The Truth About the French Paradox

I am a big believer in looking at other cultures for clues as to their health (good or bad) – There are loads of cultures and groups around the world who have never even thought about fitness or health, yet stay in robust shape and live long diesease free lives – for instance the Sardinian’s…..

The French Paradox is another interesting “theory” about health and longevity in general. It is a mystery as to why the French remain in such good health and have low levels of coronary heart disease (or at least better health than other developed countires) in spite of:

  • Their large Alcohol/Cigarette/Caffeine intake
  • Liberal use of Butter, Cheese and Animal Fats in general
  • The general lack of concern about exercise

To most people this would be totally mind boggling and someone with modern health problem would be told to – Stop Drinking, Cut out Saturated Fats, and Start exercising…….

Whether or not eating saturated fats in abundance or daily glasses of wine and cigarette are good or bad for health is another matter. To me the health and longevity of the French, and the French Paradox comes down to the following:

  1. Real Food – The french base their meals around real food, this means stuff that is cooked or baked fresh daily. They will go grab breakfast in the morning from the bakery and stop by the local fruit market to pickup some local produce. The same goes for lunch and evening meals which will be prepared with time and effort using a variety of spices and herbs and most importantly using fresh real food ingredients.
  2. Slow Food – This refers not only to the slower, more relaxed pace at which the French will enjoy their meals. But also to the time they take to prepare their food – not only helping in terms of food enjoyment also you will find that when you prepare your own food taking time and effort you are far more likely to savour every last bite and eat less….. See this link for a great writeup.
  3. The Sun – The French are not afraid of the sun and will regularly soak it up, whether walking around town or going to the beach on weekends. Up until recently sun screen was not used heavily, allowing for a good dosage of Vitamin D which is essential not only for hormones but also for bone health and maintaining appetite regulation.
  4. Lifestyle Exercise (Cycling, Tennis, Walking) – This is also key. As the french are hardly a nation with a fitness culture yet they engage in a lot of activity – Walking, Cycling, playing Sports it all counts and most importantly they have made it part of their lifestyle rather than something forced. Most french cities are made so that no car is needed to access the local amenities, therefore people are always walking about. Whether it is to get their groceries or pickup a newspaper and meet a friend for a coffee. Constantly moving and being on your feet will make a huge difference to metabolism, helping your body to burn rather than store….
  5. Knowing how to Relax – Although the French are known for their passion and excitement they also have a petty good grasp on relaxing, living the good life. They know how to enjoy free time. This is something that is evident when visiting France, everything is done at a much slower pace than in other parts of the world. Stress less, feel better…..

Although sadly like many other healthy cultures things are starting to change even in France – On my last visit I noticed the increased prevalence of things like Vegetable oilprocessed foods in supermarkets and even McDonald’s chains turning up around the place. Luckily the older generation still have a pretty good grasp on health in general and live a healthy active life.

As for the next generation I am not sure whether the Paradox will apply or exist….

I still visit France once a year on holiday and the quality of fresh and local ingredients available at reasonable prices never ceases to amaze me. For me it is hard to eat poorly out there, and makes me think all people need is access to good real food and a little knowledge of how to cook and what to eat and things cannot go far wrong. So in a nutshell:

  • Cook your own food at home, using real food ingredients
  • Eat slowly, chew well and savour your food
  • Walk as much as you can during the day (at lunch, after dinner, take the stairs and escalators when you can)
  • Get a regular dose of Sun
  • Practice relaxation

Easier said than done, yet the French Paradox seems to have little to do with bad lifestyle habits but is more about their good habits counterbalancing the bad ones. The truth is the human body is very resilient and in spite of a few vices, so long as we are doing the rest right good health can be achieved.


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