Drinking red wine (or even grape juice) could help overweight people burn body fat as well as improve their overall health, according to the best new study we’ve read in a long time. (We’ll take the wine.)

The findings suggest that consuming dark-colored grapes, whether eating them or drinking juice or wine, might help people better manage obesity and related metabolic disorders such as fatty liver.

To come to this conclusion, researchers at Oregon State University first exposed human liver and fat cells grown in the lab to extracts of four chemicals found in Muscadine grapes, a dark-red variety native to the southeastern United States. One of the chemicals, ellagic acid, proved particularly potent: It dramatically slowed the growth of existing fat cells and the formation of new ones, and it boosted metabolism of fatty acids in liver cells.

The researchers next fed a group of mice a diet consisting of about 10 percent fat, and another group a diet made up of 60 percent fat.

“Our mice like that high-fat diet,” said Neil Shay, a biochemist and molecular biologist in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, “and they overconsume it. So they're a good model for the sedentary person who eats too much snack food and doesn't get enough exercise.” (Think this guy.)

Over a period of 10 weeks, the high-fat diet mice developed fatty liver and diabetic symptoms, but a select group that received grape extracts (equivalent to about one-and-a-half cups of grapes a day for humans) accumulated less fat in their livers and had lower blood sugar than those who didn’t get the grapes. The researchers also observed higher levels of proteins that metabolize fat and sugar in mice in the mice that were given red grape extracts.

Unfortunately, these plant chemicals are not a weight-loss miracle, cautions Shay. “We didn’t find, and we didn’t expect to, that these compounds would improve body weight,” he said. But by boosting the burning of fat, especially in the liver, they may improve liver function in overweight people. “If we could develop a dietary strategy for reducing the harmful accumulation of fat in the liver, using common foods like grapes,” Shay said, “that would be good news.”

The goal is to guide people in choosing common, widely available foods that have particular health benefits, including boosting metabolic function, he said.

“We are trying to validate the specific contributions of certain foods for health benefits,” Shay said. “If you’re out food shopping, and if you know a certain kind of fruit is good for a health condition you have, wouldn’t you want to buy that fruit?”

Or, more to the point, that red wine?

The findings were published in the January issue of the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry

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