Click to follow
Occasionally, there is a good piece of news for those of us who think we dwell relatively normal lives and eat relatively normal, traditional diets. I like such people. I like the idea that there is a sensible middle ground between food-and-drink profligacy and the kind of abstemious censoriousness of enjoyment that marks the neo-Puritans of the age. So I celebrated with my fellow-sinners when the so-called "French Paradox" came to light in a paper by S Renaud and M de Lorgeril in the Journal of Internal Medicine about fats and their relation to heart disease.

I've been down to my university's Institute on Lifestyle and Health to have a little chat about this paradox with Dr R Curtis Ellison, its director, and a tall, healthy, vigorous specimen if I ever saw one.

In a nutshell, here are the by now well-established facts. Your chance of dying of heart disease between the ages of 35 and 64 (that is, prematurely) is 37 per 100,000 deaths if you're a Japanese man and 9 per 100,000 if you're a woman. If you're a Catalan, the rates are 67 and 10; if you live in Toulouse, 79 and ????; if you live in Latina (the area around Rome) 102 and l9, but if you live in Glasgow, the comparable rates are 391 and 133, and should you have the misfortune to be Karelian (that area of southeastern Finland that borders on Russia) 493 and 63. Apart from what every male knows - that women are better fated for survival - what derives from these facts? Well, that the Japanese, with their high protein, low-fat diet, and Mediterraneans, who eat less fat, are pretty much on a par.

Now you and I, like Dr Ellison, know that individual variations between human beings are enormous and therefore that to single out any single factor in diet of lifestyle as good or bad is probably wrong when applied across the board. But some generalisations are useful. Compared to the average Brit or American, according to Dr Ellison (and a large body of evidence), the French, a paradoxical people, do the following things which may (or may not) account for their lower rates of cardiac illness. They consume more fruit and vegetables; these are fresher, or consumed raw, or cooked less. They don't snack, but most still eat a serious meal in the middle of the day and then go back to work rather than, as too many here do, eat at night and collapse, exerciseless, in front of the telly. They have more relaxed and longer meals (gradual consumption of fats may help). They use more goose fats or olive oil in cooking than lard, and eat more cheese than they drink milk. They consume more alcohol, more regularly, less manically, and generally with their food.

The last factor is of particular interest to me, a nigh-on 50-year consumer of at least 500 cls of red wine a day with food, and one whose metabolism is so fierce that it consumes alcohol without ever, in living memory, offering any nasty after-effects. The statistics on regular, moderate drinkers, are indeed refreshing. This group does indeed have a reduced incidence of heart disease, and fares better than, in rising order of morality, teetotallers, those who have given up drinking and, obviously, heavy or "binge" drinkers.

Neither Dr Ellison nor anyone else is quite sure why this is so. For all we know, it may be that we steady imbibers are more agreeable, socialising unstressed creatures; or it may be something in the skin of grapes or just plain Factor X. But what we do know, and Dr Ellison asserts, is that the French (and in most respects, the Mediterranean) diet, plus moderate intake of alcohol, especially red wine, with food, is healthy.

Lifestyle institutes are not, however, in the business of promoting alcohol consumption. Excessive alcohol consumption, especially in short bursts, is definitely damaging to the health. But we know that prohibition, and its PC version, prohibitionism, are of little service. Sensibly introducing small amounts of wine-drinking into the diet at an early age may be more sensible.

In this connection, as in this column, the word "moderation" has always been writ large. What does it mean? It means don't over-do and don't under- do, it means understanding and recognising individual differences, it means common sense, it means being civilised. We all know those who pass out on a sip of gin, and those who down a bottle of wine and feel no ill effects. Somewhere between the two - nice, moderate and reasonable - lie most of us. Here's to you