The secret to wine and health: Think “how, when, and with” more than “what”

For decades, the association of wine and health was consistent across all well-done population studies, retracing a familiar J-shaped curve. Moderate drinkers were healthier and outlived both nondrinkers and heavy drinkers, with wine drinkers enjoying the largest benefit, and red more than white. The French Paradox became a household word and a mantra for wine lovers everywhere. But over the past couple of decades, the message about wine and health became increasingly muddied, and some researchers began to proclaim that we had it wrong all along. What changed?

Why population studies never tell the whole story about wine and health

One thing that has not changed much is our ability to reliably measure and tally wine consumption in population studies, so it’s not like we are getting more accurate data. The limitation is human nature more than technology, at least until our wearables begin to tabulate everything we eat and drink (hey, it could happen.) People just do not honestly know and report their drinking. What we do know is that study populations from the mid-twentieth century had different drinking habits, especially when tied to the Mediterranean diet lifestyle.

To make matters more difficult for researchers, drinking patterns worldwide have changed dramatically in the 21st century. Fewer people drink wine with near-exclusivity, and fewer still drink moderate amounts on a daily basis. Bingeing is more common, along with a mixed pattern of wine and other alcoholic beverages. How people drink has changed, along with what they drink. As the subset of truly moderate and regular wine drinkers shrinks, it gets lost in the statistical shuffle.

When we drink has changed

Another important difference is that wine was customarily a daily part of meals, consumed with food as a normal component of a family dinner. The rise of fast food, fad diets, and infatuation with wine as something too precious for everyday use increasingly divorces it from its most healthy context. Drinking only on weekends, or alternating periods of overindulgence with abstinence (I’m talking to you, “dry January”) is an equally faulty strategy. The “when” of drinking has changed, and not for the better.

Wine has changed too. For all of the familiar reasons, average alcohol content has risen. What we consume now is often a different animal than what was on store shelves a short generation ago. Quality is up across the board, but these higher ratings correlate to high “octane” scores as well. When the market starts supporting ordinary wines made in traditional ways as much as the chase for super-extracted trophies, we will likely be healthier for it. But regardless of what you prefer in your glass, the secret to healthy drinking is really not so secret, just too often now forgotten.

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