Don't Buy Red Wine Because You Think It's Healthy

If you have cancer in your family, you might want to consider giving it up altogether.

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May 12 2017, 5:00pm

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For a concise summary of this issue, read our Final Word on red wine.

One week you hear wine is healthy for you. The next week you hear different. Why the whiplash? A just-published 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.

"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.)

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.

But there's a reason every scientist has "correlation is not causation" tattooed on his 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.




Tim Stockwell is the director of the Center for Addictions Research at the University of British Columbia. He says researcher blind spots and "systematic biases" cloud most of the "alcohol is good for you!" conclusions. "Our 2016 meta-analysis of all-cause mortality suggests [your] risk of death increases from one drink a day," he says. "Most epidemiologists now take the position that there is no completely safe level of alcohol consumption."

"Most" might be a stretch. Gow, for one, says the data we have currently links moderate alcohol consumption with "net health benefits." He also says "red wine appears to be associated with the most benefits."

White reiterates Gow's support for moderate consumption, though he's not willing to say red wine is tops. "Moderate drinking seems to be associated with lower rates of mortality than heavy drinking or abstinence," he says. "But I think the evidence so far suggests it's the alcohol, not the type of delivery system, that provides the benefit."

How could alcohol improve your health? "Despite hundreds of studies, that's still the thing we just don't know," White says. Small amounts of alcohol may reduce systemic inflammation or combat metabolic disorders. But hard answers are hard to come by.

"What our knowledge base is really missing right now is a definitive trial where alcohol is given like medicine," White says. By "like medicine," he means that the amount of alcohol a person consumes daily is carefully controlled the way drugs are administered in a clinical trial. These sorts of trials are needed in part because people are notoriously shitty at gauging the amount of alcohol they drink, or even how much they've poured into their glass. "When asked to pour a single serving, even if people know what that means—and many don't—most err on the side of too much," White says.

This is problematic when you consider 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.

Another elephant in the room when it comes to alcohol and your health: cancer. Even moderate amounts of alcohol have been linked to increased rates of several cancers, Gow says. So if you're at increased risk for that disease—whether due to family history or your smoking habit—even a little drinking may be bad news.

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.

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