Is the French Paradox a Myth?


The French paradox is the peculiar observation of low coronary heart disease death rates in France despite the high intake of dietary saturated fat and cholesterol. France citizens are famous for their chain smoking, fatty food intake and their consumption of quality red wine. Despite consuming fatty foods such as buttery croissants, meat pastries, pommes frites and Mousse au chocolat on a regular basis, the French are able to stay thin and have low mortality rates associated with heart disease.

 

Red wine consumption has been thought by many to be the main reason why heart disease mortality rates in France are low compared with the rest of the world. Ever since 1992 when Dr Serge Renaud from the Bordeaux University described the relationship of low mortality heart disease rate with a high-fat diet and certain levels of wine consumption, there has been considerable research done (Nutraingredients, 2009).

 

It is my belief that the French paradox is a myth. Factual evidence including red wine intake with its heath benefits, the dietary components of meals eaten, portion sizes of the meals and the lifestyle of the average French person support my belief that the French paradox is in fact just a balanced way of living.

Croissnat Breakfast Aix-en-Provence
Croissnat Breakfast Aix-en-Provence

David Sinclair from Harvard published in the 2003 Nature magazine that resveratrol increased the survival of yeasts and could be a molecule that could have life extension properties. Studies undertaken in nematode, fish and mice have shown that there is a strong indication that resveratrol contributes to longer lives. Other studies have shown resveratrol to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects. These interesting reports have led researchers and leading scientists to say that resveratrol could be a very important molecule to humanity. D. Das, PhD, from the University of Connecticut believes that resveratrol is a very promising molecule and “sure that resveratrol is behind the French Paradox” (Nutraingredients, 2009).

 

A recent study suggests that stress induces vines to produce components such as resveratrol to promote cell survival. This is achieved by altering metabolism to protect vital cellular components. The theory then states that once animals eat these stressed plants there are life-preserving effects on their own cells (Juvenon, 2012). This research could support the connection of the life preserving molecule resveratrol with low coronary heart disease mortality rates. In 1997 research showed a reduced risk of death from heart disease with up to two drinks per day, but the data also showed an increased death rate with more than three drinks per day. This study was undertaken in America with 490 000 adults surveyed (Wineanorak, 2012). Even thou red wine is believed to be good for the health it must be noted that it should be consumed with moderation.

Boeuf Bourguignon Le Domaine Fauvin-Robin Beaujolais
Boeuf Bourguignon Le Domaine Fauvin-Robin Beaujolais

Although the French have a diet that includes fatty foods high in cholesterol, they also include significant amounts of healthy foods with their meals. Compared with the English and American people, French people consume two to three times more soluble fiber, which comes from pulses such as chickpeas, fruit, vegetables and whole grains. These fibers are a good source of ant-oxidants and help balance the consumption of high-saturated fatty foods. Even thou the French diet contains large amounts of animal protein, the dishes usually are accompanied by large salads layered with vegetables. The French also have plenty of unsaturated fat in their diet, such as olives and nuts. Foods such as peanuts contain high levels of resveratrol similar to that of red wine. As stated above, resveratrol is beneficial to the health and is believed to be an ant-aging molecule.

 

The French also include significant amounts of Goose and Duck fat in their cooking, which have nutritional components similar to that of olive oil. Olive oil has approximately 76% monounsatu-rated fat and 15% saturated fat. Goose fat is similar with 56% monounsaturated fat and 27% saturated fat. Butter on the other hand has only 33% monounsaturated fat and a significant 63% saturated fat (Diet, 2012). Another trial conducted in Lyon illustrated the importance of fish associated with the French diet. It was said that fish and plants rich in alpha-linolenic acid were significant contributions to the healthy diet of the French (Cardiovascular Research, 2012).

Food Markets Aix-en-Provence
Food Markets Aix-en-Provence

The French may have a diet high in fat, but they consume less calories than countries such as America. Statistics such as the obesity rate is a good indication about diets of different countries. In France 11% are obese compared with 30% in America. It is obvious that portion sizes play a major factor with difference in obesity. Portion sizes in France are almost a third to a half of American portions. An example of this is the croissant. In Paris a croissant weighs approximately 30g, while in America it is approximately 60g (Diet,2012).

 

Other research indicate that the true French mediterranean diet in the south of France, contrasts with the perceived ’French Paradox’ with low fat foods, small amounts of red meat and larger portions of fish and olive oil. This diet emphasises the importance of fresh fruit and vegetables and includes modest wine consumption with the meals (French Paradox Report, 20).The majority of the French do consume foods with high levels of saturated fat but this is eaten in such a way and with healthy foods and red wine that the risk of low coronary heart disease is limited.

 

Wine store Aix-en-Provence
Wine store Aix-en-Provence

The lifestyle and eating habits of French people have not changed much in recent times. The majority of people take their time when eating meals and they usually eat home-cooked meals. Accompanied with these meals is usually wine, which is consumed in moderation. The French also do not snack like the Americans and English people do or binge drink (Diet, 2012).

 

A significant amount of fresh and natural French foods are produced in the kitchen garden of many families. Gardening is very popular in France with approximately 30% of French adults choosing to regularly garden. The main motivation of the French gardeners is to grow fruits and vegetables for the family consumption whereas most other western populations use gardening to showcase beautiful flowers and lawns. Another interesting factor concerning the French paradox is the cultural importance of food in the daily life of French people. Food is seen as an important contributor to physical well-being and a source of decreasing stress levels and increasing pleasure. The people who associated food most with health and least with pleasure were the Americans, whereas the French people were more inclined to be pleasure-oriented and less health-oriented.

 

The way the French drink wine, every day, during meals and with company is very different from other western countries, where binge drinking and on-the-go food is common. Binge drinking is often viewed as trying to forget a hard life, whereas drinking moderate amounts of wine regularly is often associated with pleasure and a happy lifestyle (Cardiovascular Research, 2012).The French lifestyle may be the key to the French paradox which, however, seems to be changing as lifestyle habbits and interests for gardening and home-made food change in France (French Paradox report, 20).

 

To conclude, when looking at the ‘French paradox’, it is obvious that the reason why the French population have such a low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite having a diet high in saturated fats is due to tangible factors, such as the lifestyle of the French population, the particular foods eaten alongside the fatty foods and the cultural manner in which these meals are eaten. Wine consumed often in moderation is an important part contributing to the stress-free lifestyle of the French. With its documented health benefits red wine is a major reason concerning the ‘French Paradox’. The stress free manner in which all of these factors are done, contribute to the statistics that show how the French population have a low heart disease mortality rate. I believe the French paradox is a myth, which is supported by the reasons above. I believe that the low mortality rate is just proof for what a healthy, stress-free lifestyle with home-grown, homemade dietary foods and good red wine can do for a persons well-being.

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