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Health Watch: Deep-Fried Twinkies May Not Be So Bad, but Fish and Red Wine Are Much Better

Plus, a team of researchers head to three bars to test whether alcohol really makes people more attractive
Photo by: Andrew McCaul
The Mediterranean diet includes whole grains, fish, fruits and vegetables and red wine.

Christine Dalton, Douglas De Jesus
Posted: May 18, 2016

What if a diet of sugary soda and deep-fried foods wasn't to blame for cardiovascular problems? That's the surprising conclusion of a new study from researchers at the University of Auckland. But don't reach for that 2-liter bottle of pop just yet—while the scientists did not see negative effects when test subjects consumed a "Western diet" of such foods, they did see a strong positive effect on heart health when people followed a Mediterranean diet that included regular, moderate red wine consumption.

Ask a doctor, a scientist and a chef for their thoughts on the Mediterranean diet and you'll probably receive three glowing responses. The regionally inspired diet, which encourages consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish and red wine, is widely embraced as a beneficial approach to healthy eating. Studies have shown it can fight dementia and Alzheimer's disease, lower the risk for diabetes and reduce the chances of heart disease.

The study, published in the European Heart Journal, compared the effects of Mediterranean diet foods with less healthy Western diet foods, such as refined grains, sweets, sugary drinks and deep-fried foods. To do this, the researchers examined the eating habits of participants in the larger STABILITY study, a peer-reviewed study by GlaxoSmithKline of coronary disease therapies that tracked over 15,000 patients with stable coronary artery disease.

As expected, the participants who frequently consumed fish, vegetables and red wine were less likely to experience cardiovascular distress. However, the scientists did not observe any direct effects on heart issues in people who primarily consumed a Western diet, challenging the assumption that junk food actively causes major cardiovascular problems, like heart attacks and strokes.

The scientists stress that their findings are not an endorsement of white bread, sugary colas and fried Twinkies. Rather, the data should be interpreted as further encouragement to follow a Mediterranean diet. Drinking red wine in moderation and snacking on fruits and veggies may actively protect against heart disease.

Why does no one speak of wine goggles?

Are beer goggles real? Does alcohol really make people more attractive? Plenty of people believe there's truth in the concept. And previous studies found evidence to back that up. But new research says not so fast.

Measuring such a thing is tricky. One previous study that suggested strong evidence for beer goggles was published in the Oxford University Press' journal Alcohol and Alcoholism in 2014. Researchers tested 103 undergraduate students (58 women, 45 men) in a lab setting. Individuals were shown a mix of images—landscapes and faces—while sober and asked to rate each on "level of attractiveness." The participants were then given an alcoholic mix to drink and were shown the same pictures again and asked to re-rate the same images. The researchers discovered that images previously rated low on the attractive scale rated higher after alcohol consumption.

But a 2016 study published in the same journal by a team from the University of Bristol in the U.K. counters those findings. The researchers decided to forego the controlled clinical environment in favor of a real-world setting—the scientists visited three pubs, interviewing and testing a total of 311 male and female customers over two consecutive weekends.

The individuals were asked to rate the level of attractiveness of images the researchers showed them on tablets, both before they started drinking and after. Next, the scientists used a Breathalyzer test to measure participants' blood-alcohol level. That led to a lot of variation in intoxication, and on average, the participants were less intoxicated than those in the lab study.

Despite those limitations, the data recorded at the beginning of the study remained essentially constant, with no discernible change. Individuals in this study rated attractiveness levels the same both before and after consuming alcohol, which suggests increased alcohol consumption, at least in a "real-world setting" like a pub, does not change an individual's perceptions of attractiveness. That said, there are plenty of more serious reasons for not overdoing it at the pub than beer goggles.

An extensive analysis of wine and cardiovascular health

When it comes to cardiovascular health and alcohol, numerous studies have shown that moderation is the key. One to two glasses of wine a day can improve health. Too many can lead to heart disease.

A new study by a team from Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center sheds further light on the relationship between moderate and heavy consumption of alcohol and cardiovascular events specifically. Dr. Elizabeth Mostofsky and her team of researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 23 studies (involving 29,457 participants), 1,056 citations and 37 full-text articles and published their findings in the March issue of the journal Circulation.

They found that the association between strokes and wine consumption is a little more nuanced than previously thought. Subjects experienced a slight spike in the risk of suffering a stroke immediately after wine consumption, but after one hour the risk decreased. And after that first hour, moderate wine consumption correlated with a protective effect and a lower stroke risk.

Heavy drinking, however, didn't diminish the risk but continued it. Heavy drinking was linked to a higher cardiovascular risk in the next 24 hours and following week.

The reasons for the spike in the minutes after drinking are not exactly understood but it is important for those with a family history of this condition to be aware of this effect. Mostofsky says she does not believe that healthy individuals need to change their alcohol consumption based on the results of this study if they are following the guidelines already established by the American Heart Association (AHA) which state that if you do drink, do so in moderation. The AHA's definition of moderate consumption is 1 drink (or less) per day for women and 2 drinks (or less) per day for men (1 drink is the equivalent of 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits).

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