The French Paradox


Yes, I\’m banking on the French Paradox, a phenomenon first noted by an Irish doctor in the early 19th century. It refers to the relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease among French adult males, even though their diet tends to be high in saturated fats.

It is suggested that the explanation lies in their regular consumption of red wine, one of the ingredients of which – resveratrol – is believed to help fight cancer, heart problems and degenerative nerve diseases.

Not entirely sure about that. I\’ve heard an alternative explanation. Spcifically about the Gascon diet. That people in that region have been eating a diet very high in animal fats for a couple of thousand years: those genetic markers for diseases caused by such a diet have been bred out of the population as those with them died before reproducing some 1500 or more years ago.

I\’d rather, of course, believe the red wine story (indulging as I do in a copa or three to wash down the churrasquera here) but I\’m not wholly convinced. Does anybody know whether studies have been done on immigrants to such high fat eating areas to tease out whether it is genetic or wine based?

10 thoughts on “The French Paradox”

  1. “bred out of the population as those with them died before reproducing some 1500 or more years ago.”

    Hmmn. I’m not sure that there are many thoroughbred Gauls left.

  2. The Gascon diet is high in Duck + Goose fat which has a lower amount of saturated fat than than butter / lard used in English cooking. It also contains more monosaturated fat than the others, which so I am told is good for you…

  3. “It is suggested that the explanation lies in their regular consumption of red wine”

    That assessment may owe more to the hugely active wine producers lobby in France than to science.

    There are several possible contributing factors to a lower rate of coronary disease besides wine drinking – such as more fish in the regular diet and the infamous liking for garlic seasoning in stews and salads. Besides, I believe wine consumption – as well as the incidence of alcohol related diseases – have been declining in France.

    Whatever the reasons, average life expectancy in France is somewhat longer than in Britain but then that could be due to them having more physicians per head of population than in Britain.

  4. So Much For Subtlety

    Perhaps it has more to do with bonking the neighbour’s wife? The problem with these number crunching exercises is that there could be any number of factors. I’d like to think the Red Wine one was true, and even if it isn’t I’m going to go on behaving as if it was. But few of these sorts of studies meet even basic credibility levels. They need to show a consistent association – so the more red wine you drink, the better off you are. At least up to some point. And conversely, the more bacon you eat the worse you are. I know of no such study. What they tend to prove is that poor people are less healthy than middle class people but don’t bother to think of other reasons why that might be. These studies are an abuse of statistics. But I am also going to believe the bit about bonking the neighbour’s wife.

    As far as the Gascons go, what is the evidence that they have been eating a fat rich diet for more than 200 years if that? For most of the last 2000 their diet has probably consisted of bread. With some vegetables. And perhaps a little meat. Maybe a kilogram or two of bread a day. Maybe some of what we would now call weeds to go with it. And perhaps a smear of animal fat.

  5. “The problem with these number crunching exercises is that there could be any number of factors.”

    Which is why we have “Multivariate staistics” and “multivariate analysis”:

    This is why pharmaceutical companies have to go to all the expense and trouble of conducting trials for new drugs to gain approval from the relevant licensing authorities.

    Of course, as an alternative we could just accept the promotional claims that their latest drugs are truly miraculous, wonder drugs – until the bodies start mysteriously piling up and then sort out the issues through (expensive) litigation.

  6. So Much For Subtlety, they don’t have to show a consistent relationship, they have to show it exceeds that which is expected by chance. As Bob B points out, there are some pretty sophisticated statistics to tease the patterns from the noise and these can even allocate how much of the spread of the data is determined by a particular factor.

    Presently, we know that both genetic and lifestyle factors, particularly diet and income class in the latter, play a role in the incidence of disease and health. However, we’re still putting together the vast web of different influences. Thus I’d ignore any article claiming that the key to preventing X is Y. We’ve got enough for broad guidelines, most of which align with commonsense, and the rest is just conjecture.

    I doubt the genetic gallic diet argument. These diseases tend to affect people later in life and particularly males. The influence on reproductive capacity would be low and the timeframe of a thousand odd years is short. I’m a bit of believer that natural selection has been swamped by cultural evolution in humans for most of recorded history.

  7. ” been bred out of the population” .. seems a bit dodgy. If a population experiences a harmful environment then one would indeed expect some adaptation, but not to the point where it becomes so inurred to the harmful environment that it is less harmed than a population in a benevolent environment.

  8. So Much For Subtlety

    Well yes Bob B, real statistics can tease out causal factors with real precision. But as I was trying to point out, I know of no diet-related health scare of recent times where they have done that. They find some weak association and leap for the press release. Pharmaceutical companies are held to a level of proof that no diet based study has ever met – at least none that I know of. Maybe smoking. You can see this by the simple fact that every single study that attempts to reduce the intake of cholesterol actually ends up killing more people (often by suicide) but the government continues to recommend reducing cholesterol. This is a science-free value judgement.

    As it happens I think we ought to make more drugs more readily available. The safety measures put in place after thalidomide make it very hard for drugs to get approval, and as everyone points out, drugs like aspirin or even penicillin would not get approval now. But that is a different argument.

    Philip Thomas, I still think they need to do a lot more than they do to prove anything. As the cliche goes a simple increased chance is correlation, but not necessarily causation. It is certainly true that good mathematics can tell you a lot about the data but I still see no sign they are trying to use said maths properly, or at all, or that a better analysis proves anything so much as just gives a better picture. Take smoking for instance. It is true that the more you smoke, the higher your risk of lung cancer. That is telling. Is that true for junk food? Has anyone even tried to find out? There may be any number of reasons that poor people are more likely to die early *and* eat junk food, but it does not mean that the latter causes the former. If you look at, for instance, child mortality, what looks like a wealth gap turns out to be mostly an accident gap (plus some SIDs). There are obvious reasons for that.

    I am happy with broad guidelines and common sense. But that is precisely what the government has rejected. Five portions of fruit a day? Come on. Where’s the evidence of this? How can they be so precise? Obviously they cannot. They are making it up as they go along – as with the alcohol guidelines as we have all learnt these last few weeks. The only sensible medical advice on diet is moderation in everything you like and a little bit of exercise. Apart from not smoking and not taking known poisons, I don’t believe there is a scientific basis for any other medical claim.

  9. As a scientist I would argue that the fault lies in how the science is publicised and politicised rather than inherent failings of the research and its analysis. Of course, because the public only encounter the former and never the latter, the point is academic.

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