Light drinkers are healthier than either big boozers or teetotallers, according to a major study released on Wednesday on the link between alcohol and cardiovascular disease.
But downing a glass or two of wine or its equivalent every day may not contribute to enhanced wellbeing, researchers cautioned. More likely, it indicates an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
"There's too much talk about the benefits of moderate drinking," said Boris Hansel, a researcher at the Hopital de la Pitie in Paris and lead author of the study.
"I am not saying that you shouldn't drink. But let's stop using health arguments to justify the consumption of alcohol," he told AFP.
Earlier studies have shown a correlation between measured alcohol intake and reduced heart problems, less depression, and even a longer life span.
Some chemicals found in alcohol are thought to slow hardening of the arteries, while the anti-oxidant resveratrol, present especially in red wine, has been shown in animal experiments to boost anti-viral treatments and help fight off ageing.
All of these findings have led to the widespread belief that a generous splash of spirits is good for you.
That may true. But so far no experiments or clinical studies have been able to draw a straight cause-and-effect line between moderate drinking and better health.
To investigate further, Hansel and colleagues examined health records of nearly 150,000 people from the greater Paris area who underwent medical exams between 1999 and 2005.
They split the participants, 47 years old on average, into four groups: those who did not imbibe any alcohol, along with low, moderate and heavy drinkers.
"Light" consumption was defined as less than one 10-gramme dose of alcohol per day, roughly equivalent to a 12-centilitre (3.5-fluid-ounce) glass of wine with an alcohol content of 12 percent. One-to-three such doses was considered "moderate".
Ex-drinkers, often saddled with health problems even after quitting, were excluded to insure a more uniform profile in the "non-drinking" group.
Across a host of indicators, subjects in the two middle categories scored better than those at either extreme: body-mass index (a measure of appropriate weight), cholesterol and sugar levels, cardiovascular disease, heart rate, stress, depression scores, and more.
But the same groups also scored significantly better across a separate range of criteria that had nothing to do with drinking, such as level of physical activity and particularly socio-economic status.
"There is no reason to think that alcohol consumption augments one's social or professional standing," Hansel said.
"What we see, in fact, is that people who drink moderately are people who, at the same time, lead healthier lives."
Consuming alcohol in measured doses, in other words, could simply be a "marker" of superior well being attributable entirely to other factors.
The very ability to drink a little bit but not too much, for example, may in part be genetically determined.
"One could imagine that it shows a superior capacity to manage addiction -- once one starts drinking, after all, it is easy to fall into alcoholism," he added.
The study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the apparent benefits of drinking in combatting heart disease might be a mirage arising from the misinterpretation of data and influences not taken into account.
"In any case, it is clearly premature to promote alcohol consumption as the basis of cardiovascular protection," Hansel said.