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How Much Wine is Healthy?
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed April 26, 2002. For more information go to

For all of us who enjoy wine regularly, the increasing body of evidence that moderate wine consumption is good for our health and longevity comes as excellent news.

Several years ago, after the CBS news program "60 Minutes" reported on the so-called "French Paradox" (the seemingly contradictory observation that French people seem to enjoy better heart health than Americans despite their high-fat diet because they accompany their meals with red wine), sales of red wine in the U.S. increased dramatically.

Summing it up under the title "Wine and a Healthy Heart," the Canadian Website Wine Knowledge Network quoted two doctors as proclaiming, "If every adult in North America drank two glasses of wine a day ... heart disease ... would be cut by 40 percent, and $40 billion could be saved annually."

But how much wine is enough? Wine, like all alcoholic beverages, can be a blessing or a curse; and if a little of it makes good medicine, more is not better. Overconsumption risks both immediate injury for those foolish enough to drive while drunk, and long-term health problems for those who drink too much too often.

A reader sent me a thoughtful E-mail question yesterday, mentioning a recent article in which I commented that a standard (750 ml) wine bottle is probably more than two people should routinely finish at a sitting and certainly too much for one.

He asked, "What IS the upper limit of alcohol consumption within which one can avoid adverse long term health effects?"

As you might expect, the authorities don't entirely agree, but an extensive search of Web and printed resources suggests that my original statement was pretty much on target: A half bottle per day (which would be about 2 1/2 glasses) is a bit more than most authorities would recommend.

The question is also complicated by variables. A few studies suggest that as much as four or five glasses of wine a day could be good for the heart, for example. But consumption at that level would certainly make it unsafe for most people to drive, could be dangerous for the liver, and might increase the exposure to breast cancer for women.

It's also worth noting that regular moderate consumption, with meals, is far safer than occasional "binge" drinking in the form of massive weekend overindulgence. And like it or not, most men can safely consume a little more than most women, because of their average size and differences in metabolism. There's also the issue of women drinking during pregnancy, a controversial topic that I won't attempt to address today.

So what do the authorities say? In 1995, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services amazed many of us when it broke with its puritanical tradition and actually acknowledged the health benefits of wine in its revised "Dietary Guidelines for Americans." Surrounding its advice with a sturdy barricade of caveats, what-ifs and 'gotchas,' the agency almost grudgingly acknowledged that "Drinking in moderation may lower risk for coronary heart disease, mainly among men over age 45 and women over age 55." It defined "drinking in moderation" as "no more than one (5-ounce) drink of wine per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men."

The Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust adopted those same limits in its Traditional Healthy Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, which recommends wine in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle, noting, "Historically, a trinity of foods have defined the Mediterranean Diet - wheat, wine and olive oil," describing these healthy ingredients as "the foundation of the family table."

Finally, AWARE, the non-profit American Wine Alliance for Research and Education, accepts a somewhat more generous daily portion. While acknowledging the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, it adds, "Although there is continuing debate within the medical/scientific research community as well as among policy makers on the precise definition of moderate drinking, there appears to be fairly wide reference to the following parameters: 1 to 2 drinks per day for women, and 2 to 3 drinks per day for men."

That's good enough for me. Here's to your health!

Here are some Weblinks to resources mentioned in today's report:

Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust's Traditional Healthy Mediterranean Diet Pyramid

AWARE American Wine Alliance for Research and Education


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