SIRC – Media Watch 03/06/99
Health à la Carte
Just when we thought that embracing the Mediterranean diet would be beneficial to our health, a paper published in the BMJ from the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine advises us to the contrary. But then I suppose that had to come. Recommending red wine would be a rather unusual course of action for the health profession to adopt. Dr Malcom Law and Professor Nicholas Wald submit a new theory to explain the low levels of heart disease experienced by the French. The authors dismiss conventional wisdom, which claims that red wine, garlic and onions may be responsible for this trend and offer 'time lag' factor in the assimilation of serum cholesterol and animal fats as an alternative. Only in the last fifteen years has France's levels approached those of Britain's with the meteoric rise in the fast food industry cited as being primarily to blame. The research suggests that it will take 25-30 years for these new trends to translate themselves into an increase in heart disease.
In the same week however, an article in the New Scientist comes to the rescue of the French staple food. Work by Rex and Christine Munday at New Zealand's Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre suggests that ½ a clove of garlic daily is sufficient to increase the level of stomach enzymes as much as 60% and it is these enzymes that degrade cancer-causing substances. The benefits from garlic, unlike those from our vegetables as it turns out, are only obtained when it is consumed raw. Once again conflicting advice would have us continually readjusting the contents of our shopping baskets and boiling the living daylights out of our veg. Do we really want to recall a penchant for spinach à la school canteen?
A BBC article recognises that strict adherence to media advice would indeed lead to very bizarre diets and practices in the name of cancer avoidance. Studies based on specific effects to rats' immune systems and that only deal with human cells in test tubes are of little value as a tool to determine lifestyle choices. That does not however hinder the ubiquitous nature of their use. Until the results of large scale human studies are published – one is currently under way – the advice at present is to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Personally I think thirty years is a long time to abstain from the pleasures of red wine and garlic, particularly if after that time their research may prove to be inaccurate.