The other day my friend Charles Payet, a NC dentist, tagged me to check out a video on facebook. Let’s say I was not particularly impressed with the content:
Yes, I know this video is funny, but come on. I cannot see wine (or any type of alcoholic drink) without thinking that alcohol is a carcinogenic or that it contains empty calories. Combining alcohol with something that’s so good for our health like exercise only aggravates the situation (and to clarify, here is why exercise is important, even if you don’t lose weight.)
“But,” you may say, “what about all these health benefits of red wine?”
Good question. Maybe you’ve noticed a headline or two around this subject:
Or maybe this:
I was wondering about this myself. So we got into doing the research here at Fitness Reloaded. Are the benefits of red wine worthy of their hype?
First things first – here’s “the heart” of the hype.
You probably won’t hear anyone boasting about the benefits of red wine without a nod to resveratrol.
Antioxidants like resveratrol protect the body from free radicals, which can wreak havoc by damaging cells and promoting cellular oxidation. A build-up of free radicals can set the stage for disease and rapid aging.
Resveratrol, specifically, is a compound found in grapes, berries, peanuts, pistachios, and, of course, red wine. Since researchers first suggested that it could be responsible for the cardiovascular benefits of red wine in 1992, there has been a steady stream of reports proclaiming that resveratrol is the key to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
Let’s look at some of the health benefits of red wine.
#1. The heart benefits are dubious. Sorry, “french paradox.”
If the French can drink red wine while consuming tons of saturated fat, yet experiencing low coronary atherosclerosis rates, then there must be something there, right?
Other than the French Paradox, we have some evidence that red wine indeed protects the heart. For example, a review by Vidavalur et al. notes that the polyphenols in wine may prevent blood clots.
Or, a case-control study published in Clinics exhibited some of the heart-healthy benefits of red wine.
The 26 participants were grouped into three categories: those with high cholesterol, those with high blood pressure, and a control group. After 15 days of drinking 250 ml of red wine, the groups with high cholesterol and high blood pressure saw a reduction in LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”) as well as total cholesterol. Mean blood pressure also dropped for all groups across the board.
Still this was a short-term study (only 2 weeks!) involving a small sample size (only 26 people.) Plus the benefits it found only applied to healthy individuals. To quote the authors, “elevation in HDL-cholesterol levels was noted only in healthy subjects, but not in those with arterial hypertension or high total cholesterol levels.”
As for the French Paradox, similar to the overhyped breastfeeding studies, it’s very difficult to exclude socioeconomic, cultural, and genetic factors from such studies. Hence, we don’t know if it’s the red wine that’s the cause behind the cardioprotection of the French.
Maybe it’s alcohol in general. Or maybe it’s because the French walk more (I don’t know if they walk more, just sayin’.) Or maybe it’s because of a different factor in their diet or because they have 5 weeks of vacation or work 35 hours a week (instead of 40), or because they really clock off at 6 pm.
Or maybe it’s a combo of the above.
The happy story of “red wine – good for the heart” is now attributed more to the consumption of alcohol in general, rather than some special ingredient in red wine in particular. As we’ll examine later, alcohol is linked to potential heart benefits.
But being on the heart-health topic, you know what actually protects the heart, with too many studies to count as proof? Exercise.
Physical activity will get you the heart benefits – if that’s what you’re looking for, and not an excuse to get drinking while feeling good about it. Sorry! You’ll get a nicer butt though. Wine can’t give you that (and the heart benefits still need to prove themselves.)
#2. It could help treat and prevent diabetes…if you drink more than 1000 bottles a day.
The antioxidants found in red wine could act as anti-diabetic agents, at least in mice.
Dao et. al, for example, found that resveratrol increased GLP-1 secretion in mice, which promotes glycemic control. GLP-1 has been linked with increased insulin secretion and enhanced insulin sensitivity, both of which play a big role in diabetes management.
Another animal study printed in Diabetologia found that administration of resveratrol was able to prevent and treat type 1 diabetes by blocking the binding of specific peptides that contribute to the development of diabetes.
Research in this area is still developing, however, and other studies (in humans) have found little to no effect on glycemic control from red wine or its constituents.
Yes, red wine does have resveratrol which can be beneficial. However, to achieve the scale of results found in some of the mice studies that supply participants with a mega dose, you would have to drink 1,000 liters every day! That’s over 1,333 bottles of red wine daily.
I can totally picture the wine lovers saying “Yay! I can drink all day and say I do it for health!”
Only drinking a bottle a day gets you to the “I’m an alcoholic” level. For diabetes, a healthy diet and an active lifestyle are your best bets.
#3. A glass of red wine a day could add up to 13 pounds in a year.
It’s easy to forget at times, but, yes, red wine still contains alcohol and, thus, the calories can stack up fast while providing very few nutrients in comparison to real food.
Alcohol clocks in at 7 calories per gram, right in between carbohydrates and protein at 4 calories per gram and just under fat at 9 calories per gram.
A 5-ounce glass of red wine contains 125 calories. That might not seem like much, but that nightly glass of wine with dinner can pile up to a pound a month…and how many of us always limit ourselves to just one glass at a time?
The biggest problem is that those calories from alcohol are considered “empty calories,” meaning that they don’t provide the same nutrients, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that you can get from foods for the same amount of calories, and optimizing intake is crucial when it comes to diabetes management.
#4. It could help fight cancer…or not.
Thanks to the reservatrol content of red wine, wine lovers have another great excuse to guzzle down a glass or two: it can potentially fight cancer! That’s right, the antioxidant benefits of red wine have been linked to cancer in multiple studies.
In a study by Cai et. al, they found that a low-dose of reservatrol inhibited the development of colorectal cancer in mice. Another study by Hu et.al had similar findings, noting the therapeutic anti-cancer effects of reservatrol, which was able to halt cell growth and kill of cancer cells in mice with skin cancer.
Human studies on the connection between reservatrol and cancer have been inconsistent, but several have also suggested that there could be a link. One study published in PLoS One looked at human breast cancer cells and found that reservatrol halted DNA methylation, a mechanism that’s known to spur cancer growth.
If red wine being the cure for cancer sounds a little too good to be true, though, that’s because it is. Which brings me to my next point…
#5. Red wine still contains alcohol, a known carcinogen.
Alcohol is a Group 1 carcinogenic according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC.) IARC reviews the research and classifies substances and exposure circumstances in one of five categories:
- Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
- Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
- Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
- Group 3: Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans
- Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans
Alcohol along with tobacco smoking, UV rays, and other belong to Group 1. So it’s not even likely to cause cancer; it causes cancer, period. It has been linked to several cancers, including liver cancer, breast cancer, and esophageal cancer
It damages tissues and cells, helping other harmful carcinogens the body and cause damage, and increasing body weight, which can increase cancer risk. It is also believed to alter estrogen levels in the body, potentially leading to breast cancer. The relative risk of developing breast cancer jumps by 7% for each alcoholic drink consumed in a day.
Just in the UK for example, 12500 cancers per year are attributed to alcohol; else said, 4% of all cancer cases.
And you don’t need to drink too much to raise your cancer risk; according to the National Cancer Institute, those who consume at least 3.5 drinks per day have a 2-3 times greater risk of head and neck cancers and a 1.5 times greater risk of colorectal cancer.
In fact, no amount of alcohol is safe when it comes to cancer. It’s just that the more you drink, the higher your chances.
The good news: alcohol has some benefits too!
I mentioned above how the cardioprotective benefits behind the French Paradox could be explained by alcohol intake in general and not red wine consumption in particular.
Some studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption can increase HDL levels (“good cholesterol”) by increasing the transport of its components. However, recent reviews have reported that those cardio-protective effects may not be as great as we originally thought. According to the UK’s Alcohol Guidelines Review, it seems that those health benefits only apply to a small portion of the population.
Based on the report, any heart-healthy benefits of red wine are likely limited to women over 55. They even note that the protective could be offset by other factors, like being overweight or obese. The report also indicates that the magnitude of the effects of alcohol on men over 55 was negligible.
On top of that, wine seems to be a more cardioprotective drink than other types of alcohol. However, as Klatsky reports in his 2015 review published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, we don’t know yet if that’s due to wine drinkers living healthier in general.
These benefits are limited when compared to the drawbacks of alcohol consumption, esp. when drinking regularly. Alcohol, other than being carcinogenic, can affect the brain, cause inflammation in the pancreas, damage the heart, and lead to a whole host of liver problems. Not to mention, drunk driving, domestic violence addiction, and other issues related to alcohol consumption.
In non-moderate amounts and over time, alcoholic liver disease is common. Approximately 20% of alcoholics develop fatty liver disease and 10-15% of alcoholics go on to develop cirrhosis, causing scarring of the liver and potential liver failure. The CDC also lists other long-term risks associated with alcohol consumption, including heart disease, dementia, depression, and digestive problems.
Red wine is far from being a superfood, or a “superdrink.”
Do you have to ditch it altogether? That’s your personal decision.
(However if you’re pregnant or aiming to get pregnant, the CDC actually suggests that you do not drink at all.)
Any time a study comes out suggesting any potential benefits of red wine, it’s guaranteed to make the headlines. Regardless of what the rest of the study actually found, the media loves to hype it up and frame red wine as a “super food” with the capability to solve all of our problems with a single glass.
Before you polish off that bottle of wine (for the sake of health, of course), keep in mind that:
- The research really is lacking when it comes to the health effects and benefits of red wine.
- Most of the existing literature focuses on animal studies and there are few human trials that have been able to establish a clear connection between red wine and health.
- The majority of studies published have shown only the short-term effects of red wine, so it’s hard to say what the long-term effects could be.
- Alcohol is a carcinogen.
So if you want to raise a glass because you like it; go ahead. But if you want to do it because you think drinking red wine has health benefits, you are better off choosing other ways to live healthier; ways that don’t involve consuming alcohol.
So you’re enjoying your red wine habit. But how much is ok?
As we discussed in natural vs. synthetic foods, “the dose makes the poison.” The 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend that alcohol consumption should not exceed more than one drink per day for women and two drinks a day for men. Some people should not drink at all (e.g., pregnant women or people with certain medical conditions.)
Also if you want to lower your cancer risk – no alcohol is better than light drinking which is better than heavy drinking.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. This means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. (A drink is one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits, or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.)
The bottom line: relish the occasional glass of merlot along with your food, but do it because you enjoy it and not because it’s healthy. For the health benefits, start exercise (here’s a 30-min yoga workout routine to get your started or a 16-min HIIT routine.)
Additionally/alternatively, balance that glass out with a well-rounded diet consisting of whole grains, high-quality proteins, and healthy fats and you’re sure to find those health benefits you’re looking for.
Now leave a comment and let me know – do you know of anyone who started drinking a glass a day because of the (overhyped) health benefits of red wine?
Vidavalur R, Otani H, Singal PK, Maulik N. Significance of wine and resveratrol in cardiovascular disease: French paradox revisited. Exp Clin Cardiol. 2006;11(3):217-25.
Andrade AC, Cesena FH, Consolim-colombo FM, et al. Short-term red wine consumption promotes differential effects on plasma levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, sympathetic activity, and endothelial function in hypercholesterolemic, hypertensive, and healthy subjects. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2009;64(5):435-42.
Dao TM, Waget A, Klopp P, et al. Resveratrol increases glucose induced GLP-1 secretion in mice: a mechanism which contributes to the glycemic control. PLoS ONE. 2011;6(6):e20700.
Lee SM, Yang H, Tartar DM, et al. Prevention and treatment of diabetes with resveratrol in a non-obese mouse model of type 1 diabetes. Diabetologia. 2011;54(5):1136-46.
Turner RS, Thomas RG, Craft S, et al. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of resveratrol for Alzheimer disease. Neurology. 2015;85(16):1383-91.
Witte AV, Kerti L, Margulies DS, Flöel A. Effects of resveratrol on memory performance, hippocampal functional connectivity, and glucose metabolism in healthy older adults. J Neurosci. 2014;34(23):7862-70.
Cai H, Scott E, Kholghi A, et al. Cancer chemoprevention: Evidence of a nonlinear dose response for the protective effects of resveratrol in humans and mice. Sci Transl Med. 2015;7(298):298ra117.
Hu YQ, Wang J, Wu JH. Administration of resveratrol enhances cell-cycle arrest followed by apoptosis in DMBA-induced skin carcinogenesis in male Wistar rats. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2016;20(13):2935-46.
Medina-aguilar R, Pérez-plasencia C, Marchat LA, et al. Methylation Landscape of Human Breast Cancer Cells in Response to Dietary Compound Resveratrol. PLoS ONE. 2016;11(6):e0157866.
A.L. Klatsky, Alcohol and cardiovascular diseases: where do we stand today. Journal of Internal Medicine, Volume 278, Issue 3, September 2015, Pages 238–250