Was the French Paradox Real?
There are plenty of misconceptions and rumors that plague the world of nutrition and health. Sometimes these rumors sound well founded and other times it is simple wish fulfillment. Then you hear the odd ones that make you scratch your head in confusion. The French Paradox is one of those dietary rumors that land squarely in the bizarre category, and today, I am going to be mythbusting the French Paradox
What is the French Paradox?
The term was coined by French scientists based on a 1980’s study comparing the levels of heart disease with fat intake data provided by The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In that study, it was stated that France had a high intake of animal fats in their current diet, but seemed to not be suffering from any heart disease or other negative effects related to obesity.
The initial hypothesis for why this might be pointed to regions of France having the highest intake of red wine in the world. It was assumed after that all the red wine intake was responsible for France not suffering from heart disease.
However, this was mere speculation by these initial scientists and the public.
People were glad to hear they could eat all the meat and cheese they wanted as long as they sipped a bit of red wine.
Unfortunately, this is a misconception based on skewed data and has since been debunked by more recent scientific studies.
France didn’t exactly eat a diet high in animal fats until the 1970’s. Compare that to the standard American diet which had a high level of animal fats 40 years before, and you start to notice a gap in timing.
According to nutritionist Nestle in 1992, ” the French had only recently started eating so unhealthily, and chronic diseases take decades to develop.” If we all started smoking today but found no measurable increase in lung cancer tomorrow, it wouldn’t mean smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer—it just takes a while.”
And there is data to prove it. According to health studies by the EU, cardiovascular diseases make up 23% of deaths in men and 27% of deaths in women. That is a quarter of the recorded French population!
Possible Skewing of Data
When any scientist is recording data for scientific purposes, they are taking a sample size and deriving their data from that sample. While taking a sample size of a population to observe is wise for testing a specific reaction to something like a food or a drug.
When trying to paint an accurate picture of an entire population, you want to gather as much data as you can to make sure that area is well represented. This includes both wealthy areas with access to whole foods and not so wealthy areas trapped in food deserts.
It also doesn’t help matters when French physicians under-report ischemic heart disease deaths on the death certificates by as much as 20 percent, either.
How its Possible France (and the Rest of the World ) can Still be Better Off
A nutritionist was part of an interview with Times magazine back in 1992 to point out how it could be possible for the French to stay healthy.
“They still eat whole foods and eat more vegetables than we do,” Sasson says. “You feel more satiated when you eat this way. And they probably eat less. The French also have no American guilt when it comes to eating; that idea where we are constantly counting calories, fat content, and carbs; and all the while, left feeling unsatisfied.
Their portion sizes are smaller, and unequivocally, the French cook more than Americans. They also drink less sugary beverages than we do. And apart from food culture, the French really do nap and are encouraged to do so. They also consistently take their lunch out of the office, often dining for more than an hour.”
Taking time out to rest, eating more vegetables in your diet, and avoiding large portion sizes are how people to fight heart disease and obesity.
But until then, don’t expect red wine or any other magic cure to save us from ourselves.