Saturday, December 17, 2011

The biggest myths about wine and health

Just when it seems that people are starting to catch on about the wine and health story, along come the naysayers to muddy the waters with out of date and disproven assumptions. True, a lot of what I am about to cover here is counterintuitive and goes against longstanding beliefs, but it’s a matter of science. Like Lt. Joe Friday used to say in the 50’s TV series Dragnet, it’s “just the facts, ma’am.”

Myth #1.  Alcohol abuse is the biggest cause of liver disease. We all know that alcohol leads to cirrhosis of the liver right? It turns out that by far the largest cause of liver failure in developed countries is Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, or NAFLD. What’s more – and here’s the interesting part – wine seems to have a protective effect against NAFLD. The key here if course is amount, so as with all things wine and health, we are talking about a glass or two of red wine with dinner.

Myth #2. Alcohol destroys brain cells. While technically it may be true that alcohol is toxic to neural tissues, the presumption that any level of drinking is bad for the brain is not. In fact, one of the more surprising revelations to come from the research on wine and health is that cognitive function is objectively better in wine drinkers as they age compared to nondrinkers. This has been a remarkably consistent finding. So drinking –wine, at least – is good for the brain.

Myth #3. Any “French Paradox” benefit to heart disease from wine is nullified by alcohol’s contribution to high blood pressure. While not as widely discussed, this one has been a sort of trump card for the anti-alcohol group since it is well known that alcohol consumption contributes to hypertension. However, it has been confirmed that the heart health benefit still holds even among hypertensives – those who already have high blood pressure.

Myth #4. Wine’s benefits are all due to resveratrol, so you are better off taking a pill and skipping the alcohol.  This is an interesting conclusion but widely held even among “experts.” Resveratrol is indeed a remarkable substance, and wine is the best natural dietary source of this potent antioxidant. (That’s why I have a whole chapter on resveratrol in my book.) But while wine has been shown to have a multitude of benefits, there isn’t actually very much resveratrol in wine, at least compared to the amounts used in laboratory studies. So wine’s benefits by definition have to be mostly from something else.

Myth #5. Wine is empty calories and causes weight gain. Not so fast – red wine’s calories are all from alcohol, which is metabolized differently than carbohydrates so it doesn’t cause the spike in blood sugar. Wine drinkers overall have much lower rates of obesity, and while the polyphenol compounds that make wine red may not have calories, they are important components of a healthy diet.

So a toast to your health this Holiday season, and may you have a guilt-free indulgence or two.

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