Red Wine and the French Paradox
I often hear people state that drinking alcohol is healthy as long as it is red wine.
The idea that drinking red wine is healthy began when it was noticed that people in France tend to live long and healthy lives, despite their tendency to eat lots of rich foods that contain saturated fat. This is known as the French paradox.
People also noticed that French people drink a lot of red wine. This led to the belief that it was the red wine that was responsible for the greater health of French people, and why they could eat saturated fat without suffering from cardiovascular disease at the same rate as Americans do. The idea that red wine is healthy has generated a lot of research. In fact, a search on a college university database for red wine returned over 6000 articles.
After hearing about the French paradox, Americans increased their red wine consumption so that they too could be healthy. It sounds great. You get to drink alcohol to improve your health.
If only things could be that simple.
While it is true that red wine can provide some health benefits (see below), there are other reasons that may account for the better health of the French.
Lifestyle Differences Between the French and Americans
One difference between French and American people is food portion size. In general, the French eat smaller portions of food than Americans do. This means that even if people in France do eat rich foods, cheeses, and desserts full of saturated fat, they are still going to ingest less of it than a typical American would.
In addition, the French usually eat a more varied diet than Americans do. The French also tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than Americans, and research has consistently shown that consuming a lot of fruits and vegetables leads to better health. In France, fresh fruit is often served as dessert, whereas in the United States we are more likely to eat cakes, pies, or cookies for dessert. Now, who do you think will be the healthiest?
The French also do more walking and cycling and therefore get more exercise on a regular basis than typical Americans do. This may be one of the most important reasons for fewer incidences of cardiovascular disease among the French.
Wine Drinking Habits
The French usually have their red wine with a meal and usually only a small glass at that. Americans often drink their wine in the evening in the absence of food and often have more wine than they ought to.
Americans also tend to skimp on sleep, which is unhealthy.
So, as you can see, there are a lot of reasons why the French may be more healthy than Americans other than their red wine consumption. Of course none of the other reasons are as much fun as drinking red wine and that is probably why people were so quick to jump on the red wine bandwagon.
Red Wine - Is it Really Healthy?
Even though red wine may not be responsible for the French paradox it does have some health benefits.
Red wine contains the compound resveratrol, which is associated with decreased cardiovascular disease and increased longevity. Research studies have shown that resveratrol increased the life span of yeast, fruitflies, earthworms, fish, and even mice. It is thought that it may have the same effect on humans. Of course you can obtain resveratrol from sources other than wine. It is found in red grapes, grape juice, and also in peanuts. The other sources just aren't as much fun as drinking wine and so you don't hear about them as often.
Aside from the resveratrol found in wine, research has found that consuming 1-2 drinks per day of any type of alcoholic beverage (not just red wine) lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease compared to abstaining from alcohol consumption. It turns out that, in small amounts, ethanol from any source reduces inflammation and this may account for its beneficial effects. In truth, having one beer probably has the same effect on your health as one glass of red wine.
Adverse Effects of Drinking Too Much Red Wine
Unfortunately, having more than 1-2 alcoholic drinks per day increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and also increases your risk of dying from other causes. Health benefits from drinking alcoholic beverages are also not found if you binge drink. You can't save up all of your drinking for the week and then have 7-14 drinks on the weekend. Health benefits are found only when you drink small amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, similar to what the French do.
Also, women really get cheated when it comes to drinking. The recommendations for women are no more than one drink per day (men get up to two drinks per day). Part of this is due to womens' smaller body size. Although it has always seemed to me that if body size plays a role in how much one can drink that larger, taller, women should get to drink more, but I don't believe anyone has ever researched this.
Women also don't metabolize alcohol as well as men do. The reason for this is that women have less of an enzyme (alcohol dehydrogenase) in their digestive system than men do. This enzyme breaks down some of the alcohol before it gets into the bloodstream.
The other problem with alcohol is that it is so easy to overdo it. It is very easy to drink more than you intend to, unless you measure out exactly one standard glass of wine, which is 4-5 ounces of 12% alcohol by volume. A lot of wines have more alcohol than this and the alcohol content generally ranges from 12% to 18%, with most around 13.5%.
Drinking more than you should causes a lot of health problems, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, increased risk of cancer, liver problems, and gastrointestinal problems, such as ulcers.
The bottom line is that drinking red wine in moderation may provide some health benefits, but drinking more than the recommended amount is not good for you. It doesn't matter whether you are drinking red wine or some other type of alcoholic beverage. Overdrinking will ruin your health, while drinking moderately may slightly improve it.