When it comes to eating and drinking habits, the advice doled out by health experts often involves cutting back on things you like and adding more of the things you don’t to your daily diet—not much fun for foodies. But there is at least one piece of advice that's typically well-received: When you drink wine, you should have it with some food.
It's become accepted wisdom that wine consumed with a meal is healthier than wine consumed on its own. But why? Wine Spectator looked at past research and spoke with nutrition experts to find out.
"Don’t Drink on an Empty Stomach!"
You've likely heard this phrase uttered more times than you can count—by everyone from your doctor to a well-meaning friend before a big night out. Having food in your stomach helps slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream by keeping it in the stomach longer, which in turn keeps you from becoming intoxicated quickly (and gives you a better chance of avoiding a hangover later).
"On an empty stomach, blood-alcohol levels peak about one hour after consuming a drink, and then decline at a linear rate for the next four hours or so," Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Wine Spectator via email. When consumed with a meal, blood-alcohol concentrations don't rise as quickly or get as high.
Drinking with food in your belly also lightens the load on your liver. When alcohol stays in the stomach, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH)—an enzyme that exists in both the stomach lining and the liver—can begin metabolizing it. But if there's no food to keep the alcohol there, it passes more quickly to the intestines, thus leaving the ADH in the liver to do all the heavy lifting. In the long-term, overworking the liver can lead to more serious problems, such as cirrhosis.
Whether wine is consumed with food or on an empty stomach can also affect how calories are stored in the body. If the liver is working overtime to process alcohol that the stomach couldn't get to (because there was no food to hold the alcohol there), the metabolism of other food is put on hold. This can lead to increased fat storage.
Just make sure the food you're eating is on the healthier side. If there is food in the belly to "soak up" some of the alcohol, but it's unhealthy food, that can lead to fat storage as well.
It's All About Timing
It may seem counterintuitive, but enjoying wine with your meal can actually help you watch your weight. "Drinking wine on an empty stomach may increase food intake later on," Hultin said, referencing a small study published in 2007 in the journal Physiology & Behavior, which found that drinking about two glasses of wine on an empty stomach increased food intake by 25 percent at the next meal. (Plus, while no one has studied the phenomenon, you’re probably more likely to make healthier food choices before you drink, rather than afterward, when a few glasses can lower inhibitions and have you reaching for the potato chips.)
Studies have also shown that eating while drinking (or doing so around the same time) can strengthen wine's health benefits. In 2016, a review published in the journal Food and Function looked at a wide range of variables to better understand how drinking patterns affect human health. The report's biggest takeaway was that drinking wine moderately with meals delivers maximum health benefits.
Specifically, it showed that wine's cardioprotective effects were increased when it was consumed with food. The reason why—whether it's the above mentioned ways in which alcohol is absorbed in the body when food is involved, a specific way in which wine's polyphenols interact with food, or a combination of factors—has yet to be determined.
Food Helps Wine—and Wine Helps Food
Not only is food believed to make wine consumption healthier, but wine can make food healthier as well—at least in a few specific ways. Research has shown that if you happen to eat contaminated food, drinking alcohol with it decreases the risk of getting food poisoning. "What happens with the foodborne pathogens is that they go into your gastrointestinal tract and in your stomach, and it's an extremely acidic environment," Randy Worobo, a professor of food microbiology at Cornell University, told Wine Spectator in a 2017 interview. "The [acidic] environment in the stomach, combined with the alcohol—it's like a double whammy. It's two hits that inactivate the pathogens."
It's not just tainted food that wine helps you process. "During the digestion process and the increase of metabolism, there's an increased tendency [for the body] to create disease-causing compounds, like oxygen free radicals," said Katherine Tallmadge, another Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson and registered dietitian. "While the body is digesting food, the nutrients in the wine—those polyphenols—help minimize the damage that oxidation can do, or maybe even eliminate it. It counteracts the negatives of the digestion process."
A slew of studies reinforce this idea that drinking wine with food aids in digestion. A 2013 study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that pairing turkey cutlets with red wine prevented the increase of malondialdehyde, a free radical molecule associated with oxidative stress, in human blood plasma. Around the same time, another study, published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology, found that subjects who drank red wine while eating a high-fat meal of French fries and pork sausages experienced lower levels of inflammation in their blood vessels than those who drank other beverages.
A study published online in 2010 in the British Medical Journal (now the BMJ) showed that drinking white wine with a heavy meal of cheese fondue was more effective in aiding digestion than drinking tea with the same meal. A year earlier, a team of Portuguese researchers found that polyphenols in red wine trigger the release of nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes the stomach wall, helping to optimize digestion.
And a 2008 study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry found that red wine helps the stomach remove potentially harmful substances found in red meats (as well as fried and processed foods) called lipid hydroperoxides and malonaldehydes, which are released during digestion.
Furthermore, diabetics may see an additional benefit from drinking wine with their food. According to research published in 2008 in the Journal of Food Biochemistry, red wine may help type 2 diabetes patients metabolize sugars and starches properly. However, people with diabetes should always talk to their doctor about drinking wine to see if it is right for them.
Researchers don’t fully understand the mechanisms by which wine and food affect our health, and that means they can't say with 100 percent certainty that wine and food are always healthier together or why. Some experts say that wine's health benefits are derived on a cellular level, meaning it doesn't matter when you consume wine, just as long as you do. But the large body of research suggests that in terms of health effects, wine and food are better together.
Of course, there are some caveats to this, not least of which being that the wine should be consumed in moderation, and the food should be—for the most part—healthy. As of right now, though, there is little evidence that consuming wine with healthy food could be harmful in any way—save from allergic reactions that should be assessed on an individual basis. While studies continue to look into the interactions between wine and food, those who enjoy finding the perfect pairing for their meals can consider these synergistic benefits an added bonus.