The “French Paradox”

French eating patterns have been associated with certain health benefits.

The “French paradox” is a term that was coined in the 1980s and results from the observation that although French people tend to eat a rich diet, relatively high in saturated fats, they also tend to have a lower incidence of obesity and heart disease. To simplify, they eat fatty foods and don’t seem to experience the associated negative health consequences. Stop the press. We, as Americans, have been told for decades that eating foods high in saturated fats increases our risk of heart disease but our French colleagues are thought to be experiencing the opposite effects, with risks near 36 percent compared with American risk around
75 percent.

Is this possible? As with any set of observations, things are not always exactly as they seem. In the following sections, EN will outline potential errors with this paradox as well as possible reasons why the French way of eating may be the way to go. Within the limited space of this article, we will not solve the mystery of the French paradox but rather the intent is to provide information and let you decide whether or not to add “cuisine Françoise” to your daily routine.

Doubting the Paradox

Questionable Survivability. As diets throughout the world become more “Americanized” the negative outcomes associated with this way of eating tend to follow soon after. French people, eating traditional French meals and patterns, may continue to experience relatively low rates of heart disease. However, once this diet is infiltrated by American foods and snacks, they may expect to see increasing rates of the diseases that we see in the U.S. (and it’s no secret that we have a high risk of disease and death that can often be associated with certain food patterns).

(Possible) Support for the French Paradox

Our Hypotheses Might Be Incorrect. The fact that there is even an ongoing discussion about the French paradox provides fodder to question whether the link between intake of dietary saturated fats and heart disease is as strong as previously thought. After all, French people are famous for their cheeses (high in saturated fats). Is it possible that the hypothesis around saturated fat and health outcomes is inaccurate? Perhaps a better approach is to consider this hypothesis incomplete in its understanding or perhaps…

The French Diet May Just Be Healthier Than the American Diet. It is also possible that the very foods that French people are famous for consuming and the way in which this culture experiences their meals (meal settings, attitude toward eating, etc.) may be healthier for some than the traditional American diet that many of us follow. Where would the French be without cheese? Not only is it delicious, but the natural occurring saturated fats found in cheese (as well as butter and cream) may not have the same damaging effects on the body. On the other hand, the American diet consists of higher amounts of saturated fats which are made via the hydrogenation of vegetable oils that improve the shelf-life of a product but also increase the damage they may cause. French meal behaviors such as the use of more “whole” foods versus more processed counterparts, a greater intake of fruits and vegetables and enjoying the meal experience (mindfully focusing on the meal at hand rather than multitasking) may also contribute to these benefits.

—Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN

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