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Navigating Mixed Signals About Health Benefits of Red Wine

Navigating Mixed Signals About Health Benefits of Red Wine
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There is lots of conflicting information about the perceived health benefits of red wine and alcohol generally. Here’s what you need to know.

Many of us have heard of the French paradox: despite the fact that French people have a diet high in fat, cholesterol, and alcohol in the form of red wine, France has a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than the US. We see articles like “7 Science-backed Benefits of Drinking Red Wine” juxtaposed with stern warnings from health authorities about the dangers of alcohol consumption. While there are some beneficial compounds in red wine, these nutrients can be found elsewhere; the fact is, there are far more risks with drinking alcohol than benefits.

Just last month, the World Health Organization published a statement in The Lancet Public Health that no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health. Alcohol has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer decades ago – this is the highest risk group, which also includes asbestos, radiation and tobacco. This has nothing to do with the type of quality of the alcoholic beverage; it is the ethanol that causes cancer as it breaks down in the body. The more you consume, the greater the cancer risk.

The US Dietary Guidelines have a recommended daily limit on alcohol consumption of two drinks per day for men and one for women, but research is indicating that even these levels can pose a risk for cancer and heart disease.

Alcohol causes health problems by damaging DNA. When we imbibe, the body metabolizes it into acetaldehyde, a chemical that is toxic to cells. Acetaldehyde damages DNA and prevents the body from repairing the damage; cells that are damaged can grow out of control and create a cancer tumor. Alcohol also creates oxidative stress that is particularly harmful to cells that line arteries, which can lead to coronary artery disease. Metabolism of the alcohol in the liver is pro-inflammatory; chronic inflammation is a hallmark of seven of the ten leading causes of death in the US.

But we are told that red wine in moderation is heart protective. Red wine does contain resveratrol, a compound found in the skin of grapes, that is an important antioxidant with many health benefits. But the finding that red wine at low doses was heart protective could have arisen from the fact that people who drink small amounts tend to have other healthy habits like exercising, eating well, and not smoking. More recent research has found that even low levels of drinking slightly increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Drinking even moderate or low amounts can have a negative impact on the brain, too. This casts some doubt on the government dietary guidelines that tell us to limit alcohol intake to two drinks a day for men and one for women; perhaps they should recommend against any alcohol intake, period.

When it comes to red wine, the juice may not be worth the squeeze (pardon the pun!) for our health, particularly when one of the main reasons given for the health benefits of red wine, resveratrol, can be obtained from a variety of other sources: you can take it as a supplement, and it is also found in grape juice, peanuts, cocoa, blueberries, cranberries, and bilberries. Additionally, the resveratrol content in wine is usually quite low.

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