Resveratrol, red wine and the French ‘paradox’ that isn’t a paradox at all

It was hard to miss the story recently which trumpeted the miraculous, health-preserving properties of a plant chemical in red wine known as resveratrol. Recent research conducted at Harvard Medical School in the USA found that feeding mice with resveratrol helped counteract the ill effects of a fatty, calorie-laden diet. Unfortunately, the results of studies in mice (or species such as guinea pigs, rats, monkeys, rabbits and dogs for that matter) do not necessarily transfer to humans. Also despite the headlines such as ‘Red wine helps extend life’ and ”Red wine really is healthy for us’ the fact the dosage of resveratrol used in the recent study in mice is equivalent to drinking about 100 bottles of red wine a day.

The headlines referring to red wine reminded me of the eminently healthy reputation this drink has. It is red wine, we are told, that is the likely reason why French folk who goeat animal fat and have elevated levels of ‘killer’ cholesterol in their bloodstreams have general immunity to heart disease. The supposed health-giving properties of red wine usually quoted as an explanation for this French ‘Paradox’. My blog on 27th October [click here] that alcohol is beneficial to health. So is red wine any better?

A close look at the evidence reveals that wine drinkers, compared to those who generally choose other forms of alcohol (beer and spirits) tend to eat healthier diets and smoke less too [1-3]. It seems it’s not the wine drinking per se, but other factors associated with red wine drinking that account for the apparent ‘benefits’ of wine drinking.

And anyway, the whole concept of the French Paradox is based on the notion that eating animal fat and having raised levels of cholesterol is perilous for health. Which it isn’t. For more about this, see the piece on the French ‘Paradox’ I’ve added below.

As I’ve stated previously, I take no pleasure in revealing that the ‘benefits’ of alcohol have been seriously overstated. Part of the reason for this is the fact that I drink myself, and sometimes even get drunk. One simple strategy for those who want to ‘dilute’ any negative impact alcohol may have in the body is to match each, say, glass of wine with one of water. This can also help reduce the risk of hangover ” a subject I suspect I’ll be covering in more depth in December.

Observer Column ” 20th April 2003

Anyone who takes more than a passing interest in the role of diet in health will inevitably become aware of inconsistencies and contradictions that crop up from time to time. One famous and oft-quoted nutritional anomaly in the so-called French Paradox: while the French consume more than their fair share of fat and tend to run elevated levels of cholesterol in their blood streams, their propensity to heart disease remains stubbornly low. While a few explanations for this phenomenon have been mooted, including a preponderance of red wine in the diet, it remains a mystery why our European neighbours appear to get away with a diet famously rich in cheese, red meat and foie gras.

This week, I thought I’d have a stab at getting to the bottom of the French Paradox, starting with a look at the premise on which it is based. Conventional wisdom dictates that a diet rich in saturated fat found in animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy products, and the higher blood levels of cholesterol this is said to induce, increase the risk of the artery-furring process that gives rise to heart disease. This concept dates back to 1953, when an American researcher by the name of Ancel Keys published a study showing that the higher the level of animal fat in a nation’s diet, the greater its rate of heart disease. Other research performed over the last half-century have shown similar results, and have been bolstered by additional studies linking higher levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream to increased risk of heart disease too.

However, the case against saturated fat and cholesterol may not be as open-and-shut as we have been to believe. When Keys published his seminal study 50 years ago, he focused on just a handful of countries. However, at that time, data from 22 countries existed, which suggests Keys had been a tad selective about the evidence he presented. Actually, much of data Keys omitted did not fit into the neat little concept he was keen to popularise. For instance, despite similar fat intakes, heart disease deaths in Finland were found to be seven times higher than in Mexico. Also, subsequent studies have found enormous variance in heart disease rates within countries, despite consistent blood cholesterol levels. A wider look at the evidence suggests that the association between animal fat and heart disease is far from clear cut.

There is evidence, though, that cholesterol-reducing medications known as statins can reduce the risk of heart disease. These findings are often cited as evidence that fat and cholesterol really do cause heart disease. However, some researchers have suggested that the disease-protective benefits of statins come not from their cholesterol-quelling action, but from other biochemical effects they are known to have in the body. This concept is supported by the fact that studies designed to assess the effects of cholesterol-reducing diets have failed to find consistent benefits. The bottom line is that eating animal fat and having lofty levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream may not be the potent risk factors in heart disease they are generally regarded to be. The real explanation for the French Paradox could well be that it is really no paradox at all.

References:

1. McCann SE, et al. Alcoholic beverage preference and characteristics of drinkers and nondrinkers in western New York (United States). Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2003;13(1):2-11

2. Tjonneland AM, et al. The connection between food and alcohol intake habits among 48, 763 Danish men and women. A cross-sectional study in the project Food, cancer and health. Ugeskr Laeger 1999;161(50):6923-7

3. Barefoot J C, et al. Alcohol beverage preference, diet and health habits in the UNC Alumni Heart Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76(2):466-72

2 Responses to Resveratrol, red wine and the French ‘paradox’ that isn’t a paradox at all

  1. anthony 29 January 2007 at 3:40 am #

    You may want to have folks check Resveratrol out in the online encyclopedia, as it has info on foods, supplements, and the science behind it. It seems like you’ll need a supplement or be a drunk… :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resveratrol

    thanks
    Anthony

  2. John 9 August 2008 at 7:34 pm #

    I think people are going to be baffled by the human digestive system for years to come.
    The FRENCH PARADOX was interesting because they said that the French consumed more Alcohol than us but had the least alcohol related deaths – Red wine (which is what is mainly drunk there) was the reason as it contained Polyphenols which cleared their veins.
    I really believed that ! And now it seems as though the data was picked by Ancel Keys !
    Its like with diets – they prefer to pick & choose that !

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