27 May 1999
Healthy French Hearts Due To Diet Not Wine
British scientists have challenged the theory that France's low death rate from heart disease is due to its high consumption of booze - particularly red wine. In fact the low rate may have more may have more to do with a diet traditionally low in animal fats than to its drinking habits.
Researchers at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine in London released the findings.
Britons have been eating lots of fatty meat, creamy milk and hard cheeses since the turn of the century and have four times as many deaths from heart disease as the French, who adopted a similar diet only in the 1970s.
Smoking can take decades before producing lung cancer, and researcher Dr Malcolm Law and his colleague Nicholas Wald say a similar time lag is involved between an increase in fat consumption and its effect on heart disease.
"We think this long incubation period, this time lag, is the biggest single factor in the difference in heart disease," said Law.
He said that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, including red wine, does help to prevent heart disease. Exercise and quitting smoking are also beneficial, but there is no magic recipe.
Although it take years for heart disease, the number one killer in industrialized countries, to develop, Law said changing to a low-fat diet immediately reduces the risk.
In a report in the British Medical Journal, the researchers compared animal fat consumption, cholesterol levels, alcohol consumption and male deaths from heart disease in 20 industrialized countries.
"We showed that across countries heart disease mortality today correlates much more strongly with animal fat consumption 25 years ago than present day animal fat consumption, in the same way lung cancer correlates strongly with smoking 25 years ago," said Law.
Finland had the highest death rate from heart disease and among the highest levels of animal fat consumption. Japan and France were among the lowest in both categories.
"For decades up to 1970, France had lower animal fat consumption (about 21 percent of total energy consumption versus 31 percent in Britain)," the researchers said in the study.