Understanding The French Paradox...

The French Paradox: All the French You Need to Know

Wouldn’t it be great to eat anything you want without worrying about saturated fat and the artery-clogging effects it may cause?  According to three French researchers in the 1980’s this could be possible by doing as the French: eat whatever you want but be sure to drink plenty of wine to undo the damage!  This belief (called the French Paradox) came about when epidemiologists made an interesting discovery.  Although French people were consuming one of the highest fat diets in the world, their death rates from heart attacks and heart disease were lower when compared to similar people in other countries.  Essentially, the French were eating a lot, smoking a lot, and drinking a lot but having less health problems and living longer lives.  This led to the commonly held belief that drinking wine will help lower cholesterol levels, reverse the build-up of plaque in the arteries, and reduce risks of heart disease.  Conversely, we are told that consuming foods high in saturated fats, smoking, and drinking increases our bad cholesterol levels and our risk of heart disease.  So, why were the French seemingly immune from this fact of life?  As suggested by these French gentlemen, many say it was from consuming moderate amounts of wine.   So, is this a hidden fountain of youth or just an illusion created by the research data? 

This intriguing potential benefit of wine-drinking has led to a flurry of interest, and hundreds of research studies have been launched into this phenomenon.  Grapes, and wine by default, contain many heart-healthy substances including phenols, polyphenols/flavonoids, and carotenoids.  They are also a good source of vitamin K, vitamin C, and B vitamins.  One particular flavonoid, rutin, inhibits a protein called protein disulfide (PDI) which can block blood clots from forming.  This antioxidant can decrease risks of stroke or heart attack.  Grapes also have other antioxidants including beta-carotene, vitamin C, and manganese.  Grapes are a natural fiber source which can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce heart disease as well.

Another abundant flavonoid, resveratrol, has been found to have antioxidant effects and is thought by many to be an additional source of the “French Paradox.”  Flavonoids have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines and are associated with helping skin conditions, improving brain function, controlling blood sugar and blood pressure, and for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions.  The grape plant makes this compound to help protect itself from insects, bacteria, and too much UV light.  The highest concentration of resveratrol is found in the grape seeds, stems, and skin.  The flesh of the grape only contains about 5% of the amount found in the seeds and skin.  All varieties and colors of grapes contain some levels of resveratrol, but the highest concentrations are found in the red and blue (Concord) grape and muscadine varieties.  Since white wines do not use the skins during processing, these wines generally don’t contain much resveratrol.  Raisins are also not a good source because much of it is lost during the drying process (not to mention the sugars are four times as concentrated). 

The discovery of resveratrol has led to more research studies into uncovering its health potential.  The enormous amount of research available suggests that resveratrol may have the potential to improve health and prevent/ treat chronic diseases in humans.   Many of these studies suggest that it may have mood and mental performance boosting effects as well as anticancer, anti-allergy, cholesterol/heart disease risk lowering, and weight loss promoting effects.   Other potential benefits include improving acne and skin health, controlling blood sugar, reducing diabetic kidney damage, improving inflammation/arthritis, and helping to control inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).  However, despite a large amount of circumstantial and experimental evidence, definitive clinical studies in humans are largely missing.  Much of the research available is in lab or animal studies (in vitro and in vivo).  These effects do not always transfer over into humans in the same way because of physiological/ biological differences. 

Other studies have shown the exact opposite results.  In one, resveratrol is shown to reverse any of the benefits that other studies say it provides.  The research participants show no positive effects on blood pressure and blood sugar control, and their exercise performance is negatively affected by 45%!  These participants had been working out like crazy, but according to the study results, resveratrol was undercutting their efforts. Critics attribute this to using high-dose capsules of resveratrol rather than more natural sources and dosages.  The 500mg resveratrol doses used in many human trials would equate to about 40 liters of wine. You’d be dead from alcohol poisoning before you could get this experimental dose.  

Another study of people in the Chianti wine region shows no improvement in health could be attributed to resveratrol.  These findings underscore the need to scientifically differentiate a causal relationship from a correlation.  An example of this is provided by Science News for Students:  “Eating more mozzarella cheese shouldn’t make engineering schools hand out more diplomas. Yet between 2000 and 2009, the more mozzarella that Americans downed [ate], the more doctorates in civil engineering that U.S. universities awarded. Over a 10-year period, as levels of one went up, so did the other. The two showed a strong positive correlation. Yet almost certainly this happened by coincidence. One did not cause the other.”  The reverse is true as well.  Study results can certainly be manipulated to control the outcome for commercial interests (like the cholesterol study video reports about butter and eggs at nutritionfacts.org shown here and here).  Resveratrol’s benefits are still being debated today.

Can we possibly avoid paying for our love of high-fat and processed foods by drinking more wine?  Unfortunately, as we all know, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.  Researchers have found that after adjusting for the French diet (historically, they were consuming a modification of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet) and adjusting for the country’s disease reporting these differences in heart disease rates seem to disappear.  Overall, researchers have shown “the French Paradox” to be an illusion.  Chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes take time to develop.  Unfortunately, science has debunked the myth that consuming wine reverses the damages of a bad diet.  Science is a process, often lengthy and drawn out.  But the research process itself can often lead to exciting discoveries along the way.  Without this confounding “French Paradox,” researchers would not have discovered these groups of plant-based compounds for naturally improving our health. Although the French’s advantage appears to be due to a healthier diet rather than wine consumption alone, the studies have not been a waste of time.  This research led to the discovery of a group of plant chemicals that may have health-giving benefits!





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