Why a drink a day may keep the doctor away

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Knocking back a stiff drink at the end of a long day makes us kinder, happier, and better looking, but could it be good for our bodies too? When most cultures clink glasses, they say the equivalent of “to health!” It’s santé in France, salute in Italy, and salud in Spain. So why do Americans endlessly debate the health effects of alcohol? Perhaps it’s because we are an all-or-nothing society yet to learn the art of moderation. Or perhaps it’s because the minute one study reveals alcohol’s health benefits, another one tells us that it will be our downfall. It’s hard to make sense of it all, so here’s a look at the pros and cons of one of our favorite pastimes.

Good news first. Studies distilled, moderate drinkers are found up to 25 percent less likely to develop heart disease than nondrinkers. Alcohol has been documented to increase HDLs (“good” cholesterol), which prevent blood clots and reduce the risks of heart attack and stroke. Other studies show that moderate drinking keeps our aging brains sharp, decreasing the risk of vascular dementia (mental decline that develops because of clogged blood vessels to the brain).

Now the buzz kill. Just as our mothers and Dr. Oz always tell us, moderation is key. Most studies define moderate drinking as a drink (see Boozespeak 101) a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men (they often weigh more and possess more of the enzyme responsible for metabolizing alcohol). The type of alcohol doesn’t seem to matter. Beer, wine, moonshine—whatever your poison, the results remain consistent.

BOOZESPEAK 101
A drink (n.): 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

So why does red wine get all of the heart-healthy attention? Grape skins contain polyphenols, or natural plant components that provide color and flavor. Polyphenols are either flavonoids or non-flavonoids, and flavonoids are thought to have antioxidant effects. A flavonoid called resveratrol has been linked to protecting the lining of blood vessels, reducing bad cholesterol, preventing blood clots, and lowering the risk for diabetes and obesity. Most resveratrol research has been conducted on mice, though, and for a human to get the same dose used in the mice studies, she would have to drink over 60 liters of red wine every day. (I’m available for that study should it ever get approved.) Eating red or purple grapes (and drinking their nonfermented juices) may also work, but that’s not nearly as much fun. Resveratrol supplements are sold, but aren’t easily absorbed by the body, so you’d basically be paying for a pricey pee.

Finally, the bad news. Excessive drinking increases the risk of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, liver damage, obesity, certain cancers, depression, and accidents (from the vehicular to the embarrassing). And we don’t need to be told what it can do to a developing fetus.

Confused yet? There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to drinking for health—it depends on the person, his family history, and his proximity to a karaoke bar. Bottom line is that while no doctor will recommend that a nondrinker start drinking to reduce the risk of heart disease, she’ll say “down the hatch” to those of us who already enjoy a daily drink. Just don’t take this as your prescription to go on a bender.

Virginia grapes take on the Big Apple
On Monday, January 30, Jefferson Vineyards winemaker Andy Reagan pairs his wines with a seven-course, sold-out dinner cooked by Peter Chang in honor of the Chinese New Year at New York City’s James Beard House. “It is a tremendous honor to be invited to pour our wine alongside a world-renowned chef at a world-renowned venue,” said Reagan. “Pouring for 80 diners in a market like New York will bring great exposure to the Virginia wine industry.”

Since it’s likely to be many of the guests’ first time drinking Virginia wine (and certainly their first time drinking it with authentic Sichuan cuisine), pairings like Reserve Chardonnay 2007 with steamed cod with lotus leaf and Meritage 2008 with Chairman Mao’s favorite braised pork are bound to enlighten and delight.

Best in show
The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition awarded Barboursville Vineyards’ 2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve “Best In Class” this year over 97 other domestic entrants. Asked about the award, winemaker Luca Paschina said, “Again, a Virginia wine has reached world class recognition on its own merit, in a blind setting. It is a great time for people involved in our industry to be proud, celebrate, and yet not be surprised of the achievement.” Barboursville also took medals for its 2010 Viognier Reserve and its 2007 Octagon.

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