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The French Paradox and Ways to Improve Health

by Zac Martin
French paradox feature image
French cuisine and lean bodies? French paradox.

Have you ever wondered why it is exactly that the United States has one of the highest obesity rates within the world? When looking at other parts of the world this high obesity rate seems to make even less sense.

Ever hear of the French paradox? France is commonly known as the culinary capital of the world. Shouldn’t it be the people who eat the richest and most flavorful food in the world who are the fattest? And on top of everything, the French have one of the lowest incidences of cardiovascular disease in the world!

The mortality due to heart disease and stroke within the entire nation of France runs about 50 per 100,000 people. Contrast that to the US, where the incidence runs around 129 per 100,000 people.

This is something of a conundrum. Saturated fat – an item that has long been thought to be associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease within the US – can often contribute upwards of 40% of the average Frenchman’s daily caloric intake. And on top of that, everyone in France seems to smoke!

So what gives? How is it that this nation is habitually involved in habits that we’ve long deemed deadly and even irresponsible within the US, yet there seems to be little to no consequence of engaging in such in France?

Well, expats living in France will often wonder these questions when seeing the daily diet of the French, and this phenomenon is often referred to within the nutrition world as the French paradox.

What Exactly is the French Paradox?

The French Paradox was first coined in 1980s research and later expanded upon in the early 1993 by Serge Renaud, a researcher who was perplexed with these same questions.

For this is the paradox after all: French people seem to eat incredibly rich and flavorful meals every day, they drink plenty of wine, and they all smoke, yet their incidence of both obesity and heart disease is but a fraction of what people experience in other countries.

As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book The Tipping Point, it’s very often a combination of seemingly innocuous factors that add up for an exponential outcome. I think you’ll find that as we examine the French paradox, you’ll find the same principle seems to apply.

What’s Different About the French Diet?

There are some key differences in how the French eat, what they eat, and how they eat. All of these factors can add up to big differences in overall health and longevity.

They Eat Smaller Portions

While I have mixed feelings on smaller portion sizes for the average joe (the only people I seem to have a problem with eating too large of portion sizes are men. With women, quite the opposite seems to be the problem.), the fact of the matter is that portion sizes do somewhat matter. The man who eats twelve twice-baked potatoes is eating way outside of the portion range for that particular food product.

Within the US we seem to have a much harder time of limiting our portion sizes than people do within France. This is easily the low-hanging fruit to point out. If one can limit their portion sizes of unhealthy foods, they will obviously have a tendency to be healthier compared to those who don’t.

They Consume Moderate Amounts of Red Wine

There have been dozens of studies over the years showing the heart protective benefits of drinking red wine, and the French most certainly don’t have a problem getting enough.

2 glasses of wine
The benefits of red wine are well known and researched.

The typical French meal often has a glass of red wine with it, and this is most certainly a part of the equation when we’re looking at the reasons that the French have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than the rest of the world.

Wine consumption has been show to be associated with a 24 – 31% decrease in all-cause mortality, and around 50% of the reason for the reduction in cardiovascular disease risk seems to come from changes in one’s HDL (the good) cholesterol. The other 50% of the equation is a grab-bag of topics, but make no mistake: red wine does show cardio-protective qualities.

They Prepare Meals With Natural/Basic Ingredients

Throughout my career in the health and fitness industry I’ve grown more and more convinced of just how huge an impact this factor alone plays in peoples’ individual health. The patients that I have who begin a journey of cooking their own food with basic ingredientsnot items that belong in a science classroom – virtually always see massive improvements in their cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and so on.

The French seem to primarily cook from these types of ingredients throughout their entire lives, preferring to choose homemade dishes over pre-wrapped preservatives.

They Walk a Lot More

I’m constantly trying to get my clients and patients to add more physical activity throughout the course of their daily lives. When they do, they feel better, they have more energy, their pain diminishes, and they live much healthier lives.

French walking
There is a lot more daily walking in France.

On average, the French walk much more than an American will on a daily basis. I compare this gradual “exercise deposit” in the same way as making a deposit towards your retirement. You don’t save for retirement with one massive sum you put in the bank when you turn 64. Instead, it’s frequent small deposits over the years. The end result of doing such is a full, healthy retirement savings account.

The same principle applies to activity. Don’t get all of your activity for one hour, and then sit around watching Andy Griffith the rest of the day! The best results come with small deposits made throughout the course of the day.

They Rely on Their Bodies to Tell Them When to Stop Eating

Research has shown that the French seem to rely primarily upon internal cues for when it is time to stop eating. These would be a feeling of fullness, quitting when one wants to, and the like. In contrast to such behaviors, as Americans we tend to rely primarily upon external cues for when we should quit eating.

We’re likely to consider a meal to be finished after a TV show has ended, once our plate is clean, or when we see that all of our friends and family members have finished eating as well. Rather than being cues from our internal selves, these are all cues to quit eating that come from the external world around us.

While that might not seem like a significant reason that we gain weight, it does matter, and is just yet another piece of the puzzle in deciphering the mysteries of the French paradox.

They Grow Some of Their Food

Approximately 30% of all French adults regularly garden. This is likely to be beneficial in two main ways. For starters, these gardens are primarily kitchen gardens – not flower gardens. This means that 30% of the French have regular access to local, fresh, and abundant garden produce. This in and of itself is likely a huge factor within the French paradox.

fresh vegetables
Is there any better tasting – and healthier – food than what you grow yourself?

Convenience matters. You’ve likely seen this in your own life. When a gardener friend gives you eight pounds of tomatoes in July, guess what you eat a lot more of? Tomatoes. When you have an entire garden’s worth full of fresh produce, you’re naturally going to eat more fresh produce, a very important variable in one’s health.

The second way in which gardening likely helps the Frenchman’s health is through the additional physical activity it adds to the day. While not technically classified as exercise, gardening does require a lot of bending, pulling, carrying, and lifting, and this extra movement adds up over time.

How Do You Apply the French Paradox to Your Life?

The challenge now is to figure out ways in which to apply some of the principles discovered within the French paradox to further improve your own health. Do you have the space available to start a garden, however small? Can you find ways to add more walking into your own life, or just more physical activity in general?

While drinking red wine and walking more are rather straightforward steps (no pun intended) some of the others can be a bit more daunting. For those who are looking at other ways to improve your health via following some of the discoveries of the French paradox, here is what I recommend:

Cook More of Your Own Food and with Natural Ingredients

For those who are looking at taking this step, I highly recommend reading the book Eat Good Food. It is hands down the best book on picking quality produce and other food products from the grocery store that I have found on the market to date, and the recipes within are absolutely fantastic. You may benefit from reading more about The Slow Food Revolution as well. Both of these options will teach you how to cook with natural ingredients.

Eat Smaller Portions of Unhealthy Foods

Note the emphasis on the term “unhealthy”. If you want to pig out on carrots sticks, by all means, go for it. If you’re going to eat an entire canister of Pringles, however, well, let’s just say that would be a bad habit to get into.

Drink Moderate Amounts of Red Wine

One can easily go overboard here with the thought process that “if some is good, more is better!”, but that would be a mistake. You know what moderate means, and provided that you drink within that range, you’ll be able to get the cardio-protective benefits without the risk of harming your liver.

Start a Garden

Gardening is most certainly more than just throwing seeds in the ground and hoping something comes up. There is both a science and an art involved. For anybody who is looking for a fantastic primer on doing so, Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening is my favorite book on the subject.

Listen to Your Body

If you’re interested in learning why you make some of the nutrition decisions that you do, and ways that you can “hack” your body into making better decisions, I recommend looking at the behavioral economics found within Slim By Design. I cite from this text regularly in my nutrition seminars.

Final Food for Thought

There are undoubtedly other factors involved with the French paradox – many of them likely unnoticed as of yet – that contribute to a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. However, if you focus on the above first, regardless of who you are, you’re health will improve.

I don’t think there’s a doctor out there who will argue with me that more movement is generally better for their patients, that cooking with fresh and natural ingredients is better than eating out with processed garbage, that people should not eat everything in sight.

So if you’re interested in improving your health, take a good, hard look at the French paradox. I think you’ll find the implications insightful, and they are all some of the many ways you can stay healthy as you get older.

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