What's Really Behind The French Paradox?
The "French Paradox" refers to the seemingly inexplicable fact that, despite their notoriously rich diet, low levels of exercise, and high levels of smoking, the French population actually looked to have lower rates of heart disease and longer lifespans than did their counterparts in countries like England and the US.
The conundrum was first identified by researchers in the late 1980s and first brought to the attention of the public by the American news program 60 Minutes in the early 1990s. This 60 Minutes episode also popularized the idea that the French's high level of wine intake must be responsible for this "paradox."Though this assertion was based on limited research, there is also evidence that it could be at least partially accurate. Several epidemiological studies have suggested that moderate red wine drinking can have a heart-protective effect due to the beverage's high levels of beneficial compounds like procyanins and resveratol.Resveratol may also help prevent heart-unhealthy obesity by turning ordinary white fat into beige fat, a type of fat cell that can actually burn calories. Other research indicates that wine compound piceatannol can stop immature fat cells from growing into larger mature ones. Aside from the documented French preference for wine over higher-calorie beer and sugar-laden liquor mixed drinks, French drinking culture elevates savoring a small amount of high quality wine daily while less healthy binge drinking approaches epidemic proportions in countries like the United States and Australia.
Others hypothesize that an illusory paradox may have emerged because "unhealthy" aspects of the prototypical French diet overshadowed the healthier ones. Though the the French did indeed consume far more saturated fat than Americans, much of it was dairy and plant fat rather than the seemingly more harmful fat found in red meat. There's also some evidence that saturated fat just isn't as bad as we initially thought, at least in comparison to far less healthy trans fats and sugar—both of which infiltrated the American diet far faster than the French one. The French diet was also high in heart-healthy omega-3 rich fish and higher in mineral water than in disastrous soda.Plus, the French were more inclined to eat their meals leisurely over long periods of time and at their tables rather than in front of the television, allowing them to eat more mindfully and perhaps pay greater heed to their fullness cues. They were also less likely to snack in between meals and—as evidenced by a formal examination of typical serving sizes in restaurants, supermarkets, and cookbooks—in the habit of eating smaller portions than did Americans. At least, all of this was true back in the 90s, when France's obesity rate was among the lowest in Europe and the idea of the "French paradox" proliferated. Now that fast food, processed food, and soda have all become a more prevalent part of the French diet, France's obesity rate has predictably gone up. Though the French are still not as obese as Americans, Australians, or Brits, about one in ten French citizens is now obese and over forty percent are now overweight. The problem is serious enough to have inspired legislative countermeasures like a ban on unlimited free soda refills in fast food establishments and bans on vending machines and ketchup in schools.Of course, eating and drinking habits aren't the only cultural factors that may have played a part in the "French Paradox." France also has one of the world's best healthcare systems and a less ambitious culture than the United States. Since stress is thought to be a substantial heart disease risk factor in and of itself, maybe we could all do well to take a few French lessons in chilling out!
More out there potential explanations for the French paradox include French physicians under-diagnosing heart disease and epigenetic after-effects of a late 19th century governmental campaign that sought to provide better nutrition for pregnant women. However, the simplest possible explanation of the "French Paradox" is that there may never have been one at all!
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