This past Sunday, 60 Minutes broadcast a story about a chemical they said was the cause of the French Paradox, which refers to the fact that the French have fewer heart attacks than Americans despite a diet higher in alcohol and saturated fats.
The story focused on red wine. The skin of the grapes used to make red wine is notoriously high in a number of phytonutrients including a compound called resveratrol. Since red wine is typically fermented with the skins, its resveratrol concentration is several times higher than that of white.
If resveratrol could be synthesized in the lab and concentrated to increase its potency, then the pill could be sold as a patented pharmaceutical. According to 60 Minutes, two of the researchers who plan to do this have already cashed in, selling their company Sirtris to GlaxoSmithKline for nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars.
With so much capital flowing into our accelerating quest to find the fountain of youth in the form of a pill, doctors dedicated to making their patients healthy by pushing a comprehensive, holistic approach to better living might wonder if they’re in the wrong business. If you want to strike it rich, go for patenting something that could be marketed as a miracle cure-all because, to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, that’s where the money is.
It’s there because, more and more, Americans and their insurance companies are willing to pay, not just because so many of us know someone with a serious medical condition, but because we’ve been trained to chase one “super food” after another. This week it’s Acai. Last week it was Goji berry. The week before, it was noni juice. Rumor has it the next big thing is cinnamon, but the upcoming issue of your favorite health newsletter could change all that.
I call this approach to health Chasing the magic bean. It rests on the belief that human longevity depends on a single, just-now-discovered bean, or berry, or root, or a very special chemical component inside any one of these magic plants.
The flipside of this wild goose chase is when the goose chases you—when you’ve become convinced that a single, naturally occurring substance in food is responsible for all disease, the way saturated fat is often described. The French Paradox has evolved to a boxing match between the two main characters: In the yellow trunks, the evil saturated fat. In the red trunks, our hero, resveratrol. It’s as silly and as staged as professional wrestling, but it’ll keep going on as long as we buy tickets.
Here’s a different approach. In her book French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano argues for falling off the magic-bean treadmill and for falling in love with food. It’s a testimony for the fresh ingredient, the traditional technique, and for sharing meals with friends. In The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner takes this same, wide perspective, choosing not to focus just on single foods but also on the way growing, cooking, and eating are woven into the fabric of a healthy culture. It’s about falling in love with life, which includes all the wonderful foods of the world—not just a handful. It’s a romance for which journalist Michael Pollan has, for years, served as the country’s premier matchmaker, wooing us back to the garden, into our kitchens, and toward the skilled chefs who respect every ingredient as a gift.
Speaking of romance, what about that bottle of red? Can red wine play a role in a healthy, open, and adventurous style of living? In moderation, absolutely. But the real trick is adapting all the best strategies from the healthiest populations on Earth. Not what makes them unique, but what they all have in common. I’ll be discussing these strategies, the truth behind the French Paradox, and more at my free lecture, Rich Cell Poor Cell: How Peasant Foods Can Save Your Life.
Dr. Cate Shanahan and husband Luke are authors of the recently released Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. They will be speaking at the Parish Hall in Kilauea (A.K.A Christ Memorial Church) this wednesday, April 15, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. For more information, contact Andrea Brower at 635-1659.