Why writing about wine and health is a dead-end

My August article for Palate Press is a brief update on some new research about wine and cancer. It’s a tricky subject. Trying to determine the relationship between two highly variable things is always tricky, and cancer and drinking are highly variable. Cancer comes in a lot of different forms – all breast cancers or colon cancers aren’t the same – and affects a lot of different kinds of people, and we don’t even know about all of the different factors that influence when and how it progresses. Meanwhile, people’s drinking habits are a lot more complex than those abstinence-light-moderate-heavy drinker scales make it seem. Do you drink wine, beer, spirits, or a combination? What kinds? Do you drink with meals, or alone? If you drink with food, what are you eating? Do you have a drink a day all week, or seven drinks all in one setting, and is your “drink” anything like my “drink?” Are you happy while you’re drinking, or sad?

The wine-and-health story, or the wine-and-cancer story, consequently has to be a lot more complicated than “drinking good” or “drinking bad.” As I point out in the Palate Press article, this is a good thing. We’re understanding enough about disease and lifestyle to stop doing the lifestyle modification equivalent of treating all ailments with leeches, recommending that everyone stop drinking because drinking is bad, and to start asking why and when drinking might be a bad idea.

Here’s my problem. Every time I write about wine and health, I find myself wanting to shorten the entire 1200-ish word article to one sentence: “Drink moderately, especially with food; don’t go overboard, and don’t worry too much about the whole thing.”

Medical researchers spend a lot of time and money and energy creating tables of statistics that come to essentially that conclusion. Sure, there are exceptions. Alcohol interacts badly with some drugs and other medical conditions, and the very last thing I want to do is be insensitive to anyone recovering from alcoholism or with a family history of the disease. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about all of the “is wine good for me, or is wine bad for me” bluster. I’m talking about spinning new medical research into a satisfying story when very little of it matters.

If you think I’m being harsh, consider the ideal outcomes of wine and cancer research. What if research conclusively demonstrated that drinking more than three glasses of wine without food plus up to five glasses with food, weekly, increases the risk of colon cancer by 20% in women of European descent, and 35% in women of Asian descent after age 48. (I’m making up the specifics, but not the kind of statements research generates.) Let’s say, even, that your doctor can look at your genetic profile and tell you your exact personal genetic risk of getting colon cancer. Most cancers (some forms of breast cancer are notable exceptions) are still essentially random: it may happen; it may not. Are you going to tabulate up all of the rules about what increases your risk of colon cancer, along with all of the other rules about what to eat and drink and do and not do to avoid all of the other diseases you might get, and arrive at a specific lifestyle optimized to keep you alive and healthy for as long as possible? Or are you going to live a moderate, balanced lifestyle that allows you to be happy and run the risk that bad things sometimes happen? Heck, maybe you’re going to live an immoderate, unbalanced lifestyle because that’s the kind of person you are. This whole balance and quantity-over-quality thing doesn’t work for everyone.

We’re suffering from an epidemic of needing an “expert” to tell us that our behaviors are okay. It’s not new. Rules for living have always been a popular idea because they relieve us of some of the burden of making our own decisions and dealing with the consequences. Life is so very complicated that it’s actually very helpful to have someone else cutting down on your allowable options. A lot of the West has decided that it’s tired of giving that responsibility to religion, and it’s instead handed it over to science (and, if you want to take this to its logical conclusions, to religion and science and everything else that authorizes what we’re permitted to enjoy; the philosopher Slavoj Zizek gives a great explanation in terms of the Coca-Cola slogan “Enjoy”). And particularly since free will is in and authorities beyond question are out, us 21st century types get really fraught over whether we’re following the right experts and doing the right things. Combine that insecurity with people who make money by preying on it and you get the whiplash that is the modern medical news.

There’s little I can do to help, but I’d like to try. So, here. I have two masters degrees, one in biology and one in communicating well, and I’m a year out from having a PhD that combines the two, and I’ve read lots of peer-reviewed journal articles about wine and health. In all of the authority thereby invested in me, I hereby authorize you to enjoy drinking moderately, and not to worry about it too much. If you’re the sort of special person to whom that doesn’t apply, you probably know who you are, and I hope that you’re enjoying a really nice herbal infusion or some mineral water or a nice glass of fresh apple cider or whatever else makes you happy.

One thought on “Why writing about wine and health is a dead-end

  1. Pingback: Why science may not have “the truth” about red wine and health | The Wineoscope

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