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Is a Daily Drink Good for You?

Is red wine good for you?
Is red wine good for you?

In 1991, something huge happened for people who like to drink wine. The television show 60 Minutes aired a report where Morley Safer talked about the "French Paradox." It was a theory that the French may have lower rates of heart attacks because of their love of red wine. Scientists believed something called resveratrol in the wine was protecting them from their bad habits.

Within a year of that broadcast, red wine consumption in the United States increased by 40%. Wine sellers jumped on the bandwagon and started calling red wine "health food." And they got away with it because there is no precise definition for the term "health food." They never said, “Drink wine to live longer.” They just let the word “healthy” float around it, and they made you fill in the blanks.

Now 28 years later, people still believe the myth that red wine, or alcohol in general, is a “healthy food.” If you ask your friends about having a glass of alcohol a day, they'll probably say it's a good thing. Especially if you keep it to things like red wine.

The problem with that belief, is that research over the last three decades has shown it to be a lie. Not just a little lie that we could casually ignore, but a huge lie, built on incomplete data, poor fact-checking and misleading marketing. It's also a lie that kills. Here's what you need to know.

Let's start with the French Paradox. The first thing researchers found was that serving sizes in America were substantially larger than France. Serving sizes in Paris restaurants were 25% smaller than similar restaurants in Philadelphia. Soft drinks were 52% larger in Philadelphia. Hot dogs were 63% larger and a carton of yogurt was a whopping 82% larger.

Even cookbooks are sabotaging Americans. The American version of the cookbook, The Joy of Cooking has larger meat and soup portions, and smaller vegetable servings than the French version Je Sais Cuisiner. It wasn't the wine that was protecting the French, it was the calories. They ate less, so they didn't get as fat and didn't suffer from as many obesity-related heart attacks, strokes or cancer as Americans.

The second problem was the way the French doctors certify Coronary Heart Disease. In a study published in the British Medical Journal in 1999 by Malcom Law and Nicholas Wald, they said the problem was one of reporting. They showed that about 20% of the difference in documented rates of coronary heart disease between France and the United Kingdom was because of the under-certification of coronary heart disease in France.

Finally, there's a problem with the theory that the resveratrol in wine was somehow helping people. What most news reports don't mention is that studies on resveratrol showing heart benefits, were conducted on mice, not humans. Most also fail to mention that people who took too much resveratrol were damaging their hearts. Over twenty years after it started being promoted as a life-extending supplement, safety studies showing proper dosages of resveratrol still have not been conducted. Oh! And the amount of resveratrol the mice were getting in their experiments was the equivalent of how much would be found in 5 GALLONS of wine, not a glass a day.

When you correct for the under-reporting of coronary heart disease and adjust for the amount of food people eat, there is no French paradox.

Effects of Alcoholism

Here's what we know alcohol consumption does to you.

Let's start with breast cancer. A 2017 report from the American Institute for Cancer Research found that just one small serving of alcohol per day, can increase the premenopausal risk of breast cancer by 5%. That same drink increases postmenopausal risk for breast cancer by a whopping 9%. Those increased risks start at just 10 grams of alcohol a day, less than a standard glass of wine or beer. Unfortunately your risk continues to increase for every additional 10 grams of alcohol you drink a day.

Then there's the effect on the brain. In a study published in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), researchers found that moderate alcohol consumption was linked to a three times greater risk of tissue degeneration in the hippocampus. That's the part of the brain responsible for memory and spatial orientation. Their definition of moderate drinking was only 5-9 glasses of wine or 6-9 pints of light beer a week.

Alcohol use is also on the rise. Over 36,000 United States adults were surveyed in face-to-face interviews for a study published in JAMA Psychiatry. Researchers found that over an 11 year period, one adult in eight in the United States met the criteria for "alcohol use disorder" or alcoholism. The real shock came when they looked at adults under 30. One in four met the criteria for alcoholism. Deaths from liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver is rapidly increasing in people between the ages of 25 and 34.

A study published in August of 2018 in The Lancet summed up the results of over 600 alcohol consumption studies. They state that NO level of alcohol is good for you. In fact, alcohol was one of the top 10 risk factors for premature death in 2016.

You have been sold a lie. A clever piece of marketing that moderate amounts of alcohol aren't just OK, they can be good for you. The research does not prove that out.

The majority of people who drink a single glass daily won't experience negative effects. But those same alcohol drinkers won't get any health benefits from that daily indulgence either. Alcohol should be viewed through the same lens as you would a cheeseburger or sugary dessert. For better long-term health, limit yourself to a single glass no more than once or twice a week.

UPDATE 7/16/2020

On 7/15/2020 experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommended an update to the official 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The experts said that based on the latest information, men should limit alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day, not two as suggested in the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines.

The science actually suggests no more than one a week, but this is a step in the right direction.

Reference Links:

Information from Scientific American article titled: Health Check for Humanity by W. Wayt Gibbs in the August 2016 issue.

LINK: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-ails-the-human-race/#


Moderate alcohol consumption as risk factor for adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline: longitudinal cohort study

Anya Topiwala, clinical lecturer in old age psychiatry, Charlotte L Allan, academic clinical lecturer in old age psychiatry, Vyara Valkanova, specialist registrar in old age psychiatry, Enikő Zsoldos, postdoctoral scientist, Nicola Filippini, postdoctoral scientist, Claire Sexton, postdoctoral scientist, Abda Mahmood, research assistant, Peggy Fooks, medical student, Archana Singh-Manoux, professor of epidemiology and public health, Clare E Mackay, associate professor, Mika Kivimäki, professor, Klaus P Ebmeier, professor of old age psychiatry
The BMJ, Published 06 June 2017 - Cite this as: BMJ 2017;357:j2353

Click Here for the Study


Do “Moderate” Drinkers Have Reduced Mortality Risk? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality

Tim Stockwell , Ph.D.,a,d Jinhui Zhao , Ph.D.,a Sapna Panwar , M.S.,b Audra Roemer , M.Sc.,a Timothy Naimi , M.D.,c & Tanya Chikritzhs , Ph.D.b
Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Published Online: March 22, 2016 - https://doi.org/10.15288/jsad.2016.77.185

Click Here for the Study


Analysing Research on Cancer Prevention and Survival
Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Breast Cancer - Continuous Update Project

World Cancer Research Fund - American Institute for Cancer Research
Revised 2018

Click Here for the Report


No level of alcohol consumption improves health

Robyn Burton, Nick Sheron
The Lancet, Published:August 23, 2018DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31571-X

Click Here for the Study

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Updated 7/16/2020
Updated 1/22/2022