Are there health benefits to drinking wine? Our guide sorts out facts from wishful thinking. We also have a handy quiz to help you tot up the calorie count of wine and other alcoholic drinks...
All calorie figures given are averages. Information sources: Nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens and DrinkAware. For alcohol advice, including UK alcohol unit guidelines, information on how drink affects your health and much more, visit the DrinkAware website.
While excessive and binge drinking is best avoided, moderate drinking (1-2 units a day) can have some benefits for heart health. Sorting out fact from wishful thinking isn't easy. We look at the facts and find a little wine is probably fine - just don't overdo it.
Facts and fallacies
There's long been discussion about the risks and rewards that drinking wine has on your health. So what's true and what's not? In reality 'moderate' drinking (one or two units a day) does seem to offer some protection against heart disease - but primarily for men aged over 40 and post-menopausal women (and only when consumption is limited to five units a week - that's just two standard glasses of wine). There is little evidence that drinking wine or other alcohol will improve the health of younger people, who are less at risk of heart disease in the first place. The impact of alcohol consumption on cardiovascular disease should be evaluated within the context of other effects of alcohol on health. For example, alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of cancer including breast cancer, even at low levels.
According to the British Heart Foundation, very low levels of alcohol consumption may have some protective effects on the heart for some people, but there are better ways to achieve this, such as taking regular exercise, quitting smoking, following a healthy, balanced diet and addressing other risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
To avoid risk to your health if you do drink most weeks:
- Men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week.
- If you do drink as much as 14 units a week, spread your drinking over three days or more, whilst enjoying some alcohol-free days during the week.
That said, it is true that wine - particularly red wine - does contain several antioxidants, such as quercetin and resveratrol, which may play a part in helping to prevent heart disease and cancer.
Raise your glass to red wine
Scientists have found that red wines have higher levels of polyphenols, antioxidants and, in general, the darker the wine, the higher the antioxidant content - in tests, cabernet sauvignon grapes were shown to contain the most polyphenols.
Professor Andrew Waterhouse, of the University of California, suggests that other red grape varieties with medium to high levels of antioxidants are merlot, zinfandel, syrah and petit syrah.
Waterhouse also suggests that wines from milder regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja and California's Napa Valley, may have higher antioxidant levels than wines from hot regions such as Languedoc in France and southern Italy.
Some research suggests that white wine has health benefits too. Winemakers have created a chardonnay called Paradoxe Blanc, which is four times higher in polyphenols than red wine.
Beware of binge drinking
According to Alcohol Concern, 7% of adults in England regularly drink more than the recommended guidelines. So as well as disrupting sleep, clouding your judgement and potentially interacting with prescribed medication, high levels of alcohol consumption can impact nutrition by inhibiting absorption of certain nutrients including the B group of vitamins - most notably, folate and B12. This can make you more vulnerable to heart disorders, including high blood pressure and stroke, even if you are not in a high-risk group. For women in their twenties, drinking heavily can contribute to osteoporosis later on.
Binge drinking is especially harmful and can damage the brain. Regular heavy drinking is associated with a wide range of other health problems from liver disease to loss of libido, menstrual problems, nerve and muscle damage, and psychiatric problems, including clinical depression, as well as increased risk of accidents.
Alcohol is thought to be responsible for about 4% of all UK cancer cases - people who drink four or more alcoholic drinks (equivalent to six units) a day are more likely to develop cancer of the mouth, larynx or oesophagus. But Dr Morten Gronbaek from the Danish National Health Institute argues that moderate wine drinkers have fewer coronary diseases and cancers than those who prefer other alcoholic drinks. However, at present, there is no evidence to recommend that any of us drink alcohol. Keeping to low-risk guidelines is without doubt the most sensible approach, or avoiding alcohol altogether – which is the case if you are pregnant, trying to conceive, or have a pre-existing health condition or are taking medication which may be adversely affected by alcohol.
How many units are you really drinking?
Use this guide to see how many units of alcohol are in a small 125ml glass of wine.
Be aware that when you order a glass of wine in a bar or restaurant you will often be served a measure larger than 125ml.
- 9% alcohol by volume (abv) = 1 unit
- 10% abv = 1.25 units
- 11% abv = 1.375 units
- 12% abv = 1.5 units
- 13% abv = 1.625 units
- 14% abv = 1.75 units
This article was last reviewed on 7 August 2017 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.
A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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