Drink to your health?

Would you prefer an ice-cold beer but, for health’s sake, are having a glass of red wine instead? Well, put away your corkscrew and reach for your bottle opener.

When it comes to alcohol-liquor, wine and beer-the differences in health effects don’t warrant forsaking your beverage of choice.

It’s true that red wine does contain heart-healthy substances like antioxidants. But red wine -along with beer, white wine and any product containing alcohol-has other positive effects associated with reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Alcohol, in moderation, may boost levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol as well as positively affect blood clotting.

The French Paradox
The French Paradox promotes the idea that you can have your cake and eat it too. It has people wrongly believing that you can eat a diet high in saturated fat, wash it down with red wine and you’ll be protected from heart disease.

But the red wine-heart disease connection is not as simple as it seems.

It all relates back to a story on 60 Minutes in the early ’90s. The French were shown eating a saturated fat-laden diet, yet not suffering the artery-clogng aftermath because of their red wine consumption.

A comprehensive assessment of the French Paradox in the British Medical Journal is one worth noting. The scientists compared a number of factors in Britain and France to come up with their conclusion that there simply is no paradox.

Instead, they propose, there is a time lag.

Disease rates increasing
The high fat diet of the French is a relatively new phenomenon. Traditionally, theirs was a diet based on fruits, vegetables and grains. Portions of foods laden with saturated fat like rich cheeses and meat were much smaller than those served here in North America.

Now that the French have switched to a diet closer to ours, disease rates will likely change.

But because artery disease takes years to develop, it will be about 15 years for this change in food style to show up as an increase in heart attacks and stroke.

Another point to consider is that in France, there is a different method of reporting deaths from heart disease. Scientists speculate this could account for a difference of up to 20 per cent.

We could take a few lessons, though, about wine consumption from both the French and those living around the Mediterranean. In these regions, the drinking of alcoholic beverages is most likely not an activity on its own but as part of a meal.

And in the Mediterranean, wine is just one element of a healthy lifestyle.

Next page: Benefits of red wine

Benefits of red wine

  • Red wine, like the abundant fruits and vegetables in the Mediterranean diet, contains a variety of phytochemicals, disease fighting compounds from plants.
Among their actions is protecting cholesterol from a process called oxidation.
  • Oxidated cholesterol is more likely to be deposited in arteries, boosting the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Red wine has an even greater protective effect against blood clots than its alcoholic counterparts like white wine or beer. But if you prefer the latter, you can still reap some phytochemical perks when you’re not partying.
  • Choose tea as a hot beverage and include apples and onions on the menu.

Drink in moderation
But whatever your choice of alcoholic beverage, enjoy it in moderation. That translates into:

  • One drink a day for women
  • One to two drinks a day for men

One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

Alcohol in excess doesn’t offer any benefits. It’s linked to high blood pressure, stroke, osteoporosis as well as certain cancers. And for those with high levels of triglycerides, or blood fat, it’s not connected to lower rates of heart disease.

Eat your veggies
An interesting finding on alcohol has come from the ongoing Nurses Health Study. Harvard University researchers have studied more than 80,000 women.

The scientists found that the strongest protective effect of moderate alcohol intake was observed in those women who had the highest intake of the B vitamin, folate. This is the vitamin found in foods such as dark leafy greens and orange juice.

It has been shown to decrease the levels of artery-damaging homocysteine. So, to derive the most benefit from alcohol, you may also need to eat your veggies.

Next page: Breast cancer links

Breast cancer links
As for women concerned about alcohol consumption and the risk of breast cancer, research from Harvard on these same women provides some information.

While alcohol has been linked to protection against heart disease, it’s also been found to be a culprit in the development of breast cancer in some women. The researchers examined the relationship between breast cancer, alcohol and the same B vitamin, folate.

If the women who consumed more alcohol were short on folate, there was an increased likelihood of developing breast cancer.

Those at a high risk for this disease (women with a first-degree relative with breast cancer) should check with their physicians as to whether they should consume alcohol.

Stimulates appetite
During the holiday season, alcohol can go hand in hand with fat-laden party fare. Research shows that having an aperitif can do exactly what it’s meant to do-stimulate the appetite. So having a pre-party snack can help to tame your appetite for a larger meal.

Even so, in various studies, subjects consuming alcohol were more likely to take in more calories and greater amounts of fat than non-drinkers.

So moderate amounts may have a relaxing effect. Excess alcohol may result in eating with abandon. And, if you’ re concerned about weight control, research has also linked higher waist measures with alcohol intake.

It’s called a beer belly for a reason.

Calorie conscious
It’s not just the alcohol in holiday season beverages that contributes to their caloric wallop. Many mixers provide as much or more calories than the alcohol itself.

  • Soft drinks like colas, ginger ale, fruit drinks and punch-even tonic water-ring in at around 100 calories per eight ounces.
  • Creamy drinks like pina coladas can pack an even greater punch, with coconut milk containing more than 200 calories in a mere four ounces.

Opt for diet soft drinks or soda water and the savings over the holidays can add up.

Moderating alcohol intake is easier if you’re aware of its dehydrating effects. It can actually make you thirsty. Consider having one or two alcohol and calorie-free drinks between each alcoholic one and you’ll drink less.

It’ s a strategy to help you survive the long party season.