Not only do the French live longer than average Americans, they are slimmer, too. How can this be possible, especially when they eat lots of bread and cheese and drink wine nearly every day?
Researchers have been talking about this French Paradox since the 1970s, back when we realized that the French ate lots of saturated fat from dairy products and meat, yet they had a low rate for heart disease, while the British and Americans with the same saturated fat intake had a much higher rate of heart attacks and strokes.
Amazingly, the obesity rate in France is just under 10%, while in the US it is more than 30%–we have 300% more people who are overweight.
Some researchers have attributed this French health paradox to red wine consumption, and likely some of the health benefits of moderate red wine consumption play a role, but that’s likely only a small factor, and the reality is that the French drink less wine now than they did in the past, in fact, Americans now have the highest wine intake per person.
Yes, there are benefits to consuming 1-2 servings of wine per day (a serving is 4.5 ounces or 150 ml), as the pigments in red wine block oxidation and lower inflammation. Although drinking more than 3 servings of any form of alcohol, including red wine, is clearly harmful.
Likely more important than wine consumption is that the French eat more of the best foods. If you’ve been following my blogs over time, I’m sure you’ve heard me sing the praises for eating more fiber, especially from vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts. The French eat nearly twice as much fiber as Americans, with the average French citizen consuming a bit over 20 grams every day. This clearly plays a positive role.
The French are also more active, as they walk more than the average American as well.
Although the French do eat bread regularly, they don’t consume GMO bread like we do in the US. They have resisted the GMO grain movement and still produce wheat from original strains, and non-GMO wheat likely causes less inflammation than the wheat produced in the US.
The French also consume more probiotics foods. While cheese in the US is largely pasteurized and has far less flavor, French cheese is often raw, unpasteurized, and loaded with beneficial bacteria and fungi, providing a beneficial load of probiotic-rich microbes to support our gut microbiome. The French also eat lots of yogurt and many other fermented foods.
Not only do the French eat more beneficial foods, they use far less hormones, chemicals, and pesticides in their food as well. When they do eat meat or dairy, it is essentially organically and pasture-raised, never given hormones, and if they have steak, they eat a small 3.5 ounce portion.
But it isn’t just the food that is healthier. My final observation regarding the French Paradox is that the French appear less stressed than average Americans. They enjoy long, unhurried meals, they have closer connections to family, and they clearly express that sense of “Joie de Vivre”.
It shouldn’t be overly surprising that the French are able to eat more cheese, bread, and wine and live longer, healthier, and be trimmer than we do in the US when you consider their higher activity levels, greater fiber and probiotic intake, cleaner, less toxic food, and lower stress levels.
As I’m spending the next two summers exploring ports and researching how Mediterranean foods are both healthy and delicious, stay tuned for updates and recipes that will help you to live longer, healthier, and be trimmer.
I wish you the best of health!
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS