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Is red wine healthy?

Is red wine healthy?

I’m acquainted with a middle aged man who, shall we say, has significant abdominal fat. It’s a marker for increased risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease. So no surprise, his doctor recently suggested he get a heart scan to check for arterial calcfication. When the scan showed nothing of concern, my acquaintance attributed this happy result to red wine.

I’ve seen him down an entire bottle of red wine in one evening, numerous times. Wow. For the record, I do not recommend this level of consumption. Do I think red wine keeps his heart healthy? I have no idea. But he firmly believes that it does, so I’m sure he’ll continue with his red wine habit.

The idea that red wine is uniquely healthy has been around for decades. It’s the basis for the so-called French Paradox, which supposedly explains why people in France have lower rates of heart disease despite eating lots of high fat cheese, butter and pastries. Must be the red wine! Researchers leapt to that conclusion and then tried to prove it, with mixed results.

Some researchers zeroed in on a chemical in wine called resveratrol. This polyphenol has antioxidant activity, and is particularly concentrated in red wine. It’s also concentrated in grapes, grape juice, blueberries, cranberries and peanuts. You don’t need to drink red wine to consume resveratrol, but somehow red wine gets all the PR.

The catch is that resveratrol in food isn’t well absorbed, and even then, it may not be metabolized to a useful form once in the blood. Much of the research supporting the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity of resveratrol was done in test tubes. It’s been hard to identify specific health benefits from resveratrol that’s consumed in foods and beverages. That hasn’t stopped the supplement industry from touting resveratrol supplements for health. Bypass the wine, just take a pill!

Red wine contains other substances that could provide a health benefit, such as quercetin, which is also found in apples (mostly in the skin). And wine contains ethanol. Some people think it’s the ethanol creating the health benefits, not the various polyphenols.

Meanwhile the healthy Mediterranean Diet famously includes red wine. It also famously includes olive oil, vegetables, and fish, and limits consumption of sugar, meat and dairy foods. Attributing all the health benefits just to the wine seems misguided at best. By the way, Mediterrean diet guides suggest one glass per day, not one bottle.

As for the French Paradox, there are plenty of other factors that could contribute to better health in France. Perhaps people don’t eat as much high fat cheese and butter as we imagine. Perhaps they have generally healthier lifestyles and lower rates of obesity. Perhaps dairy fats in moderation aren’t so terrible after all. Perhaps they consume more vegetables and fruit. Perhaps they don’t load up on junky snacks and soft drinks all day long.

Take Away

  • Excess alcohol is never a good idea, whatever the source
  • Adding red wine to a junky diet isn’t going to improve your health
  • Red wine is best consumed as part of a meal.
  • Don’t start drinking red wine for alleged health benefits if you don’t enjoy it.
  • Any health benefits are likely due to the combination of substances in the wine, not to any one substance.

Do I think my friend’s heart health is caused by his red wine consumption? I do not. It could be that people with a taste (and tolerance) for red wine are genetically programmed to have better heart health. At this point, we don’t know for sure if the wine leads to heart health. If you choose to drink red wine, do so in moderation.