Is red wine actually good for your heart?

Have you ever topped off your glass of cabernet or pinot noir while saying, “Hey, it’s good for my heart, right?” This widely held impression dates back to a catchphrase coined in the late 1980s: the French Paradox.

The French Paradox refers to the notion that drinking wine may explain the relatively low rates of heart disease among the French, despite their fondness for cheese and other rich, fatty foods. This theory helped spur the discovery of a host of beneficial plant compounds known as polyphenols. Found in red and purple grape skins (as well as many other fruits, vegetables, and nuts), polyphenols theoretically explain wine’s heart-protecting properties. Another argument stems from the fact that the Mediterranean diet, an eating pattern shown to ward off heart attacks and strokes, features red wine.

However, the evidence that drinking red wine in particular (or alcohol in general, for that matter) can help you avoid heart disease is pretty weak, says Dr. Kenneth Mukamal, an internist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. All of the research showing that people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol have lower rates of heart disease is observational. Such studies can’t prove cause and effect, only associations.

Moderate drinking — defined as one drink per day for healthy women and two drinks per day for healthy men — is widely considered safe. But to date, the health effects of alcohol have never been tested in a long-term, randomized trial.

Grape expectations

Although some studies suggest wine is better for the heart than beer or hard liquor, others do not, according to a review article about wine and cardiovascular health in the Oct. 10, 2017, issue of Circulation. That’s not surprising, says Dr. Mukamal. “In many cases, it’s difficult to tease out the effect of drinking patterns from specific types of alcoholic beverages,” he explains. For example, people who drink wine are more likely do so as part of a healthy pattern, such as drinking a glass or two with a nice meal. Those habits — rather than their choice of alcohol —may explain their heart health.

Also, the French Paradox may not be so paradoxical after all. Many experts now believe that factors other than wine may account for the observation, such as lifestyle and dietary differences, as well as earlier underreporting of heart disease deaths by French doctors. What’s more, Dr. Mukamal notes, heart disease rates in Japan are lower than in France, yet the Japanese drink a lot of beer and clear spirits, but hardly any red wine.

Resveratrol reservations

What about the polyphenols in red wine, which include resveratrol, a compound that’s heavily advertised as a heart-protecting and anti-aging supplement? Research in mice is compelling, says Dr. Mukamal. But there’s zero evidence of any benefit for people who take resveratrol supplements. And you’d have to drink a hundred to a thousand glasses of red wine daily to get an amount equivalent to the doses that improved health in mice, he says. Also, a 2014 study of older adults living in the Chianti region of Italy, whose diets were naturally rich in resveratrol, found no link between resveratrol levels (measured by a breakdown product in urine samples) and rates of heart disease, cancer, or death. As for the Mediterranean diet, it’s impossible to know whether red wine is an important part of why that eating style helps reduce heart disease, says Dr. Mukamal.

If you enjoy red wine, be sure to limit yourself to moderate amounts. Measure out 5 ounces (which equals one serving) in the glass you typically use. Five ounces appears smaller in a large goblet than in a standard wine glass. Also, older men should be aware that both the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the American Geriatric Society recommend that starting at age 65, men should limit their alcohol use to no more than a single drink per day. Age-related changes, including a diminished ability to metabolize alcohol, make higher amounts risky regardless of gender.

Related Information: Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart


  1. Tony Edwards

    This blog does not reflect expert opinion and is not evidence-based.
    99% of alcohol researchers have concluded that the epidemiological evidence for alcohol’s benefits on heart disease shows a very strong causal connection.
    Furthermore, clinical trials (where alcohol has been tested like a pharmaceutical drug) have shown objective evidence of alcohol’s beneficial effects on the blood markers of heart disease.-
    Tony Edwards; author “The Alcohol Paradox”

  2. bertrand

    My father, in southern France, Toulouse area, was drinking at least two glasses per meal. He lived until 97 years old. That is a fact…

  3. Mario Espinosa

    Apart from the fact that every so often a new study disproves the previous one, as stated by another commentator, physical constitution, eating habits (drinking with meals), exercise/active life style, and genetics WILL ALWAYS play a role.

  4. Victor Brogna

    This discussion brings to mind an article which the Boston Globe ran many years ago. The title was something like, “Medical Studies Often Contradict Themselves, So Says the Last Study.” The article may be available for review in the Globe archives. As for the present blog, it does not, as I read it, report a study. It simply concludes , “it’s impossible to know.” I’m waiting for the next study.

  5. DBConn

    Where did the “definition” of moderate drinking come from? The 1 per day for women and 2 per day for men, along with the 5-oz quantity, is spewed out on thousands of articles, websites, advice columns, etc. But I cannot find any research that backs this up. Did some committee just dream this up years ago and now everyone just adopts it, or is there a specific source of reliable scientific information? I would love to see any further information on this.

    • Tony Edwards

      Yes, these figures were arrived at by a committee – the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which in 2015 recommended those intakes as part of “a healthy dietary pattern” i.e. moderate drinking can be good for your health.
      Because the health benefits of alcohol are very rarely discussed in the mainstream media, I have collated the medical evidence in two books, enabling drinkers to make informed decisions about how much and what to drink for optimal health.

  6. Shelby Marcus

    Think I consume more than 5oz each evening, but @ eighty It is probably too late to lament the fact. Heart seems fine. Will ask my physician about my liver next exam! Thanks for the warning.

  7. William Hilliker

    After reading this article, tha conclusion seems to include, on the other hand, it might not be a myth. It’s absurd to sharply caution older men to drink only one glass of wine a day. What exactly are the risks of drinking one and a half glasses a day? Two glasses? Drinking that many but drinking none one or two days a week? I doubt that men living in Mediterranean Europe so limit themselves and that their longevity is shorter than that of American men.

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