Red or white wine?
If you’re like many Americans, you’ve been choosing red lately - at least since we learned about the French paradox.
The French paradox is the nutritional puzzle of our era. How, scientists want to know, can the French eat rich, fatty foods and still have the lowest rate of heart disease in the Western world?
The answer, at least back in 1991 when the paradox was first reported on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” seemed to lie in the red wine that many people in France drink on a regular basis.
That explains why Americans quickly changed their drinking habits. Almost overnight, American consumption of red wine doubled - and today red wine accounts for about one-third of all wine sales.
But is red wine the magic tonic? Five years after the French paradox was first reported, experts still aren’t sure. Drinking one or two glasses of wine regularly seems to be important, but there may be many other factors.
“The bottom line? We think it is in their lifestyle pattern and not that the French are a genetically superior race,” said Curtis Ellison, chief of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Boston University and one of the leading researchers on the topic. “Each new study seems to give a little more information. The research suggests that the ingredients in wine not only contribute, but the pattern of consumption is important, too.”
After years of studies, scientists feel certain of this: Wine - both red and white - seems to increase the levels of good, HDL cholesterol, which works on fatty deposits in your arteries much the way Drano works on clogged-up pipes. More important, alcohol seems to keep the blood from clotting - thereby minimizing the chance of strokes.
It helps explain why the French have cholesterol levels higher than Americans - typically in the 200s - yet have half as many fatal heart attacks.
But before you run out and start buying jugs of wine, there are other factors to consider:
First, the French lifestyle is strikingly different from that in America.
“The French are considerably leaner than Americans,” Ellison said. “They have much more regular physical activity. Not that they’re out jogging or going to health clubs, but they’re walking to stores, walking shorter distances. They spend less time, trancelike, in front of the television.”
The French also seem to have much less job-related stress and are less likely to repress their hostility.
Second, the French approach to dining is worlds away from ours.
Although we rush through meals and have even been known to eat standing up, the French view mealtime as sacred and refuse to wolf down their food. Also, the French eat a big lunch and a small dinner so they use most of the calories from lunch during the course of the day.
A tiny portion of rich food may be better for you than a big plate of not-so-rich food.
Sure, the French eat buttery pastries, lots of cheese and food with rich cream sauces. But they don’t eat large portions - and that’s important, says Dave Kritchevsky at Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology at the University of Pennsylvania.
“If you eat a small amount of fat, you’ll stop earlier. Fat makes you feel full,” Kritchevsky said. “One of our problems is that we have these unbelievably huge meals. They may not be high in fat, but they’re huge. I guess when we were a pioneer society, you had to eat like a horse because you worked like a horse. Today, we still eat like horses, but we don’t work like horses.”
The French eat more fruits and vegetables than we do.
And almost as important: They don’t overcook the vegetables and leach out the vitamins. That may be one reason their blood is so rich with antioxidant vitamins. But there’s a wine factor to consider as well. Red wine contains phenolic flavonoids, which are antioxidants, preventing clogging of the arteries.
The French drink small, regular amounts of alcohol each day.
Binge drinking does more harm than good. Consuming more than two drinks a day may reduce coronary heart disease, but it produces higher risks of other cardiovascular diseases and cirrhosis of the liver.
The best advice for those who want to drink wine is this: Drink one or two glasses of wine at least three times a week. But drink the wine with a meal. Fatty meals seem to enhance blood clotting. If you drink wine while eating a fatty meal, you may prevent that from occurring.
Although wine seems to be one of the key ingredients in the French paradox, some researchers caution you to look at the big picture.
What is known as a Mediterranean diet - one that more closely resembles the Italian diet - may be healthier than the French diet, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University.
Studies in which people were put on a Mediterranean diet - in which most of the calories come from fruits and vegetables and olive oil is the principal fat in the diet - found that their risk factors for heart disease dropped. But Nestle notes that people in those studies also exercised a great deal, because that’s a key part of the Mediterranean lifestyle.
Which is precisely the point that Kritchevsky wants to make. He laughs at the notion of the “French paradox.”
“The word paradox suggests that we have this big puzzle,” he said. “The French eat more red meat than anybody in Europe, but have lower heart disease. Well, they only eat three meals a day, they don’t snack much, they don’t eat standing up. They exercise far more than we do. We, on the other hand, overeat and underwork. Where’s the paradox?”