The French paradox… again

October 29, 2014 § 9 Comments

In case you’ve never heard of it, there’s a something called the French Paradox. It’s a catchphrase in medical circles, and basically, it alludes to the fact that French people eat a lot of saturated fat, but they don’t have a lot of coronary heart disease.

This goes contrary to what our doctors have told us: that we need to reduce our intake of saturated fats if we want to have healthy hearts. So why don’t the French have high rates of heart disease? A number of theories have been put forward, and those of us who love our cheese and red meat have clung to the French Paradox while we scoff down wedges of Brie, while others have gleefully glugged down red wine ‘for its anti-oxidants’, among other things.

Now we find ourselves in a the midst of a new – and controversial – way of looking at diet, also known as Banting or LCHF (Low Carbohydrates, High Fat) for weight loss, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer! (If I had a sarcasm font I’d be using it, believe me. Is there anything that fat cannot cure?)

But I note, with a wry smile, that again the French Paradox applies. Because the French eat plenty of carbohydrates, nay SUGAR! Their boulangeries, patisseries and chocolatiers are world-renowned and the French make good use of them. And yet, they are not a nation known for their obesity or diabetes levels. (Although I concede those levels might be rising thanks to the increasing popularity of fast food with younger people.)

What this demonstrates to me, is how silly this very binary debate is. As if obesity can be reduced to carbohydrates versus fats.

Because I may not be a scientist, but I’ve been a health journalist for a very long time, and this is what many, varied experts in the field have told me: obesity is a very complex issue. Yes, there’s energy in versus energy out, but that’s not the whole story. Your genes, environment, hormones, and activity levels all have a role to play. So does any medication you’re on. So does evolution: your brain has a ‘set point’ for your weight, and it tries to protect you against starvation. So when you try to lose weight, your brain tries its level best to fatten you up again…

All of this means that when scientists try to study diets and what they do to our waistlines, there are so many variables that it becomes very difficult to say exactly what makes us fat and what makes us thin. And the French Paradox just keeps poking its head over the parapet whenever the newest diet guru demonises a new food group. Because the French eat absolutely everything, and remain thin and healthy.

I honestly believe it’s the demonising that’s the problem. Food has become the enemy. So many people spend so much time and energy obsessing about every morsel that passes their lips, that they forget that food is fuel, and that it can be enjoyable. And they set up a classic deprivation cycle: tell yourself you can’t eat chocolate for six weeks and you’re likely to crave chocolate 24 hours a day.

Here’s how the French treat food: they eat it. If it’s edible, it’s fair game (pardon the pun). They celebrate it and savour it and truly engage with what they’re tasting. They make it with care. They use fresh, seasonal, local produce, with plenty of fruit and vegetables on their plates. They eat small portions. They sit down at the table and eat with a knife and fork, while having a conversation and connecting with other people. They eschew fast food and cook at home.

If we can learn anything from the French Paradox it should be that food is not the enemy. Nor are carbohydrates or fat, or any other nutrient you care to demonise because it’s the flavour – or not – of the month. I believe the way we eat is the problem: on the run, mindlessly, and too often choosing convenience over real, quality food.

And that’s why I like Michael Pollan’s approach so much, because it’s about what you can eat. And it’s simple and sensible and sound: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”


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