Obesity is in the news (as usual) again this week with the estimate that by 2030, 42% of Americans will be obese (not just overweight, but obese). Compare that to our current U.S. rate of 36%. For months now nutrition “experts” are diligently trying to determine the cause of our national eating disorder and suggestions have been made smaller from portion sizes, too much fat, too many carbs, obesogens (chemicals in the food), processed and fast food, sugar-sweetened drinks, not enough sleep, not enough calcium, bacteria in the gut, and even viral infections. The list goes on and it still may be seen that all these factors may be contributory along with those still remaining to be studied.
The old long-held paradigm of calories in, calories out has been questioned. This advice works for some people, but for others it just doesn’t apply as we struggle with calorie restriction and increased exercise. The weight often creeps back even though some food and exercise habits have improved.
Studying food in different cultures allows us to look at the different ways people view food and how their diets affect their obesity and chronic disease rates. One culture stands out above all – the French, as they have a fairly high fat diet with low rates of obesity and heart disease. This is often called the “French Paradox”. How do they do it, we ask? The French, especially those residing in the northern and central regions, traditionally enjoyed cakes, pastries, and cheese that would make our arteries slam shut and pounds creep onto our waistlines.
So what are the facts about the traditional diets (around 10 years ago) of the French that kept them healthy and slim?
- The French diet was high in saturated fat – 35-38% of total calories came from fat compared to around 34% in the U.S.
- According to one study with French participants, only 14% derived less than 30% of their energy from fat, and only 4% derived less than 10% of their energy from saturated fat.
- Their heart protective HDL-cholesterol and rates of hypertension were about the same as they are in North America, but the total serum cholesterol levels were higher.
- They also smoked.
So tally these factors up and you would think that the French would have had at least a higher risk of heart attacks that North Americans. But the opposite was true.
According to the American Heart Association, out of thirty-five selected countries, France reported deaths from heart disease that were among the lowest in the world – second only to Japan.
In addition, they were better at combating cancer. For example, they reported incidence rates of breast cancer that were 50% lower, on average, than in the U.S. Also, their rates of colon and prostate cancers were roughly 30 and 60% lower, respectively, than those in the U.S.
Were they obese? Of course not. They were leaner – back in the late 1990’s, only 8% qualified as obese. How much of this is genetic? Probably not much since when the French moved to Montreal and began to consume a more U.S-style diet, “they gained weight and their heart disease rates began to resemble those of the U.S.
French Diet Secrets at a Glance:
Moderate drinking. The French have always mastered the art of moderate drinking. Their tempered one-to-two drinks-a-day habit may be what kept their hearts healthier despite their traditional high fat diet. And the French rarely drank alcohol without food. Think – no Happy Hours.
Lots of fruits and vegetables (no surprise). Even though the diet was high in fat, the French ate traditionally on average, four or more servings of vegetables a day.
No snacking. This is where the traditional French diet so differed from the U.S. typical dietary habits. Americans reported snacking on average three snacks a day contributing about 20% of day’s total calorie intake, the French did not usually partake of this between-meal ritual. Think of our supermarket aisles laden with snack foods.
They also did not eat pastries every day – they considered these as treats for special occasions. What’s for dessert? Mostly fruit after dinner
A Megameal Lunch. A study showed that the French had consumed about 60% of their daily calories by 2:00 p.m. each day compared with an American group taking in only 40% of their calories by 2:00 p.m. then having a snack a couple of hours later and ate the largest meal at dinner.
Curtail Dieting. The French rarely take dieting to extremes. Prepackage meals and diet foods were considered an “insult” to their palates. Instead, they made small changes like limiting butter or cutting down on cheeses to lose extra pounds that may creep on.
But, alas, the French are getting fatter – the topic of the next post. Stay tuned.