The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Alcohol Consumption in Adults

Alcohol Consumption in Adults

Health and Wellness

April 28, 2013

Excessive drinking is an important health problem that is not limited to college-aged individuals, according to a recent study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The study found that the percentages of those who drank more than the limits set out in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) were highest among men age 31 to 50 and women age 51 to 70.

Researchers looked at dietary intake from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2009-2010, and collected data from 2,740 men and 2,941 women age 21 years and older. Estimated mean daily intake was 1.2 drinks for men and .4 for women. The 2010 DGA recommend that if alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation. They define “moderation” as up to two drinks in a single day for men and one drink for women. One drink is defined as 12 fl oz of beer (5% alcohol), 5 fl oz of wine (12% alcohol) or 1.5 fl oz of 80-proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol). These guidelines have not changed since 1990.

While 82% of men and 89% of women did not exceed the DGA’s limits, a small percentage drank in excess. Eight percent of men had more than four drinks, and 3% of women had more than three. Perhaps most surprisingly, older men and women drank the most heavily, and significantly beyond moderation guidelines. The percentage was highest for 31- to 50-year-old men (22%) and 51- to 70-year-old women (12%).

Overall, the percentages of those consuming alcohol on a daily basis are lower than might be expected. Thirty-six percent of men and 21% of women consumed alcohol, according to researchers, in this study. However, on a given day, a substantial proportion of the US population age 21 years and older exceeded the levels of moderation specified by the DGA (18% of men and 11% of women). And college students are still drinking heavily too. About four out of five college students drink alcohol, and about half of those college students who drink also consume alcohol through binge drinking. For women, this is about 4 drinks, and for men, about 5.

The DGA when it comes to alcohol are based on several health issues, including the relationship between alcohol intake and unintentional injury, as well as the relationship between alcohol intake and weight gain, coronary heart disease, bone health and cognitive decline. The CDC says that excessive drinking is associated with numerous health problems including chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis and pancreatitis, various cancers, high blood pressure and psychological disorders. 

On the flip side, alcohol may have beneficial effects when consumed in moderation. Strong evidence from observational studies has shown that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderate alcohol consumption also is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality among middle-aged and older adults and may help to keep cognitive function intact with age, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.

Study author Patricia M. Guenther, PhD, RD, USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, says that health professionals can refer consumers to The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s educational tool to increase awareness about how drinking habits may affect health.

“The public health consequences of excessive drinking are enormous. Even a small reduction in excessive drinking should be expected to have a public health benefit,” says Guenther.