All the experts agree that drinking too much alcohol of any type is bad for you. It’s linked to all manner of health problems including liver and heart disease as well as cancer, will blow any calorie targets out of the water, and costs you a packet. That’s before you even mention the hangovers.
However, red wine is nice. Real nice. You don’t need an expert to tell you that.
Drinking in moderation, however, is still seen as not only OK in many people’s eyes, but perhaps even healthy. That’s especially true of red wine, which is often claimed to be good for your heart, among various other vague health boosts.
At the right/wrong sort of middle-class dinner parties up and down the land, there are people who barely let the glass touch their lips before hailing the health benefits of red wine.
In fact, while sticking to the 14-unit-a-week recommended limit means you’re unlikely to do yourself much harm, the idea that booze might be good for you – whether it’s red wine or anything else – is not really backed up by evidence.
To drum that home, a recent study found that drinking one bottle of red wine a week, which would keep you under the 14-unit recommendation, increased the risk of developing cancer as much as smoking ten cigarettes a week for women, and five cigarettes a week for men, with the increase in the risk in breast cancer accounting for the difference between the sexes.
The research team from the University of Southampton and Bangor University opted to put the risks of even moderate drinking in those terms because everyone accepts smoking is bad for you, so it was a good way to highlight that booze is too. Thanks, team!
If that news has come as a terrible shock, the best way to look at the following info might be to consider it a crash course in how to wipe the smug smile off the face of the dinner-party know-it-all, rather than a damning indictment of what – let’s be honest – is a terrifically enjoyable drink.
Is Red Wine Good For The Heart?
This is the claim that red wine fans have hung their hats on for the longest time – the idea that moderate consumption reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. So if you stick to the 14 units a week maximum, you’ll not only be drinking risk-free, but actually helping your heart.
There is research to support this – but unfortunately, that isn’t the whole story. The latest evidence suggests that any benefits are small and confined to women over 45. And only if you drink five units or fewer a week. Are you a woman aged over 45 who drinks just three glasses of wine a week? Get ready to be smug at your next dinner party.
There’s also the problem that studies comparing drinkers to non-drinkers don’t consider other differences between the two groups, such as that red wine drinkers tend to live healthier lives (it’s a socio-economic class thing). Some studies also don’t take into account that a proportion of non-drinkers are teetotal due to health problems.
But don’t take our word for it. No public health organisation or heart charity recommends drinking alcohol as a way to benefit the heart, because the risks far outweigh any possible benefits. Regularly drinking too much alcohol has a clear link with high blood pressure, which raises the risk of heart disease.
Perhaps most importantly, any purported heart benefits to drinking alcohol are better acquired through a healthier diet or exercising more. Both things that make for ideal dinner party conversation as you try to ignore the glare of the wine smartarse.
Is Red Wine Better Than Other Alcohol?
The edge red wine claims to have is due to its higher levels of antioxidants, specifically polyphenols. The darker the red, the more polyphenols it contains. Of particular interest is a polyphenol called resveratrol, found in red wine, which is regularly the subject of studies about its possible beneficial effects on heart health and ageing.
So is resveratrol actually good for you? Well, it’s very popular in the media because it’s found in red wine and dark chocolate, so any studies on resveratrol can be claimed as proving wine and choc as healthy. But – wait for it – this isn’t the whole story.
First, most resveratrol studies are done with mice and it’s always wise to be wary about assuming the benefits will also apply to humans. Second, those mice aren’t quaffing glasses of red wine and scoffing chocolates. They’re being given supplements with high doses of resveratrol. The actual amount of resveratrol in red wine varies and is generally far below the amount used in studies.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you don’t need to drink alcohol to get resveratrol. Grapes, grape juice, peanuts, blueberries and cranberries all contain it, and you can also take supplements.
So if you really want the “benefits” of red wine, look elsewhere. Then have a couple of glasses of vin rouge a week because it’s enjoyable.
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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