The French Paradox (Or: How to Eat and Not Get Fat)

I recently stumbled upon an excellent blog by cocktail enthusiast and bartender Charles Hardwick, which expressed some strong opinions about today’s calorie-counting, diet-obsessed population. In short: “Watching a grown man eat a bunless burger with a knife and fork while he drinks his beer with a straw is akin to watching him consume his own entrails. Horrifying.”

I agree. I’m depressed by today’s obsession with health food, which all too often precludes people from experiencing the great flavors of food and drink that make life worth living. Also, it’s not over-reaching to say that societies have been built and sustained on traditions of food and drink; so what will happen to those cultural practices as we continue devolving into a calorie-counting, food-paranoid society that no longer knows how to enjoy a food’s flavor without worrying about how it will impact the weight scale the next day? This, my friends, is what we have to look forward to if we keep moving down this path: more and more variations of Soylent, an uber-bizarre liquid food replacement system.

64599_656711487793_588834696_nBut seriously. How do we stay healthy while still consuming food stress-free? It is indeed a conundrum. So after reading Charles’ blog, I started lamenting about why we can’t have it both ways, which then got me to thinking about the French Paradox. This refers to the seemingly contradictory fact that the French have extremely high consumption rates of saturated fats (mmm, French triple-cream brie, nom nom nom), but unusually low rates of coronary heart disease and obesity. And, I decided to get to the bottom of it. Here goes!




Question: Is the French Paradox really a thing? Or just something we like to complain about with no basis in fact?

PMC1768013Answer: Yes, the French Paradox is really a thing, and a lot of scientists are pretty interested in it. Here’s the data: the recommended intake of saturated fat, according to the World Health Organization, is less than 10% of total energy (i.e. calories). The French consume at least 16%, significantly more than most countries. Yet check out this graph charting the relationship between cholesterol levels and death from heart disease in 40 countries – whereas for most countries, the two are highly correlated, that’s not the case in France.



Question: Well then, what the heck, France? Why is this so?

Answer: There’s been a ton of research done on this, summarized nicely in this article by the National Institutes of Health. The basic takeaway: wine. Red wine. According to a strong body of research, wine consumption has been associated with a decrease of 24–31% in mortality of all causes, when consumed regularly (two or three glasses a day). Sadly for me, not the case with liquor; also not the case with beer.


Question: What should we do?

red_wine_healthy-1Answer: I think it’s pretty obvious. Drink more red wine. Or, stick to your beer and liquor and go to the gym. Or, just try to be a little less neurotic. But either way – don’t turn your back on the tasty foods in your life. Because last time I checked, stress (read: calorie-counting) and depression (read: fried chicken deprivation) are pretty bad for your health, too.



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About Shannon McIntyre Hooper

Shannon McIntyre Hooper is Southern-born, sweetbread-loving, and cocktail-obsessed. Follow her on Twitter for spastic outbursts about books and booze: @UnicornBitters

  • Dana Staves

    Love this! Really cool to see the scientific breakdown.

    • Shannon McIntyre Hooper

      Data doesn’t lie!!! :)

  • kit steinkellner

    Don’t French people walk and bike EVERYWHERE? I think they’re a lot less desk-bound than me/lots of Americans. Also the Continental Europeans I’ve met have tended to skew outdoorsy. I feel like exercise plays a big part in this particular conundrum.

    • Shannon McIntyre Hooper

      Interesting! That wasn’t mentioned in any of the NIH or other research studies on this topic that I read. Seems logical, though!

  • Marge Hennessy

    I love this! Thanks, Shannon! It reminds me of an interview I heard on The Splendid Table once about how will power is like a muscle, and it gets tired from overuse. http://www.splendidtable.org/story/willpower-rediscovering-greatest-human-strength It gets kind of sciencey for me, but the gist of it says that you shouldn’t spend your life all miserable and eating turkey bacon instead of real bacon. Because your body will REVOLT!

    • Shannon McIntyre Hooper

      Oooooh – that’s kind of fascinating. I’ll check that out. Seriously, sometimes people just need to relax and EAT THAT CAKE.

  • bevin1gaines

    Love it. I’m starting what will hopefully be my final foray into getting fit and it’s good to be reminded that balance is key. And red wine.

  • http://heidenkind.blogspot.com/ Tasha B. (heidenkind)

    I once heard Rachael Ray say, “If you eat healthier, you can eat more.” Aha, but then you also gain more pounds. French people eat high-calorie dishes, but they eat them slowly and in small quantities, because they don’t NEED more food to feel full. Eat less, feel full more. If you’re hungry, drink. That’s the ticket. ;)

    • Shannon McIntyre Hooper

      Yes, and same goes for alcohol if you drink it slowly, for enjoyment, instead of as a binge drinking GET ME DRUNK NOW activity. Oh, America. We’re so silly.

  • Michael Baum

    It has less to with the wine and more to do with the food culture as a whole. Processed foods are not a major part of their diet, it’s not abut the wine, it’s about eating fresh food and eating it properly. Less food, more time spent eating it, wine, balance of courses, no snacking, more water, and fresh foods. Local places selling good quality foods and people eating right portions instead of overheating and bingeing on meats. It’s not a paradox, it’s America’s obsession with making nutrition about one or two big things. Fat is bad, carbs are bad…it never works because it isn’t meant to be that way.