One week we read that red wine is good for the heart (in moderation, of course). The next week we’re told it’s not. Conveniently, many of us latch onto the positive stories about vino because, c’mon, who doesn’t love thinking their favorite indulgence is healthy? But if you step back and really look at all the wine science—and there’s a ton of it—you’ll find a wide range of conclusions, rife with nuances and caveats that make the truth tricky to tease out. We’ll do our best.
First thing’s first, though: Wine, obviously, contains a good shake of alcohol. If truly consumed in moderation—textbook moderation, which means one drink per day for healthy women, two drinks for healthy men—alcohol may not do your body much harm. But since we often fill those glasses fuller than health experts recommend and enjoy more servings more frequently than we’re advised to, the alcohol in wine can become a real issue. Dependency is a big one, of course, but more-than-moderate alcohol consumption carries other potential health problems as well, which we’ll dig into in a minute. For now, though, back to red wine.
The French Paradox
Merlot, Bordeaux, cabernet and other red varietals first scored a heart-healthy rap back in the 1980s, when researchers proposed the “French Paradox” to explain why the French had relatively low rates of cardiovascular disease despite their love of cheese and other high-saturated-fat foods. This sparked a cascade of further studies on red wine, as researchers tried to uncover exactly what it is about this stuff that could offer a heart-protective benefit.
Before long, mounting evidence pointed to the panoply of polyphenols in red and purple grape skins. These beneficial plant compounds are potent antioxidants, which safeguard cells from damage and, more specifically, may protect blood vessel linings and tame disease-causing inflammation. Studies mainly in mice suggested that one particular polyphenol abundant in grapes, resveratrol, might also lower LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and even prevent blood clots, all of which are linked to reduced risk of heart disease.
Upon further investigation …
On the surface, the French Paradox sounds great and the resveratrol connection makes a lot of sense. But ensuing studies poked significant holes in these theories. Researchers now acknowledge that factors other than just red wine consumption may account for the French’s low incidence of heart diseases, namely overall healthier, more active lifestyles and strong adherence to the Mediterranean diet. While this diet does include moderate red wine consumption, it is also full of other heart-healthy foods such as fresh fruits and veggies, fish, whole grains and olive oil. So in other words, to single out red wine as the sole heart hero isn’t exactly accurate.
As for resveratrol and other polyphenols, they are, without question, beneficial for the heart and, really, for our whole bodies. But human observational studies, including a seminal study published in JAMA in 2014, have mostly failed to establish a clear link between dietary resveratrol intake and lower incidence of heart disease, cancer and death. Many experts now doubt there is enough resveratrol in wine to confer a significant benefit for the heart—unless you were to guzzle glass after glass after glass, which, for many reasons, is bad news.
The picture gets even more muddled when you consider that other research has suggested moderate alcohol consumption—any type of alcohol—may help the heart. According to the Mayo Clinic, it has been linked to lower LDL cholesterol levels, increased HDL (healthy) cholesterol, healthier blood vessel linings and less risk of blood clots. By that logic, you could glean the same heart perks from a bottle of beer as you could a glass of Malbec.
Considering all the available research, it does appear possible—but not guaranteed—that you could snag some heart health advantages from enjoying a glass of red wine daily, or if you’re a guy, two glasses. But remember, a “glass” is likely less wine than you think: It’s just 5 ounces of red wine that’s 12 percent alcohol by volume. Many wine glasses leave room for a lot more than 5 ounces, and many red wines have a higher ABV than 12 percent (see this handy infographic for the ABV of common varietals).
Once you exceed these prescribed limits, the health benefits diminish, thanks to wine’s high calorie count and, of course, the alcohol. Although most people who drink excessively are not chemically dependent, according to the CDC, long-term alcohol consumption that exceeds the recommended daily amounts can sharply increase your risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, liver disease, depression, anxiety, dementia and several kinds of cancer.
So here’s our best advice: If you already sip on a small glass of red wine most nights, there’s probably no reason to stop. You may—read: may—even give your heart a little boost. But if you’re not a wine drinker now, don’t start in hopes of helping your heart. There just isn’t enough good evidence to support that.