Wine: How Much Is Good for You?

Studies show wine is heart healthy, but what about the calories?

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

A glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away. Could this be true? WebMD talks to experts to learn how we can get the health benefits of wine or alcohol while keeping our weight in check.

Do Like the French?

The French diet is often used as an example of how wine can improve heart health. The French have a fairly high-fat diet but their heart disease risk is relatively low. And some have attributed this to red wine.

But there are so many differences between the lifestyle of the French and Americans from their activity levels to the foods they eat. You cannot isolate red wine as the magic bullet for disease prevention says Alice Lichtenstein, DrS, Gershoff Professor at Tufts University.

Choose whichever alcoholic beverage you enjoy, drink it in moderation and try to have it with meals, advise Lichtenstein and Eric Rimm, DrS, a Harvard researcher.

Arthur Agatston, MD, cardiologist and creator of the popular South Beach diet, encourages patients who enjoy alcohol to also drink it with meals.

"Alcohol can stimulate the appetite so it is better to drink it with food. When alcohol is mixed with food, it can slow the stomach's emptying time and potentially decrease the amount of food consumed at the meal," asserts Agatston. His alcohol of choice is red wine due to the antioxidant resveratrol. However, he agrees that any alcohol in limited quantity will provide the same health benefit.

There is a misperception that red wine is abundant in antioxidants. "It does contain some, but they are not always well absorbed. If you want antioxidants, you are better off eating a spinach salad with vegetables than drinking a glass of red wine," Rimm tells WebMD.

Lower Your Cholesterol

Alcohol also can have a very powerful effect and increase HDL "good" cholesterol by 20% if used moderately and in the context of a healthy diet along with regular physical activity, says Rimm. Higher HDL levels are linked to lower risks of heart disease.

"The research evidence points to ethanol, or the alcohol component, of beer, wine, or spirits as the substrate that can help lower cholesterol levels, increase 'good' HDL cholesterol," he says.

Boost Your Brain

A recent study shows a boost in brain power for women who enjoy a little alcohol. The study, published in the Jan. 20 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, evaluated more than 12,000 women aged 70-81. Moderate drinkers scored better than teetotalers on tests of mental function. Researchers found a boost in brainpower with one drink a day. Moderate drinkers had a 23% reduced risk of mental decline compared with nondrinkers.

Easy Does It

Just as you shouldn't eat a 12-ounce steak daily, you need to watch your portion sizes of alcohol as well.

What is one drink?

  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, such as vodka

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend one drink a day for women and two a day for men. This doesn't mean to can save them up for a weekend party and expect to get the same benefits.

Will a Drink a Day Make You Fat?

A drink a day may help keep your brain sharp and heart healthy but what about the calories?

Alcohol supplies calories with few essential nutrients. If you drink alcohol, it needs to be budgeted into "discretionary calories" to maintain a healthy weight according to the 2005 dietary guidelines.

"Most Americans are sedentary, putting them into the lower calorie levels, leaving little room for alcohol, sweets, and extra fats," states Theresa Nicklas, DrPH, a member of the dietary guidelines advisory committee.

It is more important and healthful to select foods packed with nutrients, such as fruits and vegetables, rather than alcohol when calories are limited. The health benefits of moderate alcohol do not outweigh the risks of being overweight or obese, says Nicklas.

An individual on an 1,800-calorie level eating plan only has 195 discretionary calories or the equivalent of a 9-ounce glass of wine or a small dessert. If you want dessert along with your daily allotment of alcohol, you need to increase physical activity to balance your calories to achieve a healthy weight, according to Nicklas.

Double-Edged Sword

A little may be good but too much alcohol can lead to serious problems.

No one should start drinking if they don't already drink, advise Lichtenstein and Agatston. It is well known that alcohol can lead to numerous health problems for many individuals, such as pregnant women and women at high risk for breast cancer (alcohol raises the risk of breast cancer). Individuals with family histories of alcohol abuse should also not drink, says Lichtenstein.

To gain the benefits of good health, do your part to enjoy your one to two drinks per day at mealtime and follow the advice of the dietary guidelines for food, fitness, and weight management.

Published Jan. 26, 2005.


SOURCES: The New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 20, 2005. Theresa Nicklas, DrPh, professor of pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, member, Dietary Guidelines advisory committee. Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, Gershoff Professor, t Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University. Eric Rimm, DrS, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005. Arthur Agatston, MD, FACC, associate professor of medicine, University of Miami School of Medicine; and author, South Beach Diet (Rodale Press, 2003).

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Last Editorial Review: 2/25/2005 4:13:04 PM