Coined in the 1980s, the term ‘French paradox’ refers to the apparent mystery that, despite the fact that the French have diets high in saturated fats, they seem to have low incidences of heart disease. Ever since this term has come to light, many studies have followed. All have tried to find the reason behind this seemingly healthy nation. Was it the butter, or the wine? Perhaps, both?
For the last three decades, many researchers have been studying the underlying causes of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Epidemiological studies show that high intakes of saturated fats, calories, and cholesterol are linked to higher incidences of death due to CVD. But in 1980, French scientists realized their country did not follow the same pattern. Their data showed that, despite consuming foods high in dietary fat, the French had a low incidence of CVD related deaths and their blood lipid profiles did not match their intake of fats. So, in 1980, being perplexed by the results, the scientists coined the term ‘French paradox’.
It's no surprise that many studies have followed since, with researchers all over the world trying to establish the cause for this anomaly. What’s the secret? Is it the wine? For many years, health experts argued that the high consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine, could explain this strange phenomenon.
In 1995, researchers concluded that, despite the prevalence of smoking and consuming a high amount of saturated fats, protection against heart disease was all thanks to the red wine. Not only did the wine have a protective effect when consumed with food, but the polyphenols and antioxidants in wine also seemed to be good for heart health. Needless to say, not long after the study was published, red wine sales increased by 40%! Even those who didn’t consume any alcohol started taking up a glass of wine in the evenings.
However, apart from wine, there was another explanation that could very well be the reason for this paradox. Even though French cuisine is filled with rich foods, the people remain slim. This is likely due to the significantly smaller portion sizes consumed in France, in contrast to America. And although French people consume a lot of cheese and butter, they also consume lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, and polyunsaturated fats. Studies have already shown these foods to have a protective effect against CVD. In fact, the Mediterranean diet (of which the typical French diet falls under) consists mostly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and lean proteins. It’s one of the only diets that doctors and nutritionists have been promoting consistently for years.
Unfortunately, the French paradox might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s not so much about the red wine (sad, we know) than just being about overall eating habits. In this day and age, an increasing number of French citizens are adopting a lifestyle similar to the one prevalent in modern-day America – unhealthy processed foods, sugary sodas, and less exercise, which could mean that their intriguing health status might soon be a thing of the past.