often featuring ingredients such as bitters and herbal extracts — that re-create the ritual of the evening cocktail. “There’s much more selection now that doesn’t bring you back to that club soda sad feeling.”

The beverage industry has stepped up its game. Craft breweries, wineries and distilleries are offering tastier low- and no-alcohol beer, wine and spirits, and there’s no shortage of drinking vinegars and shrubs, artisan bitters, CBD beverages, bottled and draft kombucha — both low- and no-alcohol — as well as “hard” seltzers.

“There’s no reason to drink plain water or sugary-sweet drinks as a replacement for a cocktail when you’re celebrating,” Hultin said. “This is a really important trend, because they support and normalize not drinking alcohol, for whatever reason, but still give a nod to the fact that celebratory drinks are part of our culture. Now everyone can feel included but still choose whether or not they want to drink alcohol. There are options for all.”

If you do want to cut back

What do you do if you really enjoy, perhaps even rely on, your evening libations — especially with everything going on right now — yet worry that you really should cut back a bit?

Hultin maintains that a “happy hour at home” can be a nice ritual for most people when exercising moderation. “However, if that’s the only way to relax or if people find they’re using alcohol to escape or cope, then it’s worth exploring other forms of relief, too.”

She suggests experimenting with taking an occasional day off from alcohol and trying some of the new, different kinds of nonalcoholic beverages available. “For some, not drinking can actually have a bigger effect on happiness and can also improve sleep quality and energy levels.”

Three things we could all use a little more of.

Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.