Asking For A Friend: Red wine is good for you, right?

There's little that's healthy about alcohol, says Toronto cardiologist Dr. Chi-Ming Chow, who recommends moderation, and drinking for "enjoyment, not for health reasons.”

Karen Hawthorne 5 minute read May 6, 2022
Bottle and glass with red wine in a minimal style

Any use of alcohol will increase risk to chronic health disease, such as hypertension. GETTY

Dear Asking For a Friend,

I am looking to be healthy, but I am unwilling to give up my glass of red wine that I look forward to every evening with dinner. Are there certain types of wine, or cocktails that are better for you than others if I were looking for low-cal, healthier options?

Signed, Sipping Healthy


Dear Sipping Healthy,

Whether you’re a daily sipper or reserve that glass or two of wine for noteworthy occasions, it can be tempting to think that alcohol isn’t so bad for your health. You might feel more relaxed and better able to connect socially with your dinner companions.

And when you look forward to something that’s also culturally accepted and celebrated, why would you consider giving it up?

Well, if you have a glass of wine a day or less, there may be some benefits and risks to your habitual imbibing. The scientific evidence is really a mixed bag when it comes to the pros and cons.

Research in Gastroenterology in 2019, for example, revealed that people who drank red wine had a greater diversity of good bacteria in their guts which is linked to stronger immunity, weight management and food digestion, than those who didn’t drink red wine. The researchers also found that drinking red wine just once every two weeks was sufficient to see the positive effect.

Is resveratrol good for me?

Alcohol use is widely associated with increased risk of numerous cancers, but the resveratrol in red wine has been hyped as good for the body. Resveratrol is the plant compound from the grape skins that acts like a health-protective antioxidant.

Studies have shown that drinking red wine moderately could reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer, but on the other hand, a meta-analysis in Cancer Causes & Control determined that women who drank alcohol had an 11 per cent higher likelihood than non-drinkers to get breast cancer.

Dr. Chi-Ming Chow, a cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and spokesperson for Heart and Stroke Foundation, says he’s often asked at social events with non-medical colleagues, friends and family to validate their alcohol intake.

“Usually the question is, ‘so you’re a doctor, so drinking red wine is good, right?’” he says, explaining that the concept of drinking alcohol to improve heart health, his area of expertise, that came from the Mediterranean and French custom where wine is a daily ritual and cardiovascular health in these regions is relatively sound.

The recommendation from most countries, including Canada, is women shouldn’t consume more than two drinks a day and men should limit themselves to no more than three drinks a day “can be quite excessive,” he cautions, pointing to World Health Organization calls to reduce harmful use of alcohol.

When you look at the international data, any use of alcohol will increase risk to chronic health disease, such as hypertension, cholesterol problems and cancers, especially esophageal and stomach cancers, Chow says.

“The bottom line is there’s no lower threshold of consumption where alcohol is actually safe.”

In general, he recommends moderation and one drink a day at most for women and two drinks a day at most for men: “for enjoyment, but not for health reasons.”

No amount of alcohol is safe

If you can’t ditch your wine with dinner, low-cal wines or other cocktails are not the answer. And the non-alcoholic wines that are flooding the market can have a high sugar content much like fruit juice, which is not ideal to drink on a daily basis.

Stick with your favourite red wine, Chow says. He agrees that red wine has a marginal benefit when compared with other types of wines or alcoholic beverages because of the flavonoids associated with the skin of the grapes.

“Red wine has more benefit than other alcohol types, such as whiskey, white wine or other things. So if you have to choose a drink, red wine would be better, but specific evidence that it’s better is actually quite scanty.”

While alcohol consumption is not listed as a risk factor for heart disease, Chow says he counsels his patients to enjoy it in moderation because chronic use can contribute to the cluster of conditions that set people up for heart problems, like sedentary behaviour, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and high cholesterol. It also adds up to a lot of extra empty calories.

Does he abstain from alcohol and reach for sparkling water or soda at events and family gatherings?

“I would have a drink for enjoyment in social settings, but definitely in moderation,” Chow says. “No more than one glass of red wine.”

Karen Hawthorne is a Toronto-based writer.
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