You may (or may not) have noticed my absence over the past couple of weeks. Many thanks to Lynn for holding down the fort! I’ve been on a big adventure in Argentina where Don and I were invited to a family wedding. Since then, we’ve been traveling with our cousins Doug and Dolores in Patagonia, the southernmost region of the country. As I write this, I’m sitting in the empty restaurant of our hotel – one of the few spots where I can pick up the internet. Amazingly, I am staring at the very end of a huge and ancient icefield: the Perito Merino glacier, which stops suddenly at Lake Argentina. Each day, the glacier calves off huge chunks of ice that fall into the lake with bangs, pops and ear splitting roars.
Earlier this year I wrote about the smaller size of people in France, and I must say that I’ve observed a similar phenomenon here. Argentinians are not generally overweight, even though their diet is heavy in beef, pork, lamb, cheese and other foods that Americans tend to think of as no- nos. As in France, the life here remains closer to the earth. More people eat primary foods. There is very little fast food and there doesn’t seem to be much eating between meals. On the other hand, obesity must be increasing because there are diet gurus establishing themselves and celebrities doing public weight-loss make-overs.
At our last stop in the beautiful mountain town of Bariloche, we had the opportunity to spend several days on an “estancia” which is a sort of country estate. There we met Ines and her husband Jorges who were on vacation from Buenos Aires. Ines said that, with the exception of weddings and other social events (where huge quantities of food are served), people in Argentina tend to eat in a restrained way. She herself is a follower of physician Dr. Maximo Ravenna, who is a very well-known figure here, perhaps a kind of Argentinian Dr. Atkins. His low carb diet is much debated and discussed. (It was interesting to read some of the local blogs about him.)
Ines told me that her average day includes mostly fruits, vegetables, fish and a kind of light, soft cream cheese that is popular here. She has had some difficulty with her weight in the past, but is slim by American standards and watches herself. Ines and Jorge are both elegant people with tremendous warmth, a characteristic that is common to most of the Argentinians we’ve met. Just as we observed in France, there seems to be more value placed here on simplicity and restraint than we have in the U.S. For us at home, so much is about consumption and grandness. This has gotten us into trouble both financially and physically.
At the estancia, a good deal of each meal came straight from a large vegetable garden. Raspberries were abundant, so we were treated to every form of raspberry concoction, from raspberry sauce, to raspberry tarts, to raspberry sherbet. All of the greens, vegetables, tomatoes and tiny potatoes were home grown and most of the meats here are grass fed, making them slightly tougher, but extremely flavorful. Argentina also has some excellent wine making areas and produces very good merlots, malbecs and several white wines. I generally don’t have wine every day, but have been drinking more here while on vacation.
In the midst of all this wine consumption, Lynn wrote to ask whether I had seen the recent 60 Minutes segment on resveratrol. For those of you who are unfamiliar with resveratrol, it’s a substance found in the skin of red grapes. It appears to have a powerful antioxidant effect. More provocative, though, is its ability to activate a gene which may retard aging: the Sirtuin gene. Its effects are only manifest, however, when doses approximate the amount of resveratrol found in 1000 bottles of wine per day!!!
Much has been made of resveratrol and it has been the topic of much speculation. I’ve never been sure just what to think of it. The 60 Minutes piece only adds to my ambivalence. You might say that I am not a fan of cures that involve a “magic pill.” While I am not opposed to truly miraculous medical solutions for our ills, experience remains a good teacher. Individual potions, pills, nostrums and even scientifically proven cures tend to approach only one tentacle of a complex problem. The body, being a highly diverse and redundant mechanism, often responds by creating another problem.
David Sinclair is a Harvard biochemist and that gives him a good deal of credibility. I have enormous respect for the Harvard medical community which is generally one where brilliance and high integrity flourish. Perhaps Sinclair has really discovered something. But the 60 Minutes piece does not give me the evidence. In fact, it raises a number of red flags.
First, many people postulate that red wine is the reason for the so-called “French Paradox,” the seeming contradiction between an atherogenic diet and a low incidence of heart disease. Sinclair himself discusses the fact that he was excited by finding that resveratrol was present in wine, as it might explain this paradox. But how can resveratrol at the tiny doses found in wine have any effect if it takes doses that are many thousands of times greater to see any effect experimentally?
Second, the Sirtris scientists claim that their new pill can treat the diseases of aging. They then reference a study of 96 diabetics in India. While some effects were seen in the way treated diabetics handled dietary sugar (as measured by a glucose tolerance test), there was no statistically significant change in their fasting blood sugar measurements when compared to controls. Statistical significance is the name of the game in scientific research. These results are not mind blowing, that’s for sure. Perhaps there was no additional time to address other studies but one would think that in this forum the strongest results would be presented. In this particular news segment, the mouse that ran further on the treadmill was the most robust evidence presented.
Third, my computer, receiving a signal in Patagonia, froze up on the part of the tape that showed the data regarding the Indian study above. While I was waiting, I had time to read the papers which were displayed on the screen. Both showed reports of the study that were published, not in scientific journals, but in announcements of meetings for investors. One was publicity for the JP Morgan Society Health Conference which is described as follows on its web page:
This event is the premier conference of its kind, bringing together established industry leaders, emerging fast-growth companies, innovative technology creators and globally minded service providers. This year we expect more than 300 companies, both public and private, to deliver presentations to more than 3,500 investors. The format is 30-minute presentations followed by 30-minute Q&A sessions in a separate room.
As the 60 Minutes segment makes clear, Sirtris is big business. It’s sale to GlaxoSmithKline brought a neat three-quarters of a billion dollars. This figure says less about the potency of this wonder drug than about our American desire to have our cake and eat it too. Any savvy drug company knows that a pill that promises us a way to eat French fries, cheesecake and hamburgers while staying eternally youthful will make them eternally rich. Resveratrol just has to work modestly to be a winner.
Look, I could be totally wrong and resveratrol could make us all live to 250. But as I sit here looking at this glacier, a field of ice that is millions of years old, certain things seem to me to be painfully obvious. How can we deny that we are part of this huge, wild, overwhelming planet? And why would we want to? Eating more naturally, getting out into nature, following the rhythms of the planet, staying the lean beings we are designed to be: these are the true measures of health and balance that I see. And they have the added benefit of allowing us to feel truly balanced and whole. From where I’m sitting, we can’t “beat” nature. Perhaps we need to align ourselves with it, not find ever more ways to fight against it.