Are The Benefits Of Resveratrol A Myth?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues, Supplements and Health

Is Resveratrol Dead?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Red WineIt seems like just a few years ago that the headlines were proclaiming that resveratrol, a polyphenol found in red wines, grapes and chocolate, was the latest “super nutrient”. It was going to make you younger, smarter and healthier. You probably knew that all of the claims being made at the time could not be true.

But the latest headlines are claiming that resveratrol health benefits are all a myth. Has the resveratrol bubble burst? Was it all just hype?

Before you decide that resveratrol supplements are just a waste of money, let me take you behind the scenes and evaluate the latest study objectively. Let’s talk about what it showed, and didn’t show. But, before we look at the study, let’s review the history of resveratrol.

How Did The Resveratrol Story Get Started?

The resveratrol story started in the 1990’s when Dr. Serge Renaud at Bordeaux University coined the term “French Paradox” to describe the fact that cardiovascular disease incidence was relatively low in the French population despite the fact that they consumed diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

People immediately started asking what could possibly explain this discrepancy between the US and French populations? In other words, what could be protecting the French population from their high fat diet? One obviously difference between the French and Americans is that the French consume a lot more red wine – or at least they did before the “French Paradox” publicity turned red wine into a health food. Based on that difference, Dr. Renaud proposed that the French Paradox was due to the high red wine consumption in France.

But, red wine is an alcoholic beverage and overconsumption of alcoholic beverages is a major health problem for many people. And, while alcohol does have some cardiovascular benefits, alcohol consumption was pretty constant across countries.

So the next logical question was what other ingredients in red wine might explain their supposed health benefits. Polyphenols appear to have numerous health benefits, and resveratrol is the major polyphenol in red wine. So resveratrol became the “poster child” for the health benefits of red wine.

Even so, for years resveratrol was a “niche” supplement. It had a loyal following, but it wasn’t a big player in the nutritional supplement market. All that changed in 2009. Dr. David Sinclair at Harvard University had been studying genes that slow the aging process. He had screened thousands of naturally occurring small molecules in hopes of finding some that could turn on those anti-aging genes.

He announced that resveratrol and a few related polyphenols were the most potent activators of those anti-aging genes, and he went on to publish studies showing that resveratrol could help obese mice live longer and lean mice be healthier. All of a sudden resveratrol became a superstar.

But, does resveratrol also work in humans? There are many clinical studies that suggest it does. That’s why I was surprised by the recent headlines proclaiming that the supposed health benefits of resveratrol were myths. So once again, let’s look at the study behind the headlines.

Are The Benefits Of Resveratrol a Myth?

The study behind the headlines (Semba et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, doi: 10.1001/jamainternalmed.2014.1582) followed 783 men and women aged 65 years or older from the Chianti region of Italy for 9 years. None of the participants were taking resveratrol supplements. The investigators estimated resveratrol intake by measuring the concentrations of resveratrol metabolites in the urine.

The investigators measured all cause mortality and the prevalence of heart disease and cancer over the 9 year period and found no correlation between those outcomes and urinary resveratrol metabolites. From those data the authors concluded that “Resveratrol levels achieved with a Western diet did not have a substantial influence on health status or mortality risk of the population in this study.”

The Strengths And Weaknesses of The Study

There are really two important questions – what are the strengths and weaknesses of the study and what does the study actually show?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the study?

  • A major strength of the study was the measurement of urinary resveratrol metabolites rather than relying on the less accurate dietary recall – although it should be noted that the assays used are relatively new and could benefit from further validation.
  • The main weakness is that it was a relatively small study in a relatively homogeneous population. Most of the resveratrol consumed by this population came from red wine and even the group with the lowest resveratrol intake was drinking 2-3 glasses of red wine per week (You don’t find many teetotalers in the wine growing regions of Italy).

What does the study actually show?

  • The level of resveratrol metabolites in this population directly correlated with alcohol consumption. And, the authors of the study concluded that since the study was done in the Chianti region of Italy, most of the resveratrol came from red wine. So the study actually suggests that red wine consumption has no effect on heart disease, cancer or longevity – in direct contradiction to Renaud’s French Hypothesis.
  • The conclusion that the amount of resveratrol one can obtain from diet alone is unlikely to provide health benefits needs to be replicated in a much larger population group with a wider range of resveratrol intakes from a wider variety of foods before it can be considered definitive.
  • Even if the amount of resveratrol in food does offer no significant health benefits, that information provides little or no guidance when we consider resveratrol supplements, which generally provide much higher levels of resveratrol.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Don’t pay too much attention to the headlines saying that the health benefits of resveratrol are a myth. The study behind the headlines was a small study in a relatively homogeneous population. If anything, it debunked the hypothesis that red wine consumption is responsible for the French Paradox.

2)    The study did suggest that the amount of resveratrol one can obtain from diet alone is unlikely to provide significant health benefits. While that may be true, it is irrelevant when considering resveratrol supplements because they provide much higher amounts of resveratrol.

3)    The clinical studies on resveratrol supplements are very encouraging, but not yet definitive (see, for example, my “Health Tips From the Professor” article on resveratrol and blood sugar control. That’s to be expected at this stage. It generally takes decades of studies before the scientific community reaches consensus on anything. In the meantime you will continue to see alternating headlines proclaiming the miracles and the myths of resveratrol.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (3)

  • Mike Lucas

    |

    Great insight Dr. Chaney.

    Thanks Mike

    Reply

  • Peggy Mathews

    |

    I think probiotics can help with this problem but not without eating in a paleo type manner while utilizing special supplements to reestablish good gut flora by digesting the overgrowth of not so good stuff to allow the recolonization of good stuff. I think we need to remember this is being passed on from one generation to another while in utero and through food choices with baby. It’s generational affects are cumulative. Families with genetically “lean” flora would have difficulty relating to the problems other families are facing. It’s not as simple as calories in…calories out. Chronic inflammation is an epidemic and thankfully lifestyle modifications are growing rapidly.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Peggy,
      This a new area of research so we need to be careful not to get ahead of the science. We don’t know yet which supplements might support the “lean” gut bacteria. It’s not clear that the paleo diet would be ideal for this purpose. Most of the diets that have been shown to support the “lean” gut bacteria are lower in meat and higher in fresh fruits and vegetables than the paleo diet. Finally, it is not clear whether inflammation is a cause or a consequence of obesity.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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