If you’re like me, red wine is pretty much the answer to everything.
Stressed out after a long day at work? Time to open up a bottle!
Celebrating a special holiday, promotion, or just the fact that you survived another week? A glass of red wine, it is!
Depressed because of that huge pile of bills on the table? Might as well spend that last $20 in your pocket on a bottle of red wine to make you feel better!
Much like how we use the antioxidants in chocolate as an excuse to down an entire bag of Dove chocolates in one sitting (not that I ever have…), many of us use the benefits of red wine and the fact that it’s considered “healthy” as an excuse to indulge—and often overindulge.
And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional glass or two of merlot, do the health benefits of red wine actually outweigh the bad stuff that comes with drinking alcohol?
Pour a glass and settle in—in this article, we’ll take a look at what the science says and determine the truth about the benefits of red wine.
1. Red wine has polyphenols and is connected to health benefits…sort of.
Ever since the media got ahold of the first study proclaiming the benefits of red wine, it’s been a nonstop media firestorm.
From killing cancer to curing diabetes, it seems like it’s practically impossible to go a week without hearing about another new superpower of red wine.
Most of the hype surrounds a specific polyphenol known as resveratrol, which acts as an antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals and squashing disease.
There’s a pretty extensive body of research looking at all the promising benefits that come with resveratrol:
- Resveratrol supplementation has been shown to improve glycemic control, hemoglobin A1C, blood pressure, and total cholesterol in a 2012 randomized controlled trial (1).
- In patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, supplementing with resveratrol had similar effects: it decreased LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol, plus improved insulin resistance and the metabolism of glucose (2).
- A recent animal study showed that resveratrol was able to stop the growth of ovarian cancer cells in mice and reduce tumor size (3). Another study confirmed the anti-cancer effects of resveratrol; it induced cell death and altered the progression of the cell cycle for breast cancer cells (4).
- Another animal study found that long-term resveratrol supplementation was able to decrease the amount of structural and functional deterioration in congestive heart failure (5).
There’s a catch, though. Most of the research looks just at the effects of resveratrol alone by studying resveratrol supplementation instead of red wine. So even though resveratrol may be good for you, we can’t really jump to the conclusion that red wine as a whole is good for you just because of one ingredient. This makes those claims about the benefits of red wine a little questionable.
Many of the studies are also either short-term or animal studies. So while it may be great for you if you have whiskers and a tail, it’s hard to say if it’s generalizable to the rest of us.
Plus, these studies are looking at the effects of a very concentrated dose of resveratrol. Some estimates suggest that to get that same amount of resveratrol through red wine, you’d have to be drinking 1,000 liters per day.
And let’s be honest here, even though red wine is good, it just doesn’t stack up against not dying from alcohol poisoning.
So, yes, there are definite benefits to resveratrol, but you’re better off taking a supplement than using it as an excuse to drink red wine.
2. The French Paradox could be connected to the benefits of red wine (or a million other things).
Back in the 1950’s, researcher Ansel Keys launched the Seven Countries Study. He was looking at the lifestyles and diet patterns of individuals from seven countries around the world, including the Netherlands, Japan, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, Finland, and the USA.
He found that their diet had a big impact on their risk of heart disease. He noticed that Mediterranean regions, in particular, had a low risk of cardiovascular disease, which he attributed to a healthier diet pattern, physical activity, and moderate alcohol consumption.
Fast forward about 70 years and the same still holds true; people in Mediterranean regions have a lower incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD) than western countries, despite eating lots of butter and cheese (aka saturated fat), plus copious amounts of red wine.
This enigma came to be dubbed the “French Paradox” after French epidemiologists took note of the low CHD rates in France in the 1980’s (6).
But even though the benefits of red wine took a lot of the credit here, it’s important to note a few things.
First of all, drinking patterns definitely play a role. In France, alcohol consumption is pretty consistent throughout the week with only a slight increase during the weekends, meaning they’re probably just enjoying a glass of alcohol with their evening meal (7).
Meanwhile, over in Northern Ireland, one study showed that 66% of alcohol intake is consumed on Fridays and Saturdays. One can only imagine what they’re up to, but I think it’s safe to say that they’re probably having more than just a glass or two at the dinner table (7).
So how does that translate to heart disease?
Though moderate alcohol consumption doesn’t have much of a negative effect when it comes to the heart, binge drinking does. One study found that light to moderate alcohol use was not associated with any increased risk of stroke, whereas having more than 2 drinks per day was (8).
Plus, there are a lot of other factors at play. Besides red wine, there are all kinds of lifestyle differences that could account for that drop in heart disease risk.
Cultural and lifestyle differences, for example, could be responsible for part of it.
After all, countries like Italy and France have some of the most generous paid leave policies in the world, offering 31 guaranteed days of vacation per year. The United States, on the other hand, clocks in at about 67% of that, with most companies guaranteeing about 21 days—though there’s no legal obligation to guarantee any at all (9).
Since stress is a pretty common culprit when it comes to heart disease, it’s probably not that much of a stretch to assume that more vacation days = less stress = less heart disease. But, again, it really could be anything.
So it’s hard to say for sure what’s behind the “French Paradox,” but we can say that there’s just not enough evidence to link it solely to red wine.
3. Forget the dreaded “beer belly”…red wine can cause weight gain too!
I have bad news, and you might just want to sit down for it. I know it’s shocking, but like all good things in life, red wine comes with calories.
A 5-ounce glass of red wine clocks in at about 125 calories, which may not seem like a lot, but it can add up over time. If you’re drinking two glasses a day, for example, that’s 1750 calories a week. If you’re not modifying your diet or exercise regimen to account for that, you could be looking at a 1-pound weight gain every 2 weeks.
The big problem is that, unlike food, red wine doesn’t really contribute any nutrients to the diet. So while 125 calories of things like fruits, veggies, legumes, or whole grains bring fiber, protein, and complex carbs, 125 calories of wine just brings, well, 125 calories.
Does that mean that you have to cut it out completely if you’re trying to be healthy? No! But you do need to account for it in your diet, keep it in moderation, and make sure the rest of your diet is solid.
4. Drinking alcohol comes with risks.
Alcohol content in wine ranges from under 12.5% in some types to over 14.5% in others.
Over time, excessive alcohol intake can definitely have an impact on your health. And if you’re drinking the aforementioned 1,000 liters of red wine per day, you’ll probably start to see those effects sooner rather than later!
Heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, and certain types of cancer are just a few of the problems that can crop up with prolonged alcohol use.
In fact, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified alcohol as “carcinogenic to humans,” putting it in the same class as formaldehyde, sulfur mustard, and tobacco when it comes to cancer (10).
Alcohol consumption is also associated with some other not-so-great stuff, like drunk driving, domestic violence, sexual assault, and drug use.
5. But drinking alcohol could also come with benefits.
Alcohol isn’t all bad, though. Believe it or not, there’s actually some research showing that there could even be potential health benefits to drinking alcohol—in moderation, of course.
- A 2015 meta-analysis showed that moderate amounts of alcohol decreased fasting insulin and hemoglobin A1C for subjects without diabetes. It also was able to improve insulin sensitivity, but only for women (11).
- Other studies have shown a beneficial effect of alcohol consumption on cardiovascular disease, noting that wine and beer can have a cardioprotective effect thanks to their polyphenol content (12).
- A meta-analysis published in BMJ demonstrated that alcohol consumption increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol, estimating that about 30 grams of alcohol per day (~2 glasses of red wine) could slash the risk of coronary heart disease by almost 25% (13).
It’s hard to say how beneficial those effects actually are, though. In 2016, the UK’s Guidelines Development Group issued a report noting that the health benefits of alcohol are likely only applicable to a very small portion of the population—namely, women over age 55 (14).
Bottom Line: there’s no need to give up the red wine, but moderation is key.
In the end, the health benefits of red wine are probably overhyped and unrealistic. Sure, some of the components of red wine do come with some health benefits…but they’re probably not impactful enough to use as an excuse to polish off an entire bottle.
Moderate drinking is defined as no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 per day for men. A 5-oz serving size of wine makes up one serving of alcohol.
So to be clear, red wine in moderation is totally fine. But drink it because you enjoy it and not because you’re after the health benefits that supposedly come with it.
Time to fess up: have you ever used the health benefits of red wine as an excuse to drink up, or do you know someone who has? Spill the details in the comment section below!