Zoe’s Tim Spector: The occasional glass of red wine is absolutely fine

Red wine being poured into a glass
The occasional glass of red wine is fine, even beneficial, says Tim Spector
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I say a lot of things that spark conversation, but there are two topics that come up most often.

The first is my generally negative view of vitamin supplements. The second is my relatively soft stance on red wine – I think having the occasional glass is perfectly fine and even beneficial.

According to some, by defending my evening glass of red, I am somehow green-lighting alcohol as a healthy drink for everyone to have every day. This, you will be unsurprised to hear, is not my professional opinion – there is always a need for balance.

Of course, I am no fool. I know that alcohol is a poison. Many people become addicted and suffer significant health consequences. There is absolutely no doubt about this.

At the same time, there is good evidence that a glass of red wine a day protects heart health. Other alcoholic drinks do not. This protective effect is partly due to plant chemicals in red wine called polyphenols, which are antioxidants that help feed your gut microbiome. They’re also present in traditionally brewed ciders and, to a lesser extent, rosé wines.

Aside from the polyphenols, we must not underestimate the social benefits of having a drink with friends. This is especially true as we get older – there are strong links between good social networks and decreased mortality risk. In the West, we are facing a pandemic of loneliness, and for some, a drink with friends can be a genuine lifeline.

Of course, you could argue that meeting up with friends is entirely possible without a glass of red wine. But often, the promise of a relaxing drink is what drives people together. It’s not true for everyone, but it is true for many.

Some people never drink, and some people give up alcohol, feel much better, and never touch it again. If this is you, I am not recommending you start drinking red wine now.

Most of the people that I know do drink alcohol. As boring as it sounds, moderation is key – and if you drink red wine in moderation and make sure you have alcohol-free days, any negative impacts are likely to be relatively minor, especially when you factor in the benefits of polyphenols and social connection.

Another important note is that we are all different; alcohol affects people in different ways. Some people can easily become addicted, and for them, a glass of red wine is absolutely the wrong choice.

Our genes also determine how well we handle and clear alcohol from our system. Individuals who feel the effects in a big way might want to be even more moderate in their consumption.

As a species, we’ve been brewing alcoholic beverages for thousands of years. That doesn’t make them any healthier, but it does demonstrate their near-universal appeal. Rather than fight this, we need to start focusing on making alcoholic beverages more healthy.

For instance, we could create red wines with high levels of polyphenols but low alcohol content. Kombucha – a sweetened, fermented tea – might be a source of inspiration here. It’s a healthy drink that contains very low levels of alcohol.

We may even get to a point where the benefits of the polyphenols overpower the negative aspects of alcohol. We can at least dream.

As with most things in nutrition, it’s never as simple as “This is good, and that’s bad.” More often, it’s a case of “compared to what”. If you drank a hypothetical polyphenol-rich, low-alcohol red wine, it would certainly be better for you than a can of bright orange fizzy pop, but it might not be as good for you as an even lower alcohol kombucha.

Teetotallers certainly shouldn’t start drinking red wine just for the health benefits. But for many people, a teetotal life is simply not realistic or practical. We need to face facts: many of us like drinking alcohol, and if we can manage to do it in a controlled and reasonable way and stick to red wine, it is unlikely to do much harm and may provide benefits.

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