Reasons and Explanations Of French Paradox

The phenomenon, known as "French paradox", is the relatively low rate of heart disease and obesity despite a high dietary intake of cholesterol and saturated fat in France as compared with other Western countries.

Neuroscientist Will Clower, who lived in France for two years and wrote The Fat Fallacy: The French Diet Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss, has observed that when Americans go over there to live, they lose weight, and when the French come to the US to live, they gain weight.

French drink lots of wine, eat baguettes, croissants, butter, cream, fatty liver pate, pastry and cheese - a sure recipe for weight gain, isn't it? So why their rates of obesity and heart disease are much lower than the USA?

But although French don't deprive themselves and their life looks like an all-you-can-eat buffet, it is not all easy and effortless. So what are peculiar properties of French lifestyle that lead to a lower rate of obesity, heart disease and even a longer life?

1 Red wine

Red wine is probably the most known French paradox contributor. Some scientists believe the French habit of moderate red wine drinking with a meal is the key to French paradox[4-7]. Resveratrol and other antioxidant flavonoids, natural chemical compounds found in red wine, may promote health benefits to the heart and blood vessels. Resveratrol inhibits the formation of inflammatory factors that trigger cardiovascular diseases[10].

Red grapes are one of the richest sources of flavonoids, which may make red wine more heart-healthy than white wine, beer, or other spirits. However, research indicates that red grape juice is markedly less potent than wine in conferring health benefits. It is suggested that something in the winemaking process changes the polyphenols' properties.

Red Wine Facts

  • Moderate consumption of red wine on a regular basis may be a preventative against coronary heart disease
  • It produces anticlotting action
  • It may prevent the initiation and progression of atherosclerosis
  • Red wine intake reduces the risk of kidney stone formation
  • With or without alcohol, Red wine decreases harmful effect of smoking on endothelium

Although wine has received much credit, it doesn't tell the whole story.

2 Slow eating

Joy is a wonderful anti-aging trick, isn't it? French enjoy and savor their food. They tend to taste foods individually rather than piling a number of foods on the fork at once. It takes the brain about 15-20 minutes to start signaling feelings of fullness. So when you slow down with smaller bites, you taste food more and are satisfied with less.

The French physical environment encourages slow, moderate social eating, and minimal snacking[11].

Americans have a different relationship with food that often excludes joy and pleasure. It is quite common to observe how people gulp down something while staring at computers, talking on the phones, watching TV, or reading.

From observations at McDonald's the French and American researchers[8] found that the average American customer spent 35% less time at the table. The French spent an average of 22.2 minutes eating and sitting at McDonald's, while Americans stayed only 14.4 minutes.

Read more about health benefits of slow eating.

3 Small portion size

It is a proven fact that people over-eat when served a large compared with a small portion of food[12].

Partly, the French paradox can be explained by the fact that French portion sizes are notably smaller than American portions. Although the French diet is rich in butter, cream, pastry and cheese, the research demonstrates they consume fewer calories, resulting in decreased number of overweight and obese people.

For example, the standard size individual portion of yogurt in France is 125 grams; the standard size in America - 225 grams. A joint French-American team[8] of scientists from France's CNRS (national scientific research institute) and the University of Pennsylvania set out to test their hypothesis that the French eat less and a smaller portions, compared with Americans. Researchers weighed portions at 11 similar restaurants in Paris and Philadelphia and found that:

  • The average portion size in Paris was 25 percent smaller than in Philadelphia (277 grams versus 346 grams).
  • Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia served dishes that were 72 percent larger than in Parisian Chinese food restaurants.
  • A candy bar in Philadelphia was 41 percent larger than the same candy bar in Paris.
  • A soft drink was 53 percent larger and a hot dog was 63 percent larger in Philadelphia than in France.

4 High intake of fruits and vegetables

The important constituent of the French paradox seems to be the diet rich in fruits and fresh vegetables carrying fibre and vitamins[9]. Epidemiologic studies show that high fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease mortality.

5 Food quality over quantity

The French eat much less processed food than Americans do. Perhaps French people are pickier than the Americans about their food. Many processed foods are full of trans fats, saturated fats, sodium, sugar, and preservatives and French like their food to be fresh, tasty and carefully prepared.

Open-air local markets are very popular in France, and it is customary for people to buy their produce there. It is common for French to buy cheese from the fromagerie, bread from the bakery, meat from the boucherie, and fruits and vegetables from the open-air market. It is more time-consuming and sometimes more expensive than at the grocery store, but the products are fresher and of better quality.

Frozen sections in French grocery stores are much smaller than in the USA. The market for prepared food is not very large and TV dinners do not reside in French diet also.

6 Home-made food

French eating culture is fundamentally different than the American one. Most people have 3 meals a day, families eat together when they can, and food is important culturally. Regardless of their social background, the French cook more than the Americans. Home cooking provides a better control of food, and reduces preservatives, trans fat, sugar and salt consumption.

7 Self-discipline

The French are more weight aware and have a culture of caution after a period of excess. Eating more one day makes them be more careful the next. They would rather trade off with a few lighter meals, than dieting.

8 "No snacking" habit

The French tend to snack much less than Americans, instead, they try to eat more regularly. If they do snack, the French often choose fresh fruits between meals.

9 Beverages: water vs sodas

Beverage preferences also come into play. French drink a lot of bottled water instead of sodas. More and more different kinds of waters are launched every year on French market.

According to the statistics[2], French consume on average 37.2 litres of soft drinks per person annually compared with 216 litres per person in the United States. On the other hand the intake of bottled water is very high in France (146.6 litres per person) and low in the US (46.8 litres per person)[3].

10 Walking - "naturally active" life

The French aren't prone to rushing to the gym, however they are more physically active by simply walking a lot. Daily walking is part of French people lifestyle. Their streets are walker friendly and are full of pedestrians, because many people use cars only for longer travels. Driving to a nearby food store would be considered ridiculous. People, especially in cities, walk or use public transportation because a car would just get you stuck in traffic. They have to climb the long flights of metro stairs.

So the French paradox is more than just the protective nature of the red wine or lower intake of calories. It's a culture of being physically active, savouring reasonable portions of healthy foods with the addition of small amounts of high-fat foods for flavour, and a philosophy of balance and moderation.

Sources & References

  • 2. Soft drink consumption by country. NationMaster.
  • 3. Bottled water consumption by country. NationMaster.
  • 4. Serge C. Renaud; Rene' Gue'guen; Ge'rard Siest,; Roger Salamon. Wine, Beer, and Mortality in Middle-aged Men From Eastern France. Arch Intern Med. 1999 Sep 13;159(16):1865-70. PubMed
  • 5. Gronbaek MN, Srensen TI, Johansen D, Becker U, Gottschau A, Schnohr P, Hein HO, Jensen G. Beer, wine, spirits and mortality. Lakartidningen. 2001 May 23;98(21):2585-8. PubMed
  • 6. Wannamethee SG, Shaper AG. Type of alcoholic drink and risk of major coronary heart disease events and all-cause mortality. Am J Public Health. 1999 May;89(5):685-90. PubMed
  • 7. Strandberg TE, Strandberg AY, Salomaa VV, Pitkala K, Tilvis RS, Miettinen TA. Strandberg TE, Strandberg AY, Salomaa VV, Pitka"la" K, Tilvis RS, Miettinen TA. Alcoholic beverage preference, 29-year mortality, and quality of life in men in old age. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2007 Feb;62(2):213-8. PubMed
  • 8. Rozin P, Kabnick K, Pete E, Fischler C, Shields C. The ecology of eating: smaller portion sizes in France Than in the United States help explain the French paradox. Psychol Sci. 2003 Sep;14(5):450-4. PubMed
  • 9. Parodi PW. The French paradox unmasked: the role of folate. Med Hypotheses. 1997 Oct;49(4):313-8. PubMed
  • 10. Bollmann F, Art J, Henke J, et al. Resveratrol post-transcriptionally regulates pro-inflammatory gene expression via regulation of KSRP RNA binding activity. Nucleic Acids Res. 2014 Nov 10;42(20):12555-69. PubMed
  • 11. Rozin P. The meaning of food in our lives: a cross-cultural perspective on eating and well-being. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2005 Nov-Dec. PubMed
  • 12. Cavanagh K, Vartanian LR, Herman CP, Polivy J. The effect of portion size on food intake is robust to brief education and mindfulness exercises. J Health Psychol. 2013 Mar 7;19(6):730-739. PubMed

Last updated: February, 2016

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