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For a Healthy Heart, Drink Wine and Work Up a Sweat

Research finds both red and white wine protect against cardiovascular disease, but only when combined with exercise

Esther Mobley
Posted: September 8, 2014

In what looks like a surprising twist in research on red wine and heart health, a new study suggests that moderate wine consumption can protect against cardiovascular disease (CVD) only when combined with regular exercise. What’s more, this study found that white wine is just as protective as red.

At the European Society of Cardiology’s annual congress in Barcelona on Aug. 31, Czech scientist Miloš Táborský shared findings from his “In Vino Veritas” study. Táborský initially set out to investigate whether white wine might have the same cardiovascular benefits as its red counterpart, since studies in recent years have found that alcohol itself—not just antioxidant-rich red wine—may be beneficial for the heart. But Táborský's results surprised him.

“We found that moderate wine drinking was only protective in people who exercised,” Táborský said in a statement. “Red and white wine produced the same results.”

Táborský and his colleagues studied 146 men and women, all healthy but with mild to moderate risk of developing atherosclerosis (the hardening of arteries) or CVD. Subjects were randomized into groups that drank either a red wine (a Pinot Noir) or a white wine (a Chardonnay-Pinot Gris blend). Both wines were from Gala winery in Czech Republic, from the 2008 vintage.

Depending on their weight, women consumed about one to two glasses per day, up to five times per week; men, about two to three glasses per day. They otherwise followed their normal habits, but logged their diet, exercise and medication use. (Subjects were also required to return the corks of the wines they were sent, to prove that they had not sold the bottles.)

Táborský and his team checked subjects' high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, the so-called "good cholesterol," throughout the trial to see if it had changed. Táborský hypothesized that the red-wine group would show a 13 percent increase in HDL; the white-wine drinkers, 5 percent.

“The change of HDL at 12 months: No difference between white wine and red wine, and no change against the enrollment on previous studies,” Táborský emphasized to colleagues during his presentation in Barcelona. “So we can say that this moderate wine consumption didn't influence the HDL cholesterol level.”

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, or "bad cholesterol," were lower for both red and white drinkers after one year, and total cholesterol was lower in the red group.

“What was a surprise for us,” Táborský continued in his presentation, “from the sub-analyses, we recognized that people with regular exercise activity—and it was defined like people with two-plus [instances of] exercise per week—they showed the increase in HDL.” This improvement in HDL with exercise was true of both red and white wine drinkers.

Táborský suggests that alcohol itself, rather than compounds particular to red wine, may be responsible for the heart-healthy effects of wine. "There may be some synergy between the low dose of ethyl alcohol in wine and exercise which is protective against CVD,” he said in a statement.

Táborský believes this is the first long-term, randomized, prospective, head-to-head trial that examines the effects of red and white wine on the markers of atherosclerosis (others have looked at short-term effects). The findings are preliminary and have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet. He added that his future research will examine red and white wine’s effects on people at risk of developing CVD who take statins (cholesterol-mitigating medication) and exercise regularly.

Edward Miller
St Thomas, US Virgin Islands —  September 10, 2014 10:45pm ET
This study only looked at HDL-C levels, not outcome data such as how long people lived. Ethanol is one of the most potent elevators of HDL-C, regardless of whether it's administered as vodka, white wine or red wine. So this study has really only examined whether alcohol raises HDL-C, which we already knew. The question is whether red wine drinkers receive additional benefit beyond the alcohol it contains. Emerging research from Crete, Sardinia and SW France suggests that they do. Researchers from London (Roger Corder et al) believe it is attributable to oligomeric procyanidins - which are much higher in wines made from small berry, thick skinned grapes such as tannat and malbec.
Kari Poikolainen
Helsinki, Finland —  September 13, 2014 8:26am ET
Exercise has long been known to increase HDL, both among abstainers and drinkers. Finding no change in HDL in the two groups has several possible explanations, such as alcohol consumption before the onset of the study, genetic constitution, measurement accuracy etc. Unpublished studies are not newsworthy as a rule.
Mitch Frank
New Orleans, LA —  September 17, 2014 11:37pm ET
Edward and Kari,

Thank you both for your comments. We agree that peer-reviewed, published studies carry much more weight. This particular study was well received and garnered a lot of attention, so we wanted to take a look. We look forward to seeing the published details.

The debate over whether moderate alcohol consumption alone contributes to better cardiovascular health or whether compounds specific to wine offer additional benefits continues to be a complex one. We always try to caution readers that more research is needed.


Mitch Frank
News Editor, WineSpectator.com

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