French Paradox: Myth or Magic?

The French are known for many things, but it’s pretty much accepted that the thing they are most renowned for is their cuisine. Whether it’s cheese, bread or wine, they are considered to be the very elite. But with a diet filled with the saturated fat you find in these foods, surely they should be leading the way in heart disease too? 

In fact it’s quite the opposite. Despite having a diet that is rich in saturated fats, the French have relatively low numbers of coronary heart disease (CHD). But we’re constantly being told to avoid saturated fats because of that very risk. All seems a bit backward, right?

Does this mean that what we’ve been told about saturated fats is wrong? Well some say that’s exactly what it means. And if that isn’t the case, then there must be something else in the French way of life that helps prevent heart disease.

This isn’t just some conspiracy theory – there’s scientists out there right now who are researching this ‘French Paradox’. Just as there are people out there who firmly believe in this, there are those who see it as a complete myth. As with a lot of statistical evidence, it’s highly disputed. Deniers of the French paradox claim the statistics are manipulated to demonstrate something that just isn’t there.

What the statistics do tell us is that the French definitely do consume, on average, more saturated fat than Americans. They eat more cheese, they eat more pork, and they eat more butter. Yet when you look at the statistics for deaths due to CHD, the Americans have around 25% more.

Okay, this isn’t what you’d expect to see, but it doesn’t mean the French don’t have problems with their weight. In fact recent studies estimate about 1 in 3 French adults are overweight, and around half of them are considered obese. So this leaves us with that other scenario we mentioned – there’s something else in the French lifestyle that directly links to CHD.

Well if there’s something that the French consume in abundance other than saturated fat, then it’s red wine. And when Americans heard about this on their show ’60 Minutes’ in 1991, they saw the consumption of red wine increase by half over the next year.

It’s a widespread belief that if you consume a lot of saturated fat, you’re more likely to suffer from CHD – but just the notion of a French paradox has prompted scientists to look into this in more detail, and question whether the link is as strong as once thought.

Luckily, there’s almost always a study for things like this, and the French paradox is no different. What the Americans found through their study is that in a battle between saturated and unsaturated fats there was no real effect on CHD, whereas trans fats were shown to greatly increase the risk of contracting CHD.

Maybe the saturated fat has nothing to do with this though – and of course, someone has argued that too. In fact it’s been said that the fact that foods consumed in abundance by French people, butter for example, have a high level of saturated fat is just a coincidence, because these foods have something far more important to our heart health – vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 helps to prevent fatty build-ups on our arteries, which clearly would directly reduce cases of CHD.

You need fat in your diet, but more importantly you need the right fat, and while we can dispute whether saturated fats should be a part of your diet, what we know is that trans fats shouldn’t be. I’m not going to tell you to go out, buy huge amounts of cheese and then model your diet on that of a Frenchman.

As long as you’re monitoring your nutrition and limiting the elements you should be, there’s nothing wrong with putting a little va va voom into your life.


Ollie Lawrence
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