Revisiting the French paradox – is red wine good for the heart?

Back in the 1980’s, many were delighted to hear the news that red wine was good for heart health. Research had been done at the time on the French paradox—the observation that the French had lower rates of heart disease despite a diet based on rich, creamy sauces high in saturated fat. What could account for this?

Wine is a key part of the French lifestyle and red wine in particular was identified as supporting heart health. Studies found that red wine contains antioxidants that may protect the heart and arteries. Since that time, additional research has been done which may provide support for the health effects of light intake of red wine.

One of the main benefits of red wine is found in it’s polyphenols, in particular the potent antioxidants quercetin and resveratrol. Research shows that they can help regulate blood pressure and have protective effects for the heart. They have been shown to thwart the development of heart disease by preventing dysfunction in the arteries of the heart. They protect the inner layer of arteries and also prevent LDL cholesterol from getting oxidized and wreaking havoc in the arteries. Red wine reportedly has 10 times the amount of antioxidants than white wine.

Dark red and purple grapes also contain high amounts of antioxidants with the additional benefit of dietary fiber. Much of the antioxidants in grapes is in the skin, so eating grapes might be a better choice than drinking grape juice.

Let’s zoom in and look at resveratrol specifically – it has been shown in research to have anticarcinogenic, antiviral, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Regarding brain health, there has been some research evidence that resveratrol can protect brain cells (neurons) and increase blood flow to the brain. This could be beneficial for neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. However, the amount of resveratrol in grapes or wine is really quite small (¼ of a milligram to 1 milligram per serving); for example, in 1 study, it showed that 250 mg – 500 mg improved blood flow to the brain. Now, I know you’re not going to drink 500 glasses of wine a day (!) That would be a little excessive! So, considering taking a high-quality supplement of resveratrol might be a good approach.

As a supplement, it’s been shown to be generally safe and without side effects at a range of doses, up to 2.5 grams per day. So, what dosage would be beneficial? The exact dosage is not clearly defined, but it’s worth noting that well-known researcher and professor, Dr. David Sinclair, who runs a research lab at Harvard which studies aging and genetics has publicly stated that he personally takes 1 gram per day of resveratrol powder. And, apparently, it’s insoluble in a powder form so you need to mix it with something like yogurt so it will dissolve and absorb into your system. However, as always, before taking any supplement, always check with your doctor to make sure it’s not contraindicated for your unique situation.

So, now that we’ve discussed some of the science and health benefits of resveratrol, let’s get back to talking more broadly about wine.

When drinking wine, bear in mind that one serving of wine is 5 ounces—much smaller than most wine glasses! Excessive wine intake has many detrimental effects on the body, so carefully watching your portion size is important.

Binge drinking or chronic excessive drinking increases the production of free radicals which cause damage to cells and tissues, to the liver and also creates inflammation. And, here is a surprising fact – each time someone binge drinks, it damages their liver and can produce irregular heartbeat, low blood sugar, TIAs (mini-strokes) or sudden cardiac death. Chronic excessive drinking can cause pancreatitis, high cholesterol, high triglycerides and increase body fat. It can also cause alcoholic liver disease, which is more common than you might think in people between 40-50 years old. You’ve probably heard of cirrhosis, which is the final stage of alcoholic liver disease.

Alcohol affects absorption of certain vitamins and minerals, especially thiamine, folate, vitamin B12, zinc and amino acids. And, for those with a pattern of chronic alcohol use, alcohol often replaces food intake. As a result, these individuals may suffer from malnutrition or nutrient deficiencies.

All of this being said, you’re probably thinking that I’m a teetotaler and judgmental about drinking wine…and that’s actually not true! I really enjoy and savor an occasional glass of red wine. I love the deep, dark, intense flavors in red wine. Some of my favorites are Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. How about you?

The way I see it – how you eat and drink is not just about health and nutrition, but it’s also about pleasure and celebration. I think that red wine can be part of a healthy diet if you are careful and follow these tips:

Lisa’s Tips:

  • Drink wine early in the evening with a meal or on a full stomach
    • Drinking late at night can cause sleep interruptions
  • Measure out a serving size of wine (5 ounces) using a liquid measuring cup at home – to visually get an idea of how much your wine glass holds
  • Be honest with yourself about drinking; many people underestimate how much they’re actually drinking and how often
  • Make a plan; set a limit in advance
    • Drinking alcohol tends to loosen your resolve; set a limit with yourself before you start drinking; also think about what non-alcoholic beverages you could have once you’ve reached your limit
  • Start with a smaller portion
    • At a restaurant or bar:
      • Share a glass of wine with someone that you share kisses with 🙂
      • Ask the server if a half-glass of wine is an option (3 ounce portion)
  • Aim for:
    • Maximum of 1 drink a day for women
    • Maximum of 2 drinks a day for men
    • Maximum of 1 drink per day for those over 65 (our ability to metabolize alcohol decreases as we age)
  • Don’t make wine or alcohol a daily habit – this tends to lead to more drinking over time

While there may be some health benefits of light intake of red wine, there are also serious risks to consider with alcohol use. Be smart when deciding if, when and how much wine you will enjoy. To your health!

Author: Lisa Henderson, RDN / Vitalita Health, Copyright 2022