Eileen Ash, a former cricketer who played for England in the 1930s and celebrated her 110th birthday last Saturday, is – like many before her – convinced of the health benefits of drinking wine.
Of course, the supercentennial, who was also an MI6 spy, believes her bi-weekly yoga sessions may have helped as well. But it holds up well on red wine.
“She loves a glass of red wine,” said Fiona Mawby, welfare officer at the Norwich nursing home where Ms Ash now lives. “She always says it prolonged her life.”
This is the story that many of us love to read. The news that that slightly guilty pleasure, the thing we’ve always assumed to be a little bad – wine, butter, red meat – is actually turning out to be good for us.
This possibly delusional optimism took a hit this week due to a study that sheds new light on the supposed benefits of alcohol consumption.
The argument for the health benefits of alcohol has long relied on the “J-shaped curve”: a graph that plots people’s health versus their alcohol consumption will look like a “J” leaning over. the side. Drink too much and your health will suffer. Drink nothing, or very little, and this also seems to be harmful to your health.
A recently published German study made a hole in the theory. Scientists at the Universities of Greifswald and Luebeck examined more than 4,000 people who answered questions about their drinking habits in the late 1990s.
Over the next 20 years, abstainers seemed to suffer compared to those who drank in moderation. So far, so J is curving.
The problem came when they learned that only one in ten non-voters had never drunk. A quarter of them had a history of alcohol problems and half smoked. When the researchers excluded this group, the J-bracket disappeared.
There was therefore no significant difference in the risk of death between the remaining abstainers and those who enjoyed the glass of Tuscan Chianti.
It is the last in any case. But the problem is, these studies seem to flip-flop in their conclusions with alarming regularity.
As recently as August, another study announced the positive effects of wine. The article, published in the journal Hypertension by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Kiel in Germany, found that drinking three small glasses (125ml) of red wine per week can lower blood pressure . The researchers said the positive effect was due to the flavonoids – found in nuts, blueberries and grapes.
Colin Angus, of the Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield, thinks it’s time to put the idea of “healthy red wine” to bed. Chances are it won’t hurt you much either, be careful.
He says I: “A study comes in every six months and I get angry – it will mistake red wine for nuts or berries. The crucial thing here is alcohol. Having a glass of red wine is no different than a pint of beer or a little gin and tonic.
“There is no convincing evidence on either side. It may be fair to say that drinking red wine slightly increases the risk of some cancers, but slightly reduces the risk of heart disease. It is plausible and there is more and more evidence. But these studies do not take into account existing health complications, abstainers with past problems, and people who have never had a gout.
“We have to be wary of both sides. I don’t think anyone who drinks moderately needs to worry, but I wouldn’t encourage people to drink either.
Dr Angus points out that research on red wine is also socio-demographically biased. Those who sit on the couch with a pinot noir tend to come from more affluent backgrounds.
“Low-income people can’t afford a good red wine,” he says. “It is a misnomer to think that people in disadvantaged areas drown their sorrows in cheap alcohol, but it is obvious that deprivation and social standing are associated with health. If you have less money, there is a greater risk of dying prematurely for several reasons.
“This argument will continue. What I would say is that people shouldn’t lose sleep over drinking a glass of wine. It’s more a matter of relative risk. If you are in good health, it won’t hurt you much. If you are not feeling well you need to be more careful.
There have been equally mixed messages about the butter. In March 2014, an article appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine with apparently good news for foodies who have enjoyed the richest and tastiest things in life.
The article – “Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Complementary Fatty Acids with Coronary Heart Risk” – came to the pleasant conclusion that eating less saturated fat does not actually reduce a person’s risk of heart disease.
The result sent the public into “gastronomic ecstasies,” noted Harvard Public Health magazine in an analysis asking, “Is butter really back?” “. But the truth, as always, was more complicated. He noted that the researchers were saying, “We should focus on healthy eating habits, rather than glorifying or demonizing specific nutrients.”
Dee Bhakta, lecturer in human nutrition at Metropolitan University of London, says food and drink are too often ambiguous. “Butter is a big deal,” she said I. “But this endless cycle of good and bad doesn’t really help anyone. It’s just a matter of not overdoing it.
She adds: “A glass of wine can do the trick very well. Lots of other things make up for it, like exercising and eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Alcohol is linked to health problems – in excess that is for sure. But in moderation, the risk is marginal. You have to consider a whole range of things and it’s so hard to measure.