I am French/Italian and of course I’ve always heard about the “French paradox”. I’ve also lived in the USA and many people would ask me why were I so thin and healthy while eating butter, bread, croissants and cheese? Then, I got 4 kids but still were in shape and people would wonder even more and ask why don’t French women get fat even after having kids? So, is it really because of the “French paradox”?
I am glad I have decided to do some research about this subject because what I found out really surprised me!
What is the “French paradox”?
In the 1980s, 3 French scientists wrote an article about the connection of fat consumption and heart disease, questioning and underlining the paradox that though French people’s diet is high in saturated fats, they have lower heart attack incidents. These scientists were only making some observations.
Since it is proven that too much saturate fats intake cause coronary heart disease, some researches were then done on the French diet to try to uncover the mystery behind this paradox.
One of the French culture’s specificity is its higher wine consumption than any other countries in the world.
Some started thinking that maybe drinking red wine protected the French from getting heart attacks?
The actual term “French paradox” appeared in 1986 in a letter from the OIV, the International Organization of Vine and Wine. In this letter, it isn’t clearly stated that wine is healthy but it is implied by comparing the rich French diet in saturated fats and wine consumption with the modern American dietary habits and the Anglo-Saxon’s poor health’s results.
In 1989, George Riley Kernodle, a drama teacher at the University of Arkansas uses the expression “French Paradox” in a chapter of his book entitled “the Theater in History”. He explains that wine may be healthy because it is packed with antioxidants, the polythenols.
In 1991, the French physician scientist, Serge Renaud (a winemaker’s grandson) presents his scientific research conclusions in “60 minutes”, a CBS news TV show. He asserts that thanks to the moderate daily drinking of red wine (2 to 3 glasses), statistically, the French’s risk to get coronary heart disease is 3.5 lower than the Americans. The “French Paradox” enigma appears to be solved.
This widespread media coverage and launch of the “French Paradox” had a huge impact and since 1992, Red wine consumption and sales increased by 39% in the USA, according to the Wine Spectator lifestyle magazine.
The success is immediate! It’s such good news. A fatty diet + wine = good health! It is so comforting psychologically to drinkers. Alcohol is not so bad for you after all. It also has health properties. It’s rich in antioxidants.
It also is great news to the wine lobby’s business interests. From there on, it launched a marketing communication campaign, proudly shouting out that red wine, rich in antioxidants, prevents cardiovascular disease.
Yes, the French eat a lot of fatty foods. Our traditional cuisine is soaked in butter and cream based sauces such as the famous “béchamel”.
We daily eat cheese on delicious baguette. 1200 type of cheeses are listed and many more are not…
There is a bakery shop in every village, selling a rich variety of breads, butter based pastries and cakes.
Yes, we love wine. It is one of our cultural markers. The French vineyards produce 3240 different wines.
Let’s not forget the endless choice of salamis and delicatessens.
We also eat a lot of different types of vegetables and fish. When you go to the market, the fish and vegetable variety is impressive!
The truth about the French paradox
Even though the wine lobby’s business strategy continued to prosper, scientists kept on questioning whether red wine is really the answer to the “French paradox” phenomena. Thorough studies and discoveries, especially about antioxidants strongly contradict such belief.
Most polythenols present in wines such as resveratrol (a powerful protective antioxidant) don’t cross the intestinal lining and thus are not passed into the bloodstream. That means that in order for you to reap the health benefits from the resveratrol, you would have to drink a considerable amount of wine. NOT recommended!
Furthermore, in 2009, Pierre Ducimetière, one of the 3 French scientistists that in the 80s had written an article about fat intake and heart disease, published a new article in which he reveals that not all the deaths related to coronary heart disease were declared! The statistics were not trustworthy.
He also mentions that there are more deaths in northern France than in the South. Simply because in the north, that’s where more saturated fats are consumed. The death rate in Northern France is equal to Belgium’s.
In fact, in Southern France, the diet is Mediterranean like in Italy or Spain. We cook much more with olive oil rather than butter.
He concludes that there is no such thing as a “French exception” nor “French Paradox” and that such statements should disappear from all scientific literature. This belief is a threat to the public health.
It’s a myth. Now what?
Like any news, if it’s too good to be true, it is fake news! The French do die from too much consumption of saturated fats and drink too much alcohol. Alcohol kills too many people, too soon. I am not saying that we shouldn’t drink alcohol at all. We should be careful and drink moderately.
Finally, all this puzzlement about the French lifestyle was not a waste of time. The scientific studies lead to make important discoveries concerning antioxidants and their health benefits.
I am curious to know your thoughts. Did you hear about the French Paradox? Please leave a comment below and share your opinion.