Since seemingly forever, the media has been applauding French people for their remarkable health.
Coined the French Paradox, it’s the idea that the French eat more total fat—think fatty cheeses like brie or semi-soft raw cow’s milk cheese—than Americans (42 percent versus 38 percent, according to the FAO 2012 Food Security Data) and drink red wine daily, yet outlive Americans (81.6 years versus 78.8 years, as of 2015). The French also suffer from fewer cases of coronary heart disease.
According to this 2014 World Health Organization data set, the French rank second in the world, behind South Korea, for having the lowest mortality rates from coronary heart disease. America? We rank 44th.
Don’t buy the resveratrol-in-the-wine argument for Frenchies’ good health? You’re probably right.
“I’m not sure this whole notion of the French Paradox holds true for all of France. Maybe the wealthier, but France is changing,” says Lisa Sasson, clinical assistant professor of nutrition at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and a registered dietitian.
Global commerce, Americanization, and diasporas in France are only a few of the agents Sasson attests to shaping France into a new culture that is not the beacon of health Americans assume it to be. The paradox also overlooks the pockets of extreme poverty where French food swamps—an overabundance of high calorie, low nutrient foods—are a very real thing.
“We are seeing much higher obesity rates in France, especially with pediatric obesity in boys in certain pockets. We have this romantic idea of what France was like in the 1900s, but the reality is that French kids don’t want to live like their great grandparents,” Sasson says. “American advertising influences them. Many kids watched the Super Bowl. The world is very global now—Starbucks is all over Paris.”
The scientific community is quite divided over the French Paradox, too.
Known as the “time lag theory,” an idea first put forward in 1992 by Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and as discussed in this paper from the Lancet in 1999, the French consumed less animal fat than the Brits up until the 1970s (about 21 percent of total energy consumption from animal fat, versus 31 percent in Britain).
The takeaway? The French weren’t eating that much fat back then. For the past three decades, however, they have been. And it should be catching up.
Skeptics of the French Paradox argue that the reason for such remarkable health is an illusion. Eating animal fats, smoking, and drinking excessive amounts of wine go against conventional theories about what causes coronary heart disease.
According to a New York Times interview with Nestle in 1992 about the time lag theory, she explained that the French diet was newly high in fat in the ’80s, and heart disease rates just haven’t had time to catch up—cardiovascular disease takes 20 to 30 years to come into effect.
Now, 20 to 30 years have passed since the ’80s and the question is: Has coronary heart disease caught up with the French?
“The magic of the French diet, for example, is they still eat whole foods and eat more vegetables than we do. Yes, real food. Not fat free cheese,” 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.”
The way the French interact with food, Sasson explains, is key. They sit down to eat a meal, take longer to eat, and dine at real kitchen tables instead of coffee tables or counters.
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.
“The French don’t really do that either,” says Sasson.
Same holds true with being obsessed about tracking how many steps they walk. They just walk because they enjoy it.
What’s to learn from the French, then, if the Paradox is a total hoax?
How you eat, when you eat, for how long you eat, and with whom you eat might be more important than what you eat. Eating and enjoying real food is what matters, not tracking calories.
Vive la France.