While there is much debate over the health effects of alcohol, most researchers agree that wine drinkers appear to reap the most benefits. Studies have shown that wine drinkers have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and other health problems. It has been suggested that there is something in the wine—possibly the antioxidant polyphenols—that is not in beer or spirits that gives wine drinkers a little extra protection. Another theory is that it is not the wine at all, but rather certain characteristics and habits of wine drinkers that work to improve health. For example, wine drinkers tend to be of higher socioeconomic status (SES) and have more education—two factors that are associated with better access to healthcare and better health—than those who sip on spirits or beer.

A new study published in the July issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition highlights several healthful lifestyle habits more common to those who drink wine compared with those who drink other alcoholic beverages. These include eating more fruits and vegetables and less red or fried meats, as well as smoking less and exercising more.

About the study

Researchers from Duke University Medical Center and Copenhagen University Hospital studied 4,435 people participating in a larger study—the University of North Carolina Alumni Heart Study (UNCAHS), which was designed to examine cardiovascular disease risk factors. These volunteers were either students or spouses of people who were students at the University of North Carolina between 1964 and 1966. The present study group consisted of 1,571 women and 2,864 men who were well educated and had high average household incomes.

Researchers gathered data from questionnaires completed in 1994, on which volunteers answered questions about their general health and well-being. In addition, the volunteers completed a 153-item food-frequency questionnaire (FFQ), which included alcohol intake—specifically, the number of servings of beer, red wine, and liquor or mixed drinks consumed in the past month. The volunteers were divided into five groups:

  • Nondrinkers
  • Drinkers who preferred wine
  • Drinkers who preferred beer
  • Drinkers who preferred spirits
  • Drinkers with no preference

To determine the healthfulness of the volunteers' diets, researchers focused on three groups of food: fruits, vegetables, and red or fried meats. They generated food group indices based on the total number of servings of foods in these groups consumed each day. They also estimated intakes of saturated fat, cholesterol, and fiber.

Other health behaviors measured included dietary supplement use (yes or no), current smoking (yes or no), exercise (no activity, regular participation in light activity, or regular participation in aerobic activity), and body mass index (BMI; calculated from reported height and weight).

Researchers compared the lifestyle habits of the wine drinkers with the other groups of drinkers and the nondrinkers.

The findings

Wine drinkers ate more fruit, more vegetables, and less fried and red meat than those who preferred other types of alcohol. Wine drinkers' diets were higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat, cholesterol, and alcohol. In addition, those who chose wine were less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise.

The researchers did a second analysis of their data that controlled for the health effects associated with education and income. This adjustment changed only one marker—exercise habits of wine drinkers were no longer significantly different than the habits of those who preferred other types of alcohol.

Although these results are interesting, there are limitations to this study. First, the food frequency questionnaire required people to recall specific foods and beverages and their serving sizes consumed over one month. This can be very difficult to do accurately. In addition, measuring dietary and lifestyle habits at one point in time may not provide an accurate assessment of long-term habits. Also, on questionnaires of this type, people have a tendency to describe their eating and lifestyle habits as more healthful than they truly are. And finally, while the study suggests an association between a tendency to drink wine and healthful lifestyles, the study did not address whether or not the wine drinkers are in fact healthier.

How does this affect you?

So should you skip the beer and order a Merlot instead? Not necessarily. This study suggests it’s not the wine, but the wine drinker, that counts. There is no magic elixir or other single factor that will improve your health. Strive for a balanced, healthful lifestyle. This includes a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Also, exercise regularly and don't smoke. And again, moderation is key. One of the findings was that those who drank wine had a lower total alcohol intake than other drinkers. Moderation is one drink per day for women and two for men.