Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Pass the Steak and Butter, Please????

Leave a comment

If you have ever taken a nutrition course in the last twenty years or so, the following headline would make your head spin out of control.

“Study fails to link saturated fat, heart disease.” What??  After all these years of telling people to avoid or severely limit their intake of steak, butter, and cheese and whole milk to lower their blood levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) this is one headline I thought I would never see.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults get no more than 7% of their daily calories as saturated fat (if you are eating around 2000 calories a day.  This means that you should get about 16 grams of saturated fat a day.  The new study analyzed 21 studies and no clear evidence that higher saturated fat intakes led to higher rates of heart disease or stroke.

For a number of years now, there have been many studies saying that a Mediterranean-type diet is heart healthy.  A new study from Spain verifies this once again. This type of diet although varying from region to region in the Mediterranean countries is a plant-based diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, olive oil, red wine with fresh fish (depending on regional availability).

When researchers studied data from 1992 and 2004 from 41, 078 healthy men and women from five Spanish centers, they found that those people who adhered more to a Mediterranean ideal diet, had a lower  risk of heart disease.

We have known for years of the French paradox.  The French are known for croissants, snails swimming in garlic butter, cheeses, and foie gras (goose or duck liver), pates, crème caramel, and chocolate mousse. If you measure the saturated fat content of these foods, your arteries should clog just by the mere mention of them.

So here are the facts.  The French diet is about 35-38% of total calories come from fat  (compared to 34% in the U.S.)  A lot of that percentage is saturated fat.  Collectively, the “good” HDL cholesterol levels and rates of hypertension in the French are about the same as they are in the U.S., but the total blood cholesterol levels are higher in the French.  They also smoke.  If you look at all the risk factors for heart disease in the French population, they should be having heart attacks far more than the U.S. population.  However, the opposite is true.  France death rates from heart disease are among the lowest in the world – second only to Japan.  They also report incidence rates of breast cancer that are about 50% lower, on average, than in the U.S. And their rates of colon and prostate cancers are about 30-60% lower, respectively, than those in the U.S.

They are also leaner and on average, live longer than U.S populations.   French men live about a year longer, women by 2-1/2 years.  One might say that their genes are just more resistant to heart disease.  However, when the French move to Montreal and begin to consume a more U.S-style diet, their heart disease rates begin to resemble those of North America.

What do they do differently?  The French do drink wine (red mostly) and they do it in moderation.  They also drink wine with meals – no Happy Hour for them.  They make lunch a mega-meal – the noon meal is a major one, especially in the more rural areas. Traditionally, the French have allocated one to two hours of their workday for lunch and on Sundays, lunch can last three or four hours.  They usually do not partake of mid-day snacking, whereas, Americans may have as many as three snacks a day.

In a nutshell, the French Dietary Guidelines emphasize a varied low-fat diet that moderate in alcohol and abundant in fruits and vegetables.

French Dietary Guidelines

Have regular meals.

Eat a variety of foods.

Fruits and vegetables should be a priority in the diet.

Do not abuse fats.

If you drink alcohol, drink with moderation.

Be active.

Weigh yourself every month.

Another thing that may help their good health is that they enjoy their food and do not feel guilty about eating it.  “Food is a life pleasure and it’s meant to be enjoyed”, says Annie Jacquet-Bentley a Parisian restaurant consultant.  The French are not afraid of rich sauces or eating the skin of the chicken.  “if you eat too much, the next day you eat less.  But you don’t punish yourself”, says Jacquet-Bentley.  How simple is that?

Portion sizes are also vastly different. So say researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and CNRS in Paris, who compared the size of restaurant meals, single-serve foods and cookbook portions on both sides of the Atlantic.

“The French paradox is only a paradox if one assumes that dietary fat is the major cause of obesity and cardiovascular disease,” said Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at Penn and lead author of a paper in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science. “However, recent studies suggest that the importance of fat intake as a risk factor has been greatly exaggerated.

Rozin and his colleagues weighed portions at 11 comparable pairs of eateries in Paris and Philadelphia, including fast-food outlets, pizzerias, ice cream parlors and a variety of ethnic restaurants. They found the mean portion size across all Paris establishments was 277 grams, compared to a mean in Philadelphia of 346 grams — 25 percent more than in Paris. In just one of the 11 comparisons, between Hard Rock Cafes in both cities, were the Parisian portions larger. Three other international restaurant chains consistently served larger portions in the U.S., and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants served meals that were on average 72 percent heftier than those served by Chinese restaurants in Paris.

Rozin said. “Much discussion of the ‘obesity epidemic’ in the U.S. has focused on personal willpower, but our study shows that the environment also plays an important role and that people may be satisfied even if served less than they would normally eat.”

Extending their approach to single-serve foods sold in supermarkets, Rozin and colleagues found 14 of 17 items studied were larger in American stores. For example, a candy bar sold in Philadelphia was 41 percent larger than the same product in Paris, a soft drink was 52 percent larger, a hot dog was 63 percent larger and a carton of yogurt was 82 percent larger.

Rozin’s co-authors on the Psychological Science paper are Kimberly Kabnick and Erin Pete at Penn, who conducted the work as part of their senior Psychology Honors thesis, and Claude Fischler and Christy Shields at CNRS. Their work was sponsored by the National Institute on Drug

University Of Pennsylvania (2003, August 25). Smaller Food Portions May Explain The ‘French Paradox’ Of Rich Foods And A Svelte Population. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 27, 2010, from­ /releases/2003/08/

However, this latest finding on saturated fat and heart disease should be interpreted with some caution.   I hope that the American eater will begin to incorporate into their lifestyles a more enjoyable attitude toward food and then insist on food being served in smaller portions (or at least given the choice).  Snacking should be revisited with more emphasis on healthy snacks for all of us instead of devouring processed snacks so rich in fats, sugars, and empty calories.

Many studies have shown that dietary saturated fat can raise the LDL-C (bad) in blood.  Some people are more than likely genetically prone to this effect than others.   We should also shift our emphasis on not just single nutrients in the diet, but emphasize the whole diet approach to healthy eating, e.g. the Mediterranean Diet approach.

So, enjoy that next steak but remember to accompany it with vegetables, whole grains, and whole fresh foods.  Eat more like the French, but proceed with caution.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s