If you're trying to establish healthier habits in 2009, consider the Latin phrase in vino sanitas, roughly translated to mean, "In wine, there is health." Although local doctors say nothing can replace a nutritious diet and regular exercise, they confirm the popular belief that red wine can help fuel good heart health.
"The health benefits of alcohol are generally on the heart side of things; the primary system that is affected in a good way is the heart and circulation," says Dr. Michael Weaver, an associate professor of internal medicine and psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Weaver says that the alcohol content in red wine acts as a blood thinner, similar to the effect of taking a daily aspirin. The alcohol, he explains, raises high-density lipoprotein (HDL), helping to offset the effects of its low-density lipoprotein counterpart (LDL). HDL is considered "good cholesterol" because it picks up fatty acids left in cells by "bad cholesterol" (LDL). Weaver adds that while no foolproof studies exist, scientific evidence has demonstrated that the compounds in grapes — and, thus, wine — do carry health benefits. Weaver recommends red wine over white wine, whiskey or beer.
But alcohol isn't the main ingredient for well-being in this drink of choice — Weaver says that antioxidants provide the biggest bang for your buck, health-wise, in red wine: "There are some compounds in grapes and grape skins that act as antioxidants that get rid of free radicals, bad things for cells." Weaver adds that antioxidants work preventively, protecting cells from damage.
Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in many red grapes, adds Dr. Shaival Kapadia, chief of cardiology at Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center, and it raises HDL and helps prevent heart trauma. Flavonoids, other present antioxidants, are in the skin and seeds of grapes; they give red wine its color and help reduce the damage that LDL does to the arterial walls, Kapadia says. "Red wine seems to have the highest levels of flavonoids," he notes, adding that these antioxidants also appear in apples, oranges and teas.
So should Richmonders pick up a glass of red wine each evening? Kapadia says he's not sure. Weaver, also medical director for the substance-abuse consultation service at the VCU Medical Center, says he does not recommend beginning the habit of drinking just for the health benefits. "If you already drink moderately, it's OK to continue that for the health benefits," he says, adding, "Half a glass in the evening should be sufficient."
Weaver cautions that these benefits come with moderate intake only. For men younger than 65, consumption should be kept to no more than two drinks a day, five on any one occasion and 14 in a week. "If you go beyond those two drinks, your chances of dying in a car accident or of liver disease go up increasingly," he says. For women or men older than 65, Weaver says to keep intake to no more than one drink per day, three on any occasion and seven in a week.
For someone who may not have a taste for red wine, Kapadia suggests Concord grape juice, which carries many of the same antioxidants. However, he says, "the most important thing is to eat healthy and exercise."