New dietary guidelines fail to recommend further reducing sugar and alcohol intake

Abby Haglage
·4 min read

The federal government released its new dietary guidelines this week with the slogan “make every bite count” — but some experts have expressed concern that the new recommendations fail to address Americans’ growing sugar and alcohol intake.

The guidelines disregarded advice from the Nutrition Coalition (TNC) — a group of experts appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. This summer, TNC suggested that Americans’ daily added sugar intake be lowered from 10 percent of daily calories to 6 percent and that daily alcohol intake be reduced to one drink a day for men (the existing recommendation for women). “Less than 6 percent of energy from added sugars is more consistent with a dietary pattern that is nutritionally adequate while avoiding excess energy intake,” the committee wrote.

Should Americans be reducing sugar and alcohol intake? The federal government's new dietary guidelines fail to recommend it. (Getty Images)
Should Americans be reducing sugar and alcohol intake? The federal government's new dietary guidelines fail to recommend it. (Getty Images)

The average American consumes 57 pounds of added sugar a year and 2.3 gallons of alcohol, both of which are believed to contribute to chronic diseases. To help unpack what the new recommendations may have missed, Yahoo Life spoke with New York City-based registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo.

Yahoo Life: What is the purpose of these guidelines, and how do they affect Americans?

Natalie Rizzo: The dietary guidelines uses current diet and health science to provide recommendations for choosing foods and beverages that make up a healthy eating pattern. In other words, it’s a guideline for what and how much to eat to achieve a healthy lifestyle and reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases. The dietary guidelines are updated every five years, and they serve as the basis for federal programs, like SNAP, the [National] School Lunch Program or MyPlate. It’s important to remember that these are “guidelines” for a healthy eating pattern, and they do not address treatments for individuals who have a chronic disease.

YL: Many have expressed disappointment that the federal government ignored TNC recommendations to lower the amount of sugar and alcohol recommended per day. Do you think it was a mistake not to follow the TNC recommendations?

NR: A scientific advisory board recommended reducing added sugars and alcohol for a reason. More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, which is associated with a higher risk of developing serious diseases, like COVID-19. Plus, the science is leaning toward the fact that drinking more alcohol may increase the risk of death. Taking both of these things into account, it’s understandable why the experts wanted to reduce the recommendations for added sugar and alcohol. I do think that Americans could benefit from reducing added sugar and alcohol, and it wouldn’t have hurt to make those recommendations.

YL: What are the benefits in lowering sugar and/or alcohol intake?

NR: Both added sugar and alcohol contribute excess calories to the diet and can increase the likelihood of being overweight or obese. I think Americans should limit their intake of both of these ... especially if they have a history of being overweight or obese or have chronic diseases.

YL: The guidelines have also been criticized for ignoring things like food insecurity and chronic diseases. Do you consider this an issue?

NR: Food insecurity is a growing trend in this country, especially during the COVID pandemic. I think it’s a misstep to not even touch upon this in the dietary guidelines. They cover important issues, like pregnant and lactating women, older adults, children and adolescents and adult nutrition. It would be worth adding a section about food insecurity. As far as chronic diseases, I think it’s very difficult to include every single chronic disease that Americans face, but it might be worth noting the primary ones, like heart disease, obesity and cancer. The nutrition recommendations for those with chronic diseases is more individualized, based on the person’s overall health and lifestyle. For this reason, I can see why they didn’t want to make general recommendations.

YL: What do you want Americans to know about food and health?

NR: I think the dietary guidelines are a useful tool for creating a well-balanced diet. That said, most Americans still do not follow the dietary guidelines. The average American diet scores a 59 out of 100 on the healthy eating index (HEI), which measures how closely a diet aligns with the dietary guidelines. Research shows that higher HEI scores can improve Americans’ health.

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