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French people appear to have lower incident of cardiovascular diseases despite consuming more saturated fats. Does this phenomenon really related to the consumption of red wine, or this is nothing more than statistical illusion?

The “French paradox” is a name and theory that first got under the limelight in 1991, when scientists Serge Renaud and Michel De Lorgeril published a paper in the journal Lancetentitled “Wine, alcohol, platelets, and the French paradox for coronary heart disease”. 

In this now famous article, Renaud and De Lorgeril presented a set of epidemiological data that showed that, despite of their diet rich in saturated fats, French people actually had a low incidence of coronary heart disease.

This seems to be an apparent contradiction, given that the link between elevated consumption of saturated fats and a higher risk of coronary heart disease is well proven. In fact, in the US and the UK, where consumption of saturated fat was essentially similar to France, mortality for coronary heart disease was much higher, which supported what the authors called the “French paradox”.

Possible explanations for French paradox

The findings are there – data don’t lie. But how do scientists explain this? The French paradox implies that one of two things are true: (1) the hypothesis that links saturated fat consumption with the increased risk of coronary heart disease is not entirely or not at all valid; or (2) there are some aspects of the French diet or lifestyle that mitigate the risk of coronary heart disease, regardless of saturated fat consumption.

Naturally, both premises generated a lot of media interest and various investigation projects ensued to try and find the right explanation to the observation at hand. The second premise, in particular, raised much curiosity. If a simple lifestyle or diet factor were behind the “French paradox”, then it would be paramount to identify that elements of  lifestyle and make sure they are established elsewhere to avoid cardiovascular diseases and, as a consequence of that, save millions of lives around the globe.

Red wine consumption might be a key factor

When questioned about the possible explanation of the French paradox, Serge Renaud simply replied “Low-dose alcohol consumption”. More specifically, the consumption of red wine. It appears that the lifestyle factor that differentiates France from other countries is the red wine consumption. Renaud himself found, in the 1970s, that alcohol had some fibrinolitic and atheroprotecting effects. Studies in rats showed that, upon the withdrawal of alcohol, there was a rebound effect and the platelets became stickier than normal. After further study, Renaud reported that alcohol causes a dose-dependent inhibition of adenosine-diphosphate-induced platelet aggregation, the same effect that is achieved by the use of Aspirin. “Aspirin and alcohol share effects and mechanisms”, Renaud stated in 1990.

These findings led to the general acceptance of the fact that even though alcohol consumption in general is not good for our health, moderate doses of alcohol can, in fact, be beneficial for our body.

Now some dieticians and health practitioners do recommend to consume one glass of red wine daily. Many researchers link these recommendations with rapidly growing demand for quality red wine worldwide.

It has been proposed that red wine’s protective effects are due to the fact that, in relation to its alcohol content, red wine has a higher percentage of phenolic compounds (with antioxidant activity) than other drinks. The resveratrol and polyphenol constituents of red wine, in particular, have been the subject of much research.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • FERRIÈRES, J. 2004. The French paradox: lessons for other countries. Heart, 90, 107-111
  • R. CORDER, W. MULLEN, N. Q. KHAN, S. C. MARKS, E. G. WOOD, M. J. CARRIER & A. CROZIE 2006. Red wine procyanidins and vascular health. Nature, 444, 566
  • SIMINI, B. 2000. Serge Renaud: from French paradox to Cretan miracle. The Lancet, 355, 48
  • LAW, M. & WALD, N. 1999. Why heart disease mortality is low in France: the time lag explanation. British Medical Journal, 318, 1471
  • BIANCHINI F & VAINIO H 2003. Wine and resveratrol: mechanisms of cancer prevention? European Journal of Cancer Prevention, 12, 417-25.
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