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Should red wine remain part of the hallowed Mediterranean diet?

For decades, the consumption of a glass or two of red wine has been seen as a key part of the Mediterranean diet, often mooted as the pinnacle of a well-balanced, varied regime by scientists. But a four-year study is questioning this well-established judgement. 

Last month, a new paper was published by Dr Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez, called Should we remove wine from the Mediterranean diet?, and which forms the launching point for a European Research Council four-year study involving 10,000 Spaniards aged 50-75.

It will assess the impact of moderate wine consumption on issues such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. But is there any justification to the claim?

Wine and health

Previously, scientists have said that the Mediterranean diet loses up to 23.5% of its protective effect if wine is removed. Traditionally, alongside the protective impact of red wine consumption, the diet includes fish, olive oil, and a focus on fresh ingredients rather than processed products.

It is believed the compounds found in the skin of grapes, polyphenols, which are a compound found in red wine as well as fruits, vegetables and other herbs and spices, work as anti-oxidants, preventing cardiovascular disease and even types of cancer.

Indeed, through having a positive impact on the heart, it can also increase blood flow to other parts of the body, including sexual organs, assisting with issues such as erectile dysfunction.

In another study of moderate “Mediterranean drinking”, where red wine was drunk with a meal or over the course of a week, it was discovered that light to moderate alcohol consumption lowered the “relative risks for premature mortality, and mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease”.

Other clinical studies into the benefits of moderate wine drinking often reveal how it works to assist with living longer. In 2015, a US clinical trial found that resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, could slow the onset of dementia.

Indeed, there are even studies that show that white wine in small quantities is healthy, including in a study which found no discernible difference between the health benefits of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in terms of cholesterol regulation. Indeed, consumption of both of those wines led to “significant improvement in cholesterol levels”, researchers reported.

French Paradox

Alongside the Mediterranean diet, which it is claimed is responsible for the long-life span of people in southern European nations, there is also the “French Paradox”, originally highlighted in a famous 60 Minutes TV show by scientists Serge Renaud.

He initiated much of the work looking at the healthy benefits of red wine consumption and its ability to help prevent various heart diseases – something he attributed to growing up with his grandparents in Bordeaux.

He once said of his work: “If I hadn’t lived with my grandparents and great-grandparents on a vineyard near Bordeaux, perhaps this idea wouldn’t have occurred to me.

“When you see people reach the age of 80 or 90 years, who have been drinking small amounts of wine every day, you don’t believe wine in low doses is harmful.”

New study

But Martinez-Gonzalez claims that for those under-35 alcohol should be removed from the Mediterranean diet, although this is mainly predicated on excessive drinking, rather than in moderation, and he admits that there are a number of factors in play on this assessment.

In the abstract of the new four-year study, Martinez-Gonzalez said: “Moderate alcohol intake (or, more specifically, red wine) represents one of the postulated beneficial components of the traditional Mediterranean diet. Many well-conducted nonrandomized studies have reported that light-to-moderate alcohol intake is not only associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, but also of all-cause mortality.

“Nonetheless, alcohol is an addictive substance imposing huge threats for public health. Alcohol consumption is associated with increased risks of cancer, neurological harms, injuries, and other adverse outcomes. Therefore, despite findings of conventional observational epidemiologic studies supporting a potential beneficial role of wine in the context of a healthy Mediterranean dietary pattern, a strong controversy remains on this issue.”

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