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. So how is it possible that France, a country with a diet especially high in saturated fats, also has one the lowest rates of fatalities from coronary heart disease?
In the 80s, three frenchman named this conundrum the “French Paradox.” Scientists continue even today conducting research in trying to determine the cause of this paradox. So what’s the answer? How can YOU eat all that yummy food and still stay healthy?
The theory that most people jump on (because it is what everyone wants to hear) is that this phenomenon is due to the French population’s higher consumption of wine. Red wine has resveratrols and antioxidant flavonoids, both of which have shown to benefit the heart and blood vessels, but the amounts in wine aren’t enough to have the types of effects that would explain the French Paradox.
As it turns out, the myth was resurrected by the wine industry to increase sales when young people started drinking more beer and less wine.
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 shoveling 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.
Yet another—and perhaps the most interesting—theory about the French Paradox is that there is no French Paradox. Crazy, right? Some people have posed that French doctors underreport deaths from coronary heart disease, therefore skewing the data. When you adjust for underreporting, France actually fits in with the rest of the world’s countries.
There are also those who argue that it is only recently that French people have started eating diets high in saturated fats. As a result to this, we won’t see any negative impacts of their diet change for several years. If we all started smoking today, we wouldn’t see an increase in cancer tomorrow—it would take decades.
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 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.