You’ve probably heard something along the lines of “a glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away.” That’s because wine has been touted for its potential to help you unwind and de-stress at the end of a long day. Even more importantly, research suggests that alcohol overall (and red wine in particular) may even help fight certain diseases. Then again, one of the first things doctors and nutritionists tell you to do when you’re trying to lose weight or deal with any kind of health issue is cut out alcohol. In fact, many health professionals are recommending that their healthy patients avoid alcohol of all kinds, including wine. So what gives? We chatted with nutrition experts to find out what they really think about alcohol and your nightly glass of vino.
Wine has nutritional pros and cons. Find out what they are—straight from health experts who know their stuff.
Let’s start with the good. “Red wine specifically has been shown in several studies over the last 15 to 20 years to have some benefit in lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes, the risk of stroke, as well as the risks of cataract and even colon cancer,” says Yevgeniy Vaynkof, MD at Medical Offices of Manhattan. Sounds pretty positive, right? The most buzzed-about nutrient in red wine is a chemical compound called resveratrol, which may have anti-cancer properties and has been the focus of much of the research on wine’s benefits to date. But there’s one important caveat here. “While this is very promising, the long-term studies on this have been limited,” says Vaynkof. That means what we know about wine’s benefits is not completely set in stone.
Other possible benefits? “Moderate amounts of alcohol (not just wine) are shown to raise levels of HDL (good cholesterol), which are associated with greater protection against heart disease,” explains Keri Glassman, RD, founder of NutritiousLife and The Nutrition School. In case you’re wondering, “moderate” consumption is defined as two alcoholic drinks per day for men and one per day for women—hence the one-glass-a-day rule. “Other possible benefits include reduced risk of strokes, gallstones, and dementia,” Glassman adds.
And now for the bad. One of the biggest issues with alcohol is that people have a tough time sticking to those moderate consumption guidelines. “Incorporating alcohol into a healthy diet can be tricky. For most people, I see that the hardest part is knowing where to start and more importantly—when to stop,” explains Caroline J. Cederquist, MD, author of The MD Factor and co-founder of bistroMD. Plus, the way your body processes alcohol isn’t the same as what it does for food or other beverages. “Your body treats alcoholic beverages like a toxin, meaning that the liver prioritizes the breakdown and removal of alcohol from your system over metabolizing fat, its usual main function,” says Cederquist.
What’s more is that the most current cancer prevention guidelines recommend not drinking alcohol at all if possible. That’s because alcohol is linked to several types of cancer, most notably breast cancer. If you do choose to drink, they suggest following the one-drink-per-day rule for women.
Then there’s the mental health aspect of drinking. Considering that a recent study in JAMA Psychiatry showed that a one in eight Americans meet the criteria for alcoholism (that number jumps to one in four for people under 30), this is a legitimate concern for many people, depending on family history with addiction and their personal relationship with alcohol.
Lastly, Vaynkof points out that consuming high amounts of histamine, which is specifically found in red wine, can trigger migraines in certain people. Yikes.
Let’s get this straight: Alcohol may protect you from certain diseases, but it also raises your risk of others? Okay, then. “It is confusing because some studies show that regular intake of wine can decrease heart disease risk, and other studies show that even one glass of wine a week can increase cancer risk,” notes Cederquist. Overall it’s safe to say that “alcohol is not a health food,” she adds. That doesn’t mean that drinking wine has zero benefits, it just means that it also carries some significant risks, which makes it hard to call it healthy. “In some people, moderate intake may be beneficial, and in others, moderate intake could be harmful,” she points out. “Looking at your own family history could be helpful.”
The Link Between Alcohol and Weight
There’s also a pretty significant link between alcohol and weight. “Alcohol can hinder weight loss and can lead to weight gain,” Cederquist says. That’s possibly because many people don’t think to count drinks as calories consumed. “Patients of mine who would never dream of eating cheesecake are shocked when I tell them that drinking two glasses of wine is the equivalent of eating a small piece of that dessert. Your body doesn’t care if the calories are liquid or solid—they’re still calories, so decide beforehand how many drinks you should have so you won’t regret it the next day.”
And even if you’re not concerned about your weight, “alcohol dehydrates you and ironically, causes water retention, leaving you feeling bloated and puffy,” she says. It’s worth mentioning, though, that when compared to other drinks like a margarita or mojito, wine is a better choice for weight control, due to its lower sugar and calorie content.
The Bottom Line
As you’ve probably gleaned by now, there’s no straightforward answer to whether or not wine is actually good for you. So how can you decide if it deserves a place in your diet? “My general rule is that it completely depends on the person,” says Glassman. “While I’m definitely not in favor of sugary drinks, one alcoholic drink a day can be healthy, depending on the person.” On the list of things to consider: “Does it make you eat more? Does it disrupt your sleep? If yes, then you may need to rethink having that glass of wine. If it doesn’t affect any of these things, you’re not trying to lose weight, and it’s not causing you to gain weight, then have up to one a day safely if you enjoy it as part of a healthy diet. It’s all about the individual.”
Do you follow the one-glass-a-day rule? Tell us why in the comments below.