Easy with that pouring hand though.
You are standing in line at the store, scrolling down your feed when you see a friend post a story about the benefits of drinking red wine. An alcoholic beverage that’s actually good for you? Sold. You don’t even need to read the story. You know red wine is heart healthy—the party line spills from your lushy aunt’s merlot-stained mouth every Thanksgiving after someone comments on her third glass.
Before you leave the check-out to grab ten bottles, though, read the story. Read all the stories. Or just read this.
What you’ve heard:
One week you hear wine is healthy for you. The next week you hear it's not. Why the whiplash? We’re beginning to suspect people just like doing wine studies.
"One thing we've seen consistently is that small daily amounts of alcohol increase HDL or good cholesterol, which is associated with a lower risk for heart disease," says Aaron White, a senior scientific advisor at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Small amounts [of alcohol] also seem to improve insulin sensitivity, which could reduce a person's risk for diabetes."
White says more research has linked low-to-moderate amounts of daily alcohol consumption with "reductions in the potential for blood clotting," which could protect you from a heart attack or stroke. (While definitions vary depending on who you ask, most health authorities define moderate alcohol consumption as no more than one drink a day for women and two for men. White says a "drink" is considered 12 ounces of 5 percent ABV beer, 5 ounces of 12 percent ABV wine, or 1 ounce of 40 percent ABV liquor.)
But there's a reason every scientist has "correlation is not causation" tattooed on his or her soul: Just because some studies suggest wine drinkers live longer or dodge heart disease more frequently than others doesn't mean the wine itself deserves the credit. A Danish study from 2006 found people who added wine to their shopping carts were more likely to buy fruits, vegetables, and healthy fare than beer consumers, who tended to load up on ready-to-eat meals, sugary foods, and cold cuts. So healthier diets—not red wine—could explain some of the pro-wine findings.
What the research says:
A recent study from the Journals of Gerontology encapsulates why media coverage of wine—and alcohol in general—can so often seem contradictory and confusing. In the new study, a Virginia-based team found that resveratrol—a heralded compound found in wine (especially in reds)—has the potential to mitigate muscle fiber degradation and age-related cognitive declines. Cue news headlines like: "Red Wine Compound Can Slow Brain Aging."
That headline is, technically, accurate. But the study was on mice, not people. And while lots of research has linked resveratrol to benefits in actual humans—everything from improved cardiovascular health to lower rates of dementia—nearly all of those studies looked at people who took a resveratrol supplement, meaning a pill packed with a concentrated dose of the compound rather than men and women who added a glass of red wine to their diets.
But those resveratrol studies aren't all red wine has going for it. A lot more research has looked at the drinking patterns of large groups of individuals in an attempt to find correlations between specific booze behaviors and health outcomes. Many of those studies point to a link between moderate drinking—of any alcohol, not just wine—and improved health.
Maybe most compelling: Several large-scale studies have linked a modest drinking habit, especially if that drink is wine, to lower rates of death. "Moderate drinkers live longer than heavy drinkers and non-drinkers," says Paul Gow, deputy director of gastroenterology at Australia's Austin Hospital. Gow has looked at the research on alcohol and human health, and is firmly in the pro-booze camp.
If you're at increased risk for cancer though—whether due to family history or your smoking habit—even a little drinking may be bad news. Even moderate amounts of alcohol have been linked to increased rates of several cancers, Gow says.
Okay, so bottom line: How much red wine should you drink?
A lot of the alcohol research floating around is based on self-reported drinking habits and behaviors. You may think you're being honest when you tell your doctor you have two glasses of wine a day. But if you're drinking alcohol-heavy reds like Cabernet or Zinfandel and being generous with your pours, you may be consuming what an alcohol researcher would define as three or even four drinks.
To synthesize all this, it's possible—but not certain—that a drink or two a day may provide some health benefits. And if you're agnostic when it comes to alcohol, red wine has the most data backing its health claims. But if you abstain from alcohol, or you prefer a beer or cocktail to wine, there's not enough uncontested evidence to warrant a change in your drink order.
By Markham Heid and Tonic Editors
April 3, 2018
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