In light of America’s obesity epidemic, one would think we ought to start regulating soda drinks at least as strictly as alcohol. After all, the high-sugar, low-nutrition beverages are only helping sustain our first-place spot in the obesity Olympics, with obesity being the seventh-leading cause of death in America.
But perhaps our overeager regulation of another kind of beverage — alcohol — deserves reconsideration all the same.
Eating greasy, staying skinny: The wonders of wine
Just look at the “French Paradox” — the high intake of saturated fats and low incidence of coronary heart disease among the French is best explained by the protective power of red wine, which is widely consumed in France. While the life spans of occasional drinkers tend to be longer than those of non-drinkers in general, the most pronounced health-related benefits come from red wine. France is not entirely immune from the consequences of subpar dietary preferences: Obesity rates in France have doubled from 1995 to 2004, with partial thanks to the fact that France’s McDonald’s stores are the most profitable in all of Europe. However, it nonetheless has the lowest obesity rates in Europe and ranks as the 128th most overweight country in the world.
From opting for processed, high-carb foods to sipping sugary sodas and juices, Americans have chosen cost and convenience at the expense of health and nutrition. Obesity is associated with an increase in Type II diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and a wide arrange of other potentially fatal health problems.
Wine has a wide array of health effects that might be as helpful to Americans as they are to the French, considering our shared appetites for McDonald’s. Unlike the French, however, Americans have a disadvantage in combating their less-than-ideal dietary habits: America’s national legal drinking age limit, which is three years later than France’s and the highest among all developed nations.
America’s minimum drinking age laws: choosing road safety over health since 1984
The rationale behind the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was to slow the rate of youth vehicular accidents and was passed with the influence of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). States could choose between enforcing the legal drinking age of 21 or in losing 10% of their shares of federal highway construction funds. Certainly, road safety is an important reason to regulate alcohol consumption and use the threat of drunk-driving citations in discouraging drinkers from mixing drinking with driving. But death by drunk driving simply does not pale in comparison to the threat posed by heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer for Americans, all of which make the top-ten list of leading causes of death in the United States and have been linked to obesity.
Countless arguments have been posed in opposition to the 21-year drinking age limit. Some of the most powerful arguments highlight evidence that the present drinking age limit makes youth drinking habits worse, as it pushes drinking behind closed doors and out of the (somewhat-more) watchful eye of publicly moderated drinking environments.
The fact that certain alcoholic beverages might contain life-saving and health-protecting properties have received little to no attention. America’s unusually high drinking age withholds from youth some of the positive health benefits associated with having the ability to legally acquire alcohol, and be more selective with one’s acquisitions.
Choosier college drinkers could curb collegiate weight gain with wine
Underage drinkers don’t get to be choosey about what they drink. The ability to legally shop for alcohol could very well allow for voting-age drinkers (who would be able to drink legally elsewhere) to get a head start in acquiring a taste for more refined, healthier alcoholic drinks, such as red wine. Like the fruit from which it’s made, wine is an excellent source of nutrients. So much so, in fact, that it has been reported to have the most significant heart-healthy impact among populations where fruits and vegetables aren’t a dietary staple.
Wine might be a much better fit for college campuses than beer for reasons beyond its fruit-substitution capacities, too. Wine drinkers have proven to outdo beer drinkers in terms of social, cognitive, and personality development in a 2001 Danish study, showing that wine actually allowed for optimal results in all three categories, while beer provided suboptimal ones.
And studies comparing the waist-to-hip ratios of wine and beer drinkers showed wine-drinkers to be slimmer on average. Another study showed that, among people who consumed seven or more servings of alcohol per week, only the wine drinkers showed no weight gain—and at times even lost weight— showing no association between wine and obesity.
A 2011 Purdue University study found that wine could even be used as a method to control obesity, finding that piceatannol (a structure similar to resveratrol that is, too, found in red wine and grapes) could actively block fat cell development. It helps prevent the generation of young fat cells and helps keep existing ones from maturing. And early studies have even shown that red wine can help prevent weight gain in obese mice by modulating food intake.
Moderate wine consumption extends life spans, lowers health risks
Light to moderate wine consumption has shown to lower the risk of stroke, upper digestive tract cancer, lung cancer, and even hip fractures in its consumers. Better yet, it lowers the overall mortality rate among drinkers, compared with beer drinkers, liquor drinkers, and non-drinkers alike, due to lower incidences of coronary heart disease and cancer. The light intake of wine has also shown the capacity to protect drinkers from non-alcoholic liver disease.
A study conducted in eastern France indicated that two-to-five glasses of wine per day fit the criteria of “moderate” wine intake and are associated with a 24%-31% reduction in all-cause mortality.
In addition, wine intake has been shown to not only reduce the high “bad” cholesterol levels that increase one’s odds of becoming diabetic but also lower the odds of heart disease among diabetics, who are especially susceptible to it.
Alcohol-related health benefits not limited to wine alone
One of the strongest players in wine’s healthy outcomes is ethanol, which is common to all alcoholic beverages. According to researchers, ethanol’s HDL-cholesterol-raising properties are very important because no diet or lifestyle variable raises HDL cholesterol levels in nearly as consistent a manner as does ethanol consumption.
Just as early drinking habits can cause one to acquire a taste for low-quality alcohol, teenage obesity has a very strong tendency to carry over into adult obesity. Americans’ dietary habits have been rather slow to change despite local, statewide, and even nationwide attempts to instill policies on food products that help combat our rising obesity rates. Obesity is not only among one of the leading causes of death in America but is also strongly related to several others on the list.
Lowering the drinking age might help lower obesity prevalence — or at least curb the consequences
Without implying direct causality between America’s extremely strict alcohol regulation and extremely high obesity prevalence, I believe loosening the restrictions of the former could very much aid in the latter. Lowering the drinking age could affect not only the safety for the 18-to-20-year-olds who choose to drink regardless but also their health.
In light of all the wine-positive medical research that’s been sprouting up in recent times, alcohol — and red wine in particular — has more than earned its recognition as a substance with a nutritional and medical value whose legal status has an impact on the health of underage-yet-voting-age Americans.