Are wine drinkers healthier than beer drinkers? Not so fast…

Yet another study was published this month showing that habitual wine drinkers are, all things considered, healthier than habitual beer drinkers. This one was about Dutch people — part of a national dietary survey — but similar findings have come out of the United States and other parts of Europe. We can draw all kinds of conclusions from such data, some of them plausible, but many of them ill-advised. Let’s jump to some conclusions and see where they take us.

1. Wine is better for you than beer – Maybe. Let’s say that you’re a marathon runner who runs the eight miles each way to work every day, teaches yoga in the evenings, eats salads for breakfast and lunch and half a pizza for dinner most nights. Your next-door neighbor drives to his desk job, gets winded walking up the stairs, and eats stir-fried tofu and veggies for dinner most nights. A study could conclude that you, the pizza-eater were healthier than your neighbor, the stir-fry eater, but that wouldn’t mean that pizza was healthier than tofu. Clearly, other lifestyle choices are contributing to your difference in health. The same is true for studies of habitual wine or beer drinkers: wine drinkers may be likely to make healthier choices in general.

In fact, this study came to exactly that conclusion: wine drinkers ate more fruits and veggies and less red meat, soda, margarine, and snacks than beer drinkers. We clearly can’t ascribe the health difference between the two groups just to their choice of beverage. That said, the study found that when the effects of several other health behaviors were accounted for — that is, when we measure and remove the effect of total calorie consumption, or smoking — wine drinkers were still healthier. Moreover, this study looked at healthy lifestyle habits, not at  measures of the participants physical health other than body mass index, and measuring healthfulness by weight-to-height ratio alone is pretty simplistic. This study gives support, then, for the idea that wine might be healthier than beer, but doesn’t give us enough information to reach that conclusion.

2. People who want to be healthier should start drinking wine – Maybe but, again, not supported by this study. We’ve already concluded that beverage alone isn’t responsible for the health difference between wine and beer drinkers. There’s no reason to believe that starting to drink wine, or switching from beer to wine, will help you eat more veggies.

3. Wine drinkers are better educated than beer drinkers – Yes, actually. Among the four groups considered in this study — wine drinkers, beer drinkers, spirits drinkers, indiscriminate drinkers with no preference, and alcohol abstainers — wine drinkers were most likely to have university degrees.

4. Wine drinkers tend to have healthier lifestyles than beer drinkers – Yes. This is the study’s primary conclusion: “alcoholic beverage preference was associated with dietary habits in The Netherlands.” On average, wine drinkers eat more healthfully, consume fewer calories, are less likely to smoke, and tend to have a higher socioeconomic status (which is itself strongly correlated with healthful habits) than beer drinkers. But we don’t know why this is true, though we can say that socioeconomic status and education have a lot to do with it.

So, we can fairly say that regular wine drinkers tend to live healthier lifestyles than regular beer drinkers in the Netherlands. Generalizing these findings to other countries is dangerous. Similar studies in other northern European countries (Denmark, for example) and the U.S. have come to similar conclusions. No surprise: any American could probably guess that American wine drinkers in general tend to be better educated and wealthier than beer drinkers. But that’s a cultural phenomenon. In Italy and Spain, where regular wine drinking in volume is a habit of the old guard, wine consumption doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with healthy eating or other markers of a healthy lifestyle.

The conclusion? Studies such as this are interesting. Maybe they help the medical profession get a better picture of who to target with healthy lifestyle interventions (though education and socioeconomic status do most of the work here). But they tell us nothing at all about whether wine is good for you.