What Does the French Paradox Mean for Your Health and Lifestyle?

In the last several decades, red has earned itself a snazzy reputation. Full of antioxidants, this mood-boosting drink has had a seat at humanity’s table for thousands of years. In fact, ancient cultures such as the Egyptians considered wine to be medicinal, excellent for the health, and used it as the base of many of their other medicines.

In the intervening years between then and now, however, alcohol’s popularity took a nosedive due to the temperance movement and wine’s linkage to migraines, reports Bon Appétit. It was also cited as a contribution to overweight, unhealthy lifestyles. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when scientists proposed the French Paradox, that wine’s reputation began to take a turn for the better.

Okay, What’s this French Paradox?

The French paradox states that although French people liberally slather butter on their white bread and their meat and fish, eat lots of rich sauces and seem to consume their weight in cheese every year, they stay thinner than Americans and their rate of lethal coronary heart disease is lower.

Many scientists have promoted the idea that this is because they drink red wine, rich in an antioxidant called resveratrol. Resveratrol lowers the levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, explains the Mayo Clinic, in addition to several other benefits. For instance, it also prevents blood clots (which can lead to heart disease and stroke), and prevents damage to blood vessels (which, when weakened or burst, can lead to death).

Some argue against the role of red wine in the French paradox, however. Stefano Vendrame, writing for the American Society for Nutrition, states that although resveratrol may have a small role in lowering bad cholesterol, increased alcohol consumption comes with other dangers, such as car crash and liver failure. So even if one were to drink more red wine, one’s life may not end up being longer.

Instead, he continues, might not the French paradox stem from the fact that France is known for its veggie-rich culinary traditions? As a culture that loves cooking, the French are known for their array of vegetable dishes (sauced, yes, but still veggie-based) and their abundant use of herbs, which also contribute to health.

Resveratrol and You

Okay, so now you’re totally confused. Let’s try to iron out some of the kinks in this story.

First, know that many scientists have called into question the studies on resveratrol, stating that their findings were inconclusive or simply not impressive enough to warrant telling millions of people to drink more. Fair enough. However, it’s also important to recognize that these studies do exist, and they do prove that red wine in small amounts (about a glass a day, according to most experts) can prove a helpful buffer against coronary heart disease.

Let’s take a closer look at how this works. Tech Insider does a great job explaining why cholesterol is bad for you. The short version? “Bad” LDL cholesterol performs a vital function in your body, but if your liver produces too much of it and the cholesterols start circulating in larger-than-normal amounts in your blood, it can be dangerous or even deadly.

Cholesterol is sticky, and can adhere to other cholesterol molecules or to the walls of your arteries. When it does, it narrows the passage through which blood flows, causing your blood pressure to ramp up as it tries to force the same amount of blood through the space. If pieces of congealed cholesterol break off, you may form a clot, which can cause a heart attack or a stroke.

So where does resveratrol play in? It counteracts this “bad” cholesterol, according to some studies. According to others, it ups levels of “good” cholesterol, which circulate in your blood and ferry the bad cholesterol to the liver, where it can be disposed of and kept out of your bloodstream in future. Recent studies show red wine may not be the only type of alcohol able to perform these services, but the bulk of the research still points to red wine as the best bet.

Resveratrol and Cancer

Resveratrol may do more than simply lower cholesterol and protect your heart, though. Research now indicates that it may also give you a leg up on preventing and defeating cancer.

Interestingly, some studies point to the conclusion that the reason so many other studies were inconclusive about resveratrol’s effects may have been because the doses were too high. In other words, the antioxidant may be most potent in very small doses, such as that found in a large glass of red wine, rather than the concentrated doses given in capsules.

The South China Morning Post reports that in one study, colorectal cancer patients were directed to drink a glass of wine every day for a week, or to take a resveratrol capsule (whose concentration was approximately 200 times higher than that contained in the glass of wine). Resveratrol showed up in the guts of both types of patients during surgery, indicating that a small amount does as much as a large amount. In similar studies conducted on mice, a lower dose of resveratrol blocked tumor growth more effectively than a higher one.

How to French Paradox Your Life

So how should you think about the French paradox in your own life? Well, it’s important not to hop on a booze wagon in the hope that it will solve all your problems. Keep in mind that unless you’re throwing a party, one glass will do it. It’s also good to note that while red wine can be an asset to your health, the French get several other things right too: lots of whole foods, fresh veggies, whole grains and lean proteins.

Another thing the French are good at? Turning a drink into a pastime. This Mediterranean culture is famous for its long meals, al fresco dining and siestas. While we’re not saying you should start taking midday naps (though if you do, more power to you), you may benefit from a deeper relationship with the experience of drinking red wine. Forming a glass-a-day habit may be easier if you have positive associations, and your diet may be better if you follow other French habits, such as eating small dinners and loading up on nuts and legumes.

Researching the vineyard may also improve your health, says the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Grapes that are grown in cooler, wetter climates produce more resveratrol than those grown in drier ones, so avoid wines made in more arid areas. With an American wine, for instance, you might seek one made in Oregon or Washington rather than a California bottle.

Another important item to note: while some studies have shown other alcohol’s to produce the same health-boosting effects, others have not. Research is divided on whether you can count on “good” cholesterol boosting results from beer or white wine. As long as the jury is out, it’s probably safer to lean toward red and minimize your consumption of other alcohols. In time, this research too may be turned on its head, but for now, we recommend you pour that red wine and … bottoms up!