"I think I'll have a glass of wine with dinner, it's heart healthy." Ever wonder what is so healthy about drinking red wine? Well, there has been much debate and research conducted to figure out the answer to that question. Studies have shown that people who drink red wine are at a lower risk of developing heart disease than those who do not. That we do know. We are just not sure why.

So what is so special about red wine? Red wine contains antioxidants called polyphenols, including resveratrol and flavonoids. These substances are known to be antioxidants, which reduce inflammation and may help reduce the risk of plaque buildup in arteries, otherwise known as atherosclerosis. The other "magic" compound found in red wine is alcohol. Studies have shown that people who consume alcoholic beverages moderately reduce their risk for heart disease by 20-30 percent. But why red wine in particular?

The "French Paradox" is an observation that heart disease mortality is relatively low in France that spurred an interest in red wine's heart healthy effects. The French population generally drinks red wine moderately, however, also have diets high in saturated fat and have a large population of smokers, known heart disease risk factors. Since the coining of the term "French Paradox" in 1992, much research has gone into determining why drinking red wine has seemed to reduce heart disease risk in France.

What did this research find? Well, research is inconclusive. While moderate alcohol consumption is known to lower heart disease risk, research has not proven whether red wine drinkers are at a lower risk than people who drink beer or other forms of alcohol. Research has also not proven whether it is the alcohol or antioxidants in red wine, or the socioeconomic status of red wine drinkers that reduces cardiovascular disease risk.

What if you do not drink? The antioxidants found in red wine are also found in grapes, purple grape juice and some berries. Increasing your intake of these non-alcoholic alternatives may still decrease your risk for heart disease.

What about popular resveratrol supplements? In one study, researchers gave participants red grape polyphenol extract, and it actually improved the participant's cardiovascular tissue function, also known as endothelial function. However, this research is limited, and more is needed to determine if supplemental forms of polyphenols like resveratrol will have a beneficial effect on your heart.

Will it slow down the aging process or prevent cancer? There have been studies done that shows resveratrol can slow down the growth of cancer cells in culture and in some animal models, but there has not been enough research to conclude that taking high doses can prevent cancer in humans. Similarly, other studies where resveratrol was given to yeast, worms, fruit flies, fish and mice on high calorie diets, which is known to decrease lifespan, actually increased the lifespan of these organisms. However, there has not been enough research on humans to conclude that it will do the same for us.

The bottom line: If you currently do not drink regularly, do not start. There are risks to regular alcohol consumption including increased risk of some types of cancer and the potential adverse health effects that correspond with alcohol addiction. If you want to increase your intake of resveratrol and other healthy antioxidants, increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, particularly grapes, purple grape juice and berries.

To find out more about reducing your risk of heart disease contact the EJGH Wellness Center's Dietitian, Rebecca M. Lee, RD, LDN, at: (504) 849-6801 or contact the Wellness Center to set up a nutrition counseling appointment at: (504) 849-6868.