A fatty cheese platter paired with a few drops of red wine may not be so indulgent or naughty as you first thought – even if you’re on a diet.
That’s because the ‘responsible’ consumption of cheese and red wine could be good for your overall health and fabulous for your brain.
But before you lunge face-first into a massive slice of Gorgonzola, it’s important to know the truth about the protective features of your favourite cheese and red wine combo.
“All cheese has a low glycemic index, is high protein and has an abundance of vitamins such vitamin A, vitamin D, B6, B9 and minerals such as calcium.”
The truth about the French paradox
For many years, the world believed that the French had the secret to eating for good health: they could consume lots of cheese, full of saturated fat, and drink plenty of red wine without facing the same high rates of coronary heart disease and death by coronary heart disease as other populations throughout Europe or Australia.
This concept, which became known as the ‘French Paradox’, assumed that there was either something unique about French people or something exceptional about their diet, filled with high-saturated fat items like cheese, that boosted the heart health of the population. This paradox that was born in the 1980s, has since been disproven.
The positive side of the paradox, however, is that it encouraged scientific investigations into the concept determining that the traditional French diet in its entirety is beneficial for health, especially as it is a Mediterranean diet. Having a longer ‘French-style’ lunch – which includes moderate amounts of cheese and red wine – with family and friends is also a valued tradition recognised by UNESCO.
How good is cheese?
Accredited practising dietitian from Adelaide Nutrition, Mattea Palombo, explains that cheese can feature as part of a healthy diet, if eaten in moderation.
“All cheese has a low glycemic index, is high protein and has an abundance of vitamins such vitamin A, vitamin D, B6, B9 and minerals such as calcium,” Palombo says.
Some types of cheese, like the French blue-veined cheese Roquefort, contain live probiotic bacteria, which may be beneficial for your gut.
“The one thing with the French diet is that it includes a variety of cheese. So mix up the types of cheese you eat to get the different benefits from the various types available.”
A 2012 study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses shows that some mouldy cheeses, including Roquefort, may even help your cardiovascular health due to the presence of secondary metabolites produced by the fungi found in it. These fungi may inhibit cholesterol biosynthesis and bacterial growth, which could prevent cardiovascular disease.
To reap the health rewards of cheese, Palombo advises that you stick to consuming the recommended amounts of around 40 grams of cheese a day or 2.5 serves of dairy in total (which includes milk, yoghurt and cheese).
“The one thing with the French diet is that it includes a variety of cheese,” explains Palombo. “So mix up the types of cheese you eat to get the different benefits from the various types available.”
How great is red wine?
Although excessive consumption of alcohol is detrimental to your health, there is some evidence to suggest that light to moderate intake of red wine may be good for your health and cardioprotective.
Palombo explains that wine contains polyphenols, which are antioxidants,” she says. “Polyphenols are chemicals which also have a powerful influence on the gut microbiome. The most common one is resveratrol. It slows ageing because it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.”
Early research suggests that resveratrol – found in the skin of grapes used to make wine – may help prevent damage to blood vessels, reducing bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol) and preventing blood clots.
It’s thought that because red wine ferments grape skins longer than other varieties, it contains more resveratrol. But it’s still only early days so more research is needed to conclude that the resveratrol in red wine protects your heart.
Benefits for the brain
The benefits of cheese and wine, consumed in moderation, don’t just stop at the gut or heart – they continue to your brain.
A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in late 2020 found that adding cheese and red wine to your daily diet may improve long-term cognitive outcomes.
The large-scale research examined the health of almost 1,800 adults from the UK conducted via food questionnaires. The survey, conducted over two periods spanning between six-to-10 years apart, looked at the participant’s intake of fruit, vegetables, meats, bread, cheese and alcohol.
One of the main findings from the study was that cheese was shown to be the most protective food against age-related cognitive decline. Meanwhile, drinking red wine daily was associated with improvements in cognitive function.
But, warns Palombo, if you drink to excess, you won’t receive any of the benefits. “If you want to enjoy the benefits of red wine, stick to what's recommended [in Australia] – that’s 10 standard drinks per week,” says Palombo.
“Each standard drink of wine is 100mls so aim to have no more than one litre a week or two glasses [over a sitting] for five days.”