Water, tea and coffee are the world’s most consumed beverages, but alcohol isn’t far behind. A recent survey found 69.5% of Americans reported that they drank alcohol in the past year. How much people drink varies widely, and we’re all aware of the negative outcomes associated with heavy drinking. But over the past few decades, scientists, doctors and media outlets have dedicated a lot of time and effort to whether moderate drinking — particularly drinking red wine — is healthy and perhaps even healthier than abstaining from alcohol. Much of this interest lies within the “French Paradox,” a term referring to the relatively low rates of heart disease among French people despite a diet relatively high in saturated fat.
It’s a fun narrative and one that makes us feel better about the occasional (or nightly) glass or two of wine. But what’s the deal — is wine actually healthy? Should you start drinking wine if you don’t already? All good questions, so we turned to an expert to find out.
IS WINE ACTUALLY HEALTH?
“There has been quite a bit of observational research to show that moderate consumption of red wine is associated with health benefits, including a reduced risk for heart disease, cancer, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and more,” says Claire Virga, RD, MS. “However, these studies do not show cause and effect. There are likely many other lifestyle factors at play. For example, people who drink red wine in moderation may be more likely to follow a Mediterranean-style diet or practice other healthy lifestyle behaviors.”
She equates the question to the chicken and egg dilemma: Is the wine really imparting health benefits, or is it the combination of other healthy lifestyle factors?
If you are a moderate drinker, don’t rely on wine to keep you healthy. Instead, it’s important to practice other healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as eating a nutritious diet, getting adequate sleep, exercising and practicing stress relief techniques. Virga reminds us there is rarely one single nutrient, food group or supplement that is responsible for good health; rather, it’s the combination of nutrition and lifestyle factors that matters.
“When it comes to wine and alcohol, in general, moderation is really important,” says Virga. She notes that health benefits are observed with moderate drinking — one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men — but these benefits disappear and health risks begin to appear if you drink more than this amount.
“Alcohol is a toxin, so if you aren’t a drinker, there is no reason why you should start drinking to reap the health benefits,” she adds.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER FORMS OF ALCOHOL?
Wine contains the antioxidant resveratrol, unlike beer and liquor. Virga says antioxidants work within the body to decrease oxidative stress, which helps to prevent the onset of chronic diseases like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Many studies support the idea that red wine, in particular, is a healthier drink than other types of alcohol, but others do not. And once again, it can be difficult to parse the cause and effect between drink type and other lifestyle factors.
Regardless, Virga stresses that resveratrol is found in higher concentrations in whole red grapes than in wine. So, if you really want to consume more antioxidants, it’s better to eat red grapes or other antioxidant-rich, plant-based foods than to drink wine. And if you do drink wine, you should still eat a healthy, balanced diet. Because, even after a particularly grueling day, wine doesn’t make a good substitute for dinner.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Wine can be part of a healthy lifestyle, and it is for millions of people. But the science isn’t settled on exactly how much, if at all, wine may benefit your heart health. And alcohol consumption is also associated with a host of negative health outcomes. If you like to drink wine, go ahead and enjoy yourself — in moderation, of course. But if you don’t already partake, there’s no reason to start.
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