For decades, scientists have been bafﬂed by the ‘French paradox’ — the apparent disconnect between France’s rich cuisine and its slender population.
In fact, the French style of eating — a slightly more regional spin on the Mediterranean diet — is seen as one of the healthiest. Despite all the cream, oils, cheese, meat and red wine the French consume, only 10 percent of the adult population is obese, compared with 24 percent of British adults and over 30 percent of Americans.
But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all about wolfing down cheese and red wine, there’s a lot more to it. Although the French style of eating style of eating is typically abundant in protein-rich meats and ﬁsh, it's balanced with lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, as well as being low in sugary grains and processed foods.
Eating these sorts of foods results in more stable blood sugar levels than British and American diets dominated by convenience foods, and prevents excess fat being dumped into our cells and arteries.
In fact, a review of 35 studies on the Mediterranean diet has shown favourable effects on insulin resistance, cardiovascular mortality and cancer incidence.
While the French may love their cheeses, they also love their nuts, seeds, olives and seafood, which supply healthy fats shown to protect against cardiovascular disease. These ‘good’ fats also reduce inﬂambition, so are great for anyone with injuries, joint problems or allergy-type reactions. And if you want to keep cycling into old age, research has shown that among individuals aged 70–90, adherence to a Mediterranean diet and healthy lifestyle is associated with a more than 50 percent lower rate of all causes of mortality.
And onto the wine...
Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about the wine. Wine contains a rich mix of cardio-protective nutrients. These include salicylates (which can improve your blood circulation) and ethanol, a vasodilator that can reduce blood pressure.
Red wine also contains a mix of ﬂavonoids that reduce free-radical formation and the risk of thrombosis. These also raise HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol — the good stuff) and inhibit LDL (low-density lipoprotein) oxidation in the arteries. The beneﬁts appear greater when you drink it like the French — in small amounts with meals.
But the French paradox involves much more than just the type of food they eat. Recent studies have shown that smaller portion sizes in France may explain why they can seemingly eat mussels drenched in garlic butter and still stay slim.
In fact, on average they consume far fewer calories than we do. This is partly because of their mindful style of eating — the French savour their food. For them, it seems, eating is a life-enriching pleasure, not a chore.
Eating in France is very much a social activity. By taking things more slowly, there’s plenty of time between courses for the body to work out when it’s full. So for the French, it’s quality that counts, not quantity.
Foods found in the French-style diet include:
- Dark chocolate
- Lean meats, ﬁsh and seafood (more protein, less carbohydrate)
- Local cheeses and hams, and small portions of breads and pastries
- Homemade meals, smaller portions
- Olives, nuts, seeds and dried fruits
- Plenty of local fresh vegetables, fruits and whole grains
- Small amounts of red wine with meals
- Butter and olive oil
- Garlic, herbs, citrus juices and vinegars for ﬂavouring