Simon’s Simples: The French Paradox

The French Paradox

The French, in terms of diet and disease, have been a statistical enigma. In stereotype, they relish high fat food, consume alcohol regularly and often smoke – the very picture of the World Health Organisation’s biggest ‘risk group’.

High protein, meat based meals include duck, goose and pork – even cooked in fat as a preference! Butter, cream, pork fat and wine are regular ingredients.

Yet they have comparatively low rates of stomach and colon cancer and the second-lowest world incidence of heart disease after Japan. ‘The French Paradox’ is well known to nutritionists and reasons for this statistical enigma are emerging.

One of their pet names for the English is ‘Les Ros Bifs’, in reference to the traditional overcooked Sunday roast dinner. French cooking is often much lighter than British, leaving many of the valuable nutrients in the food, rather than throwing them out with the pan water. Traditionally, French people relish their food and eat widely, they often take the trouble to prepare meals from fresh, home-grown, organic produce, meaning they get more minerals and nutrients from food. Our caricature image of a French person often involves someone bicycling around with strings of onions over the handlebars – an image of healthy outside activity and home-grown vegetables. Unfortunately, the French diet is changing towards more convenience foods.

The classic French diet also mixes food elements that complement each other, from a very wide base of ingredients that change with the seasons. High protein dishes are accompanied by generous salads and nutritious, easily assimilated soups are popular. Dried broad beans and chickpeas are also part of winter staples, adding anti-oxidant beans and pulses to a wide diet. It is a well-celebrated fact that the French eat everything! On one walking holiday in France we were warned against walking out on Sunday due to the large amount of locals out hunting with rifles.

Karen Billon, author of ‘French Children Eat Everything’ says:

“French parents teach their children to eat like we teach our kids to read: with love, patience and firm persistence they expose their children to a wide variety of tastes, flavours and textures that are the building blocks of a varied, healthy diet.”

Traditional French cooking defies the statistics

Polyphenols in red wine and the intelligent French use of herbs in cooking help to break down fats in the food and aid digestion. Alcohol licensing laws in France also mean that they tend not to ‘binge drink’ as much as countries with more restrictive licensing laws. The anti-oxidant properties of red wine in its moderate but steady intake are a contributing factor to French health.

Research in McDonalds restaurants in France reveals interesting evidence. It was found in America that the average time it took a person to consume a burger was 11 minutes. In France this doubled to 22 minutes. In France eating is often a cultural and family activity. They take their time eating and conversation is an important part of sharing food. They make eating into a quality time.

The French diet is ‘Epicurean’ compared to the American ‘convenience’ diet, where cheap, snack food is widely available wherever you go. The French have an attitude to eating that is not fixated on health or medicalising food, just simple enjoyment of wholesome and fresh ingredients prepared well. People in rural France often value the whole process of food from growing it right through to preparing and eating. It is no surprise that internationally known French phrases include such as ‘Bon appetit’ or ‘Joi de vivre’.

Unfortunately even France, especially in the cities, is starting to lose its traditional relationships with healthy and natural nutrition. The easy availability and convenience of instant and take-out food means that many people are disregarding their health for more convenient alternatives.

Fortunately there are many actions we can take both to protect and heal ourselves from a toxic culture. What follows are thirty positive actions that anyone can take to minimise the impact of modern pharma-food madness.