When you think of France you probably picture fabulous foods such as buttery croissants, fluffy pastries, creamy cheese wheels and fatty liver pâté. All of these foods, and the French diet in general, are jam-packed with saturated fats.
Unless you’ve been under a nutritional rock the past few years, you probably know. that saturated fats are bad for you. They are linked to a slew of chronic diseases including coronary heart disease (CHD). So how is it possible that France, a country with a diet especially high in saturated fats, also has one of the lowest rates of fatalities from coronary heart disease?
Why are the French able to eat three times as much fat as Americans, and yet they are thinner and have a lower incidence of heart disease than we do? There are several interesting reasons for this paradox.
The French paradox is a catchphrase first used in the late 1980s, that summarizes the apparently paradoxical epidemiological observation that French people have a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD) while having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats, in apparent contradiction to the widely held belief that the high consumption of such fats is a risk factor for CHD.
The paradox is that if the thesis linking saturated fats to CHD is valid, the French ought to have a higher rate of CHD than comparable countries where the per capita consumption of such fats is lower.
Identifying and Quantifying the French paradox
The French and other Europeans demonstrate the benefits of dining in a relaxed state. During the early afternoon, the French and many other Europeans take hours to eat lunch. Lots of high-fat food and wine is served, and the meal tends to be the largest of the day.
However, the ingredients are fresh, and the company is enjoyable; there are conversation and engagement. They are dining rather than simply eating. They are experiencing pleasure. The body is aware of eating and digestion occurs. This presents quite a contrast to the fast food, rushed lunch “minutes” Americans tend to experience.
The paradox between the high-fat, alcohol-rich diet and the excellent weight and health of the French has been confounding researchers for years. Diseases such as heart disease were supposed to increase as people ate more fat. Thus the search for the “magic bullet” in the French diet was conducted in earnest.
De-coding the French paradox
Was it the wine?
Was it the quality of the fats?
Was it the fresh ingredients?
The answer is yes to all of these factors. But there is more.
“First and foremost the French consistently eat under parasympathetic dominance (opposite of the stress response ), the physiological state of relaxation and maximum digestive function. Even if they are stressed out, taking a generous amount of time to eat a meal and savour it probably helps them let go. It is the optimum state of digestion and assimilation.”
Polyphenols in red wine may protect omega-3s in blood, leading to a healthier heart, according to Italian researchers from the University of Milan. The researchers found that the wine polyphenols increased the resistance to oxidation of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA more than that of the omega-6 AA. During oxidation, the red wine polyphenols also delayed the increase of the ratio between AA and EPA.
There are many other ingredients that could explain the low rates of heart troubles. For instance:
• The French are the fifth highest consumers of fish and seafood in the world, which adds a huge boost of omega-3s to their intake. These special fats steady the heart’s beating, minimise the risk of arrhythmia and keep our tiny blood vessels supple and ‘elastic’.
• The French love garlic and add it in generous quantities to just about everything. The French are masters at garlic consumption, which has been under study for years for its cholesterol-lowering effect.
• The French shun Western-style fast foods such as burgers and fries with their ‘bad’ trans fat and over-processing.
• The French rarely snack but prefer to dine properly on three main meals without anything in between. Vegetables and salad are always part of their meals.
• The French eat small portions of most things, even though their cuisine is rich and high in fat.
Another popular theory is that the French attitude towards food fosters a healthy environment around it, specifically, mindful eating and small portions. Rather than quickly shovelling food into your mouth, mindful eating means that you think about your food and eat for the pleasure of it.
Mindful eating also means that you consider your emotions before eating to determine if you are actually hungry or just emotional. I think we can all agree that emotional eating never ends well.
How mindful an eater are you ?
The French are also famous for their small portions. Eating saturated fats isn’t great, but limiting the amount you consume can definitely help your body process them. After all, the American Heart Association suggests limiting them, not eliminating them altogether.
For years, food scientists have researched this paradox, and for years and everyone has held on to their own theory. There is enough information floating around to write a book—several actually—and, of course, many people have. But with all available information and a wide spectrum of opinions, it’s up to you to take everything with a grain of salt and form your own position on the ever-perplexing French Paradox.
Listen to the French Paradox :
By Priyanshi Bhatnagar