French Paradox is not a Paradox After All

You’ve probably heard much (or little) about good fats and bad fats before. Here in North America, we often refer to unsaturated fats as “good fats”, and saturated fats as “bad fats”. We believe that consuming bad fats leads to increase in cardiovascular disease, while good fats do just the opposite (to a certain extent). Cream, cheese, butter, and chocolate all contain high proportion of saturated fats, and we often refer to those food as “unhealthy food”.
Then the French Paradox fails our belief system.  We are shocked to know that though French people have a diet relatively rich in saturated fats, the incidence of coronary heart disease in France is relatively low – about a third of that in America. [Data]
Furthermore, less than one in ten people in France is obese, whereas more than three in ten Americans are obese. [Data] Data shows that, in 2002, French people consumed 108 grams of fat from animal sources per capita per day, while the number was 72 in America. Moreover, French people eat four times as much butter and 60% more cheese. [Data]
We thus can’t help asking the question: how come they can have all the unhealthy food and still be healthier than us (in many senses)?
A popular theory is that it is the wine that French people consume does the healthy job. Some, if not many, believed that the resveratrol in red wine is the answer to the French Paradox. High doses of resveratrol have been linked to longevity and cancer prevention in some other species, but the effects of low levels of resveratrol on human beings lack medical consensus.
On average, people in France consume 11.4 liters alcohol per capita annually, which is only 2.8 liters more than the consumption in the U.S. Alcohol consumption is higher in many other countries than that in France, but low rate of heart disease death is not ubiquitous. Furthermore, a team of scientists also claimed to have identified a particular group of polyphenols in wine that offered the greatest degree of protection to human blood-vessel cell; however, some other researches suggest that this very chemical compounds reduce the absorption of malondialdehyde in body, which is implicated in cancer, diabetes and other diseases. [Read More]
We have worked so hard for so long to try to find the particular chemical substance that is responsible for the French Paradox, but, as of now, we have not gone too far. If we stop narrowing our sight on to the particularities, some other interesting things start to come up.
Researchers looked at dishes served in restaurants and food sold in supermarkets in France and America. The serving sizes in France are significantly smaller than that in America. Even the candy bars sold in Paris are smaller than those in Philadelphia. Moreover, when eating fast food, “Parisians spent 22 minutes on average dining at McDonald’s,” while Philadelphians spent less than 14 minutes. [Read More]
“In my opinion, this “paradox” is a perfect example of what we do all the time in medicine in the U.S. We try to simplify something, break it down, or study it to understand the exact components of what makes it work, when it’s so much more complicated than that.” – [Quote]
Given the fact that we are all eating food that are not spoiled (at least for most of the time), what we eat in America are often highly processed pre-packaged fast food. Fresh food is much more appreciated in France than in America; not because they particularly value fresh food (they do, though), but rather because we often fail to appreciate the linkage between freshness and quality. Small servings of different fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, and meats (or fish) are often included in a typical daily meal. Having different small servings of carefully prepared food grants more satisfaction than having a single serving of super-size fast food. Moreover, Eating meals take much longer in France than in America. The lunch break in France is often two hours long (which is also the case in many other European and Asian countries). Having long lunch break means that they do not have to rush through meals like we often do, and they can unchain themselves from work stress in the middle of the day. Stress, as we all know, is definitely a health destroyer; it is, in many senses, closely linked to cardiovascular problems. 
Transportation is another big factor of our life. We walk relatively much here at UCLA. However, most people probably wish that they could drive, and inefficient public transportation system is arguably one of the reasons why America becomes a driving nation. Walking is often not a considerable option. However, it is a different picture in France. Gas is expensive; walking and public transportation are thus desired. Instead of large supermarkets locate at middle of nowhere, corner stores and markets are designed to accompany the nationwide walking and transporting pace. 
What I am trying to convey is a picture of a more cognitive life. We live in a fast-moving country: we eat on our own (often in a car with a bag of fast food); we drive alone, to work and back home, to supermarket and gas station. We download many apps and softwares to “save time”.  We forget how to slow down and enjoy life. We are occupied by stress, and that damages our health. We then try to isolate the factors that can keep us healthy, but we forget that being healthy is, from beginning, a positive lifestyle.
•“Health is about the whole picture — not just fat, not just carbs, not just food, but everything, the way we live our lives.” – [Quote]

3 thoughts on “French Paradox is not a Paradox After All

  1. Very interesting article! I sometimes do wonder whether eating slowly may be the trick of the French paradox. I once read from a magazine that some French females could in, a delightfully sunny afternoon, eat a small chunk of chocolate and a tiny cup of coffee for the whole afternoon!

    However, I would be very cautious when mentioning the French paradox. I agree that French people usually slimmer than are Americans, but I contest the belief, with some reservation, that French people are more healthy. French people just have the culture to be slim. Just look at their fashion models! As a result, many of French people seem to be obsessed with their body weight. I was not surprised that the proportion of people suffering from bulimic and even anorexia was perhaps highest in France. Actually, several years ago the French government even passed a law which could imprison people who encouraged people to lose weight through excessive diet moderation.

    Thus my attitude on the French paradox is that Americans and French people just have different issues to deal with.

  2. I guess the answer to the French paradox might have a lot to do with their culture. I learned from my French culture class that many French parents, for some reason, did not allow their kids to have fast food. They also train the kids to have good eating habits from very young. For example, kis usually are not allowed to have snacks between two meals. Avoding fast food and snacks, both of which are considered as unhealthy food, probably contributes to fewer health problems even though they heaviliy rely on cheese and other food containing saturated fat.
    This article reminds me the diet of some Middle East countries. They diet is mainly composed of meat, especially lamp, and with very little vegetables. Their way to deal with such heavy meals is to drink black tea every time after the meal. According to them, black tea can help them get rid of the fat in the food and avoid cardiovascular diseases. It seems to echo with the function of the wine in French diet.

  3. I enjoyed reading your article. I was going to comment about the different lifestyle factors that affect the prevalence of disease in France and the US but I think you were very thorough in exploring the topic. Having lived in Europe for a while, I can definitely tell that people there live slower-paced and stress-free lives, for example, compared to in the US.

    I just wanted to add something that you might find interesting. One reason why saturated fats are labeled the “bad fats” is because saturated molecules are linear in structure. This makes it easy for saturated fats to pack together and potentially clog your arteries. On the other hand, unsaturated fats (mono- or poly-unsaturated) are the “good fats” because unsaturated molecules are kinked and don’t pack together as easily.

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