The French Paradox

Monday, March 10, 2008

According to the World Health Organization, 82 out of every 100,000 French men between ages 35 and 74 died as a result of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in the year 2000. In that same year, 216 out of 100,000 men between the same ages in the U.S. succumbed to the same disease.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, during roughly the same time period, the average French person ate slightly more total fat and almost three times more animal fat than the average American. Animal fats came from dairy, lard, red meats, fish and poultry, and contributed to a much higher overall saturated fat intake in the French. This has been called the "French paradox", the paradox being that saturated fat is supposed to cause CVD.

Researchers have been scrambling to identify the factor that is protecting French hearts from the toxic onslaught of saturated fat. What could possibly be preventing the buttery sludge coursing through their arteries from killing them on the spot? One hypothesis is that wine is protective. Although the modern French don't actually drink much more alcohol than Americans on average, wine contains a number of molecules that are potentially protective.

One of these that has gotten a lot of attention is resveratrol, an activator of SIRT1, a deacetylase enzyme that is involved in stress resistance and lifespan regulation. But lo and behold, it turns out that there isn't enough of it in wine to be helpful. Now researchers are turning their attention to a class of molecules called procyanidins, but I suspect that this will turn up negative as well. The protective molecule is probably ethanol, but no one wants to hear that because it doesn't resolve the paradox.

As a person with a French background who has spent quite a bit of time in France, the notion of a French paradox is insulting. It implies that the French are eating an unhealthy diet, but are somehow miraculously protected by a compound they're ingesting by accident. Any French person will tell you there is no paradox. When you make a commitment to seek out the freshest, most delicious ingredients available and cook them yourself, your diet will be healthier than if you count the grams of this and that on your TV dinner.

There's more. Americans consume almost twice the amount of sugar as the average French person. I find this surprising, given the large amount of sugar I've seen on French tables, but I think it speaks to the huge amount of sugar we consume in the US. Much of it probably comes from the high-fructose corn syrup in soda. I'll save my rant about that for another time.

Another thing that stands out about French food habits is the absence of snacking. Mealtimes in France tend to be well-defined, and grazing is looked down upon. I think this is probably essential for maintaining adequate insulin sensitivity in the face of (delicious) refined carbohydrates like baguette.

And finally, the French enjoy their food more than the average nation. I wouldn't underestimate the value of this for health and overall well-being.

So what was the paradox again? I can't remember. Maybe a more parsimonious explanation of the data is that saturated fat isn't so bad after all, and enjoying wholesome food and limiting sugar is the true prescription for health.

Thanks to Gaetan Lee for the creative commons photo.