By now the “French paradox” is old news. The phrase refers to the fact that despite eating lots of saturated fat and cholesterol (read: cheese, butter, and cream), the French have a relatively low incidence of heart disease. A major reason, researchers suspect, is the generous amount of wine that the French drink.
Although the very existence of the paradox itself is currently under question — some researchers believe the French under report heart disease — the evidence in support of wine and other forms of alcohol is not.
Dozens of studies on white wine, red wine, beer, and hard liquor attest to the heart-protective effects of alcohol. (That’s right, it’s not just wine that’s good for you.) In fact, 60 to 80 percent of the population could benefit from moderate drinking, said Harvard researcher Eric Rimm, Ph.D, during a briefing sponsored by the National Beer Wholesalers Association in 2002. In a study of more than 80,000 American women, those who drank moderately had only half the heart attack risk of those who did not drink at all, even if the teetotalers were slim, eschewed tobacco, and exercised daily.
How does alcohol help? To start with, it raises HDL. This is true no matter what type of alcohol you drink. One study found that drinking half a bottle of white wine per day for six weeks increased HDL 7 mg/dl — a significant jump — in 12 healthy women and men, all of whom had otherwise normal cholesterol levels. Even significantly less alcohol was found to increase HDL up to 2 mg/dl in other studies. Recent research suggests that the heart-health benefit of alcohol is increased if moderate consumption is also consistent — three to seven times per week, rather than sporadic.
How much is enough to gain heart protection? In one study of 353 men aged 40 to 60 who had had a heart attack, two or more glasses of wine each day reduced their risk of another heart attack by more than half compared to nondrinkers.
Red wine has long been considered the healthiest wine, due in part to its powerful antioxidant content. Because the skin of the grapes used to make red wine stays in contact with the juice as the wine ferments, more antioxidants, in the form of flavonoids, leach into the wine. (The skins are removed when white wine is made, thus the lower flavonoid content.) Red grape juice also contains flavonoids, but not as much: only about one-fourth to one-third of that found in red wine.
However, if you don’t like red wine you are in luck. Scientists at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have created a kosher white wine with all of the beneficial health effects of red wine by adding skins of chardonnay or Muscat grapes (which are white or yellow) to the alcohol for the flavonoids. The wine is available under the Binyamina Winery label.
Researchers have also found that Israeli wines overall contain a higher content of flavonoids than French wines. One reason may be that the intense Israeli sunlight spurs the grapes to produce more flavonoids. The result? Studies find that Israeli red wine reduces cholesterol oxidation twice as much as French wines.
Of course, go overboard with alcohol and the risks quickly outweigh the benefits, particularly in women, who don’t metabolize alcohol as well as men. As little as two drinks a day in women could lead to liver disease. And studies find that daily drinking could increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer 30 percent. (Keep in mind, however, that far more women die each year from heart disease than breast cancer. Also, a 30 percent increase for a woman at low risk of breast cancer amounts to a change in risk from 10 in 100,000 to 13 in 100,000.) Too much alcohol can also increase the risk of a rare type of stroke called hemorrhagic stroke (involving a burst blood vessel), and binge or heavy drinking can actually damage the heart.
Women should limit themselves to no more than one drink a day; men, no more than two. One drink is 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer (a bottle or can), or 1 ounce of hard liquor.