Fat-fighting wine?

does wine alone explain the French Paradox?

You may recognize resveratrol as a bio-active compound found in wine, grapes, grape juice, some other berries and even peanuts.  You may have heard that resveratrol is the fountain of youth, with miraculous anti-aging, disease-fighting properties.  A lot of this was pure speculation, based on the so-called French Paradox: how do wine-drinking French people eat rich foods and yet avoid obesity, and live longer, healthier lives?  The simplistic conclusion was that the wine was responsible, and scientists went on a quest to discover the magic wine ingredient.  Resveratrol was a good candidate — it’s bio-active and seems to have beneficial anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects.  A few years ago it was shown to extend the life of yeast cells in a laboratory, leading to anti-aging claims and a surge in resveratrol supplement sales.

A new study suggests another mechanism by which resveratrol could exert a beneficial effect: it boosts activity of a hormone called adiponectin, which has anti-obesity/anti-insulin resistance activity.  Adiponectin is secreted by fat cells, and the more obese a person, the less adiponectin is secreted.  Higher levels are associated with lower risk for Type 2 diabetes.  Resveratrol appears to increase adiponectin, by up-regulating gene expression.  The research study used isolated animal cells.

And that could be the catch.
When humans ingest resveratrol, it’s quickly metabolized.  It doesn’t float around in your blood for hours or days, doing good biological deeds.  When scientists do studies on the potential beneficial effects, using isolated cells and unmetabolized resveratrol, they might see beneficial effects that would never happen in a human body.   All the theoretical goodness of resveratrol could be metabolized away.  No telling if any unmetabolized resveratrol ingested from wine or grape juice or supplements actually reaches your cells.

There’s another problem.  Wine isn’t the only thing different about French people’s diets that might contribute to health and long life:  Other major differences include:

  • smaller portions
  • a tradition of regular meals, without all the snacking and between-meal soft drinks common in the US.
  • more balanced meals, with vegetables and fruit
  • more activity built into daily life, such as walking for transportation
  • to repeat: no day-long snacking/drinking habits.  They survive 2 or more hours without consuming something.  Shocking but true.
  • French bread.  Could it be a health food?

Here’s one screaming example of the difference between our food habits and the French: coffee.  Coffee in France is an espresso, maybe a cappuccino: 0 – 25 calories.  Coffee in the US is a ginormous mocha latte with sugar syrup and whipped cream: 400-500 calories.  No Paradox here.  It’s the calories.  So if you’re tempted to buy resveratrol supplements, or start drinking red wine, don’t expect miracles if the other aspects of your diet aren’t more like the French.

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