Saturday, July 21, 2012

Eating Butter + Sipping Wine: The French Paradox

I don't typically like to brag. However, I just received the grade that I got on my research paper in History of Europe...Folks, I got an A!

I am very proud of this research paper for many reasons:
1. My History of Europe teacher was a super witty and smart woman that is a very hard grader.
2. I usually procrastinate research papers...but this time I did not.
3. We were allowed to choose our topic as long as it had some relation with Europe.

It was fun settling on my topic for this paper. It's crazy how interesting a research paper can be when you are actually passionate about the topic! (Teacher's take this as a hint)

So what in the world did I write about?
The French Paradox! 
French Paradox: the basic idea that the French eat and drink a diet filled with saturated fats and wine and seem to be quite healthy from it.

My research was to get down to the nitty gritty of why.

I wrote this paper a week before I left for France too. I love how life can be so congruent at times. I found myself reflecting on my research paper while I dined on cheese and loads of bread. I was eating three meals a day, heavier lunches than dinner, no snacks between meals, more bread than I have ever eaten before, more animal protein and a healthy amount of cheese. I was eating like the French and I felt FANTASTIC.

You might be one of those people who loves looking at pictures on blogs and skims the written part, but this might be a fun time to actually read! I worked really gosh darn hard on this paper and it might actually lend a helpful lifestyle tip for you at the end.


Eating Butter + Sipping Wine: The French Paradox

            An infomercial dazzles its way onto Cindy’s TV screen one Saturday morning as she lounges in her stretchy pants and slippers. “Lose 20 pounds in three weeks today! Our package includes: 18 workout videos geared to make YOU sweat, a full diet guide and a free yoga mat! Call in the next fifteen minutes and you’ll get two extra workout tapes to get the six-pack abs you’ve always wanted!” She looks down, pinches a couple inches of excess blub around her waist and picks up her phone. For two weeks she sweats in her little apartment, working out to the impossibly difficult workout tapes, munches on boiled chicken and daydreams daily of that yellow polka-dot bikini shoved in the back of her underwear drawer. Her promising diet comes to a tragic end when her co-worker brings in a few dozen warm chocolate chunk oatmeal cookies for the staff lunch. Eight cookies disappear into the abyss of Cindy’s stomach. Her diet was ruined. She eats her feelings of disappointment with a large platter of nachos with extra sour cream after work and ends her night with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream. Cindy has just experienced what it is like to be an American dieter.
Americans live for the next promising diet trend. Cut out fat? No problem. Cut carbs? Sure thing. However, with the eagerness to follow a diet, most Americans lose sight of it within a few weeks and end up binging after every diet failure. They thrive on the yo-yo dieting concept. If it makes them look younger or thinner, they are willing to try just about anything. The 60 Minutes episode called “The French Paradox” (to be referred to as “the episode”) aired on November 17th, 1991, claimed that the croissant-munching wine-guzzling French were skinny and healthy. One would suspect Americans would jump on the next bandwagon to eat like the French in hopes of being healthier. If the French can eat carbs and drink wine while staying slim, surely Americans could too. While the episode did not directly impact the diet of Americans, it did spur a great amount of research. Through this research, it is evident that the success of the French Paradox is much more than their diet of cheese and wine. It is due to the biological and cultural aspects deep-rooted in the people of France.
The term “French Paradox” was originally coined by Serge Renaud, a scientist from Bordeaux University. After observing that the French suffered low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite their diets that are high in saturated fats. “Renaud claimed that moderate consumption of wine with meals coupled with an absolute prohibition against binge drinking is a prescription for a healthy heart, lower rates of cancer and stroke, and even accidents”(Kolpan). His research became popular in the episode on the topic of the French Paradox. It is not surprising that Americans are much heftier than the French. While seven percent of the French are obese, Americans are loosening their belts to a make a whopping 22 percent (Radford). It is hard to fathom how it is possible for the French to be less obese when they are notorious for drinking large amounts of wine, snacking on baguettes and croissants and rarely ever visiting a gym. This one episode would cause a rise of research and diet trends to truly understand why.
Immediately after the 1991 French Paradox aired, red wine sales increased by 44% (French). Stephen Kolpan, a wine enthusiast, publisher and professor at the CIA wrote an article in the Valley Table Magazine digging deeper on the topic of red wine and it’s growing popularity after the episode. “The public began to look deeper into the research on red wine, some buzzwords emerged--resveratrol, quercetin and catechin--the primary antioxidants found in red wine. There's evidence that red wine could have a positive impact on high-density lipoproteins (HDL, the "good" cholesterol), and that it could help to dissolve the artery-clogging platelets in the bloodstream” (Kolpan). This publication helped circulate the topic of red wine consumption and it’s health benefits all in relation to the new discovery of the French Paradox in America.
            It seems rather daring to suggest that the French do in fact eat and drink whatever they wish and stay so fit. The episode’s claims caused quite the buzz among doctors and diet experts. One fellow, in particular, dove straight into researching this phenomenon by transplanting his family to France. Dr. Will Clower, a neurophysiologist and neuroscience historian at the University of Pittsburgh spent two years working in Lyon, France at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences. He moved his wife, mother and two kids to France for those two years. They all lost weight, with the exception of his youngest daughter. “They had eaten as the French do, enjoying pastries, butter, creams and all of the foods Americans avoid out of fear of gaining weight”(Clower). Upon his return to America, he began doing research on how the French lifestyle leads to thinness. Over the years, Clower confirmed the statement that the 60 Minutes episode was in fact true. However, he cleared the cloudy water of “why?” by explaining that they stay thin from eating smaller portions, eating less sweets, having a larger lunch than dinner, eating less processed foods and walking daily. Will Clower delved into his story and research further in his book, The Fat Fallacy.
Dr. Clower was not the only one to go on a researching spree after the episode. Scientist from Philadelphia and the French research agency CRNS in Paris teamed up to compare serving sizes in Philadelphia and Paris in 2003. They found that the “mean portion size across all Paris establishments were 277 grams, compared to the average in Philadelphia of 346 grams – 25 percent more”(Radford). This study confirmed that even though the French diet was rich in fat, Americans consumed more calories. Furthermore, another team of researchers expanded on this topic by observing that “the French eat less than Americans, they seem to eat for a longer period of time, and hence have more food experience”(Rozin).  These notions were not mentioned on the episode, but are evidence that a diet goes far beyond the food. 
            Dr. Clower, along with his book, he developed a diet plan based off the French Paradox known as the “ PATH Curriculum”. His eight-week program was offered to the medical staff in the Vail Valley Medical Center in Colorado in 2005. Clower’s mantra of “do what they do, and you’ll get results” was used as the backbone for their diet plan (Paradox). He coached them to eat rich foods in smaller portions, mimicking the way the French ate. Along with smaller portions, they were also taught activities to prevent stress-induced overeating. “The PATH Curriculum was able to produce an average total cholesterol of 13.3 mg/dL just two weeks after completion of the program” (Paradox). In the end, 75 percent of participants lost weight, averaging four pounds per person. This study and diet valued the French Paradox in America even more after the 1991 airing by 60 Minutes.
            There have been others who have adopted this French Paradox idea with great success. Mireille Guiliano began her journey of eating like a French person after the 60 Minutes episode aired. Her personal success of living and eating like the French, urged her to write a book called, French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure published ten years after the episode in December 2001. In an interview with Guiliano, a food blogger asks what she believes is the reason why the French are fit. She explained, “It’s not about the extremes for sure. It deals with moderation, portion, variety, texture, colors…and pleasures when it comes to eating and/or drinking. In France, wine is apart of a meal. There is no need to binge drink. Fresh (food) is key too” (Guiliano).  Mireille’s personal success following the French Paradox diet enlightened many women to venture into this dietetic thought. It seems as though her success aligns with the affect the French Paradox had on America.
            A food blogger by the name of Nell recently published a post on her blog, “My Life Lived With Fat” about her personal experience regarding the French Paradox during her travels through France. Nell originally lost weight by following this idea of a high fat diet explored by the 60 Minutes Episode. This weight-loss lead her to France. She spent most of her time observing the way they ate. She noticed that at a young age, the French are taught to keep a balance between fat, protein and carbs to stay lean and satisfied. At the end of her trip she realized that her cravings for bread from the many boulangeries led to a weight gain after her trip. She answers her own question, “well then what do the French have that we don’t?” by explaining that they have a food culture. They learn how to eat very well—and good food is all around them”(Nell). Perhaps Americans can’t easily grasp this culture to affectively live exactly like the French. However, she makes a point that we should strive to embrace this way of thinking. [1]
            The success that occurred when Americans adopted the French “diet” was an exciting time for France as a country. Soon after the episode claimed that red wine was good for you, there was a large increase of wine sales in Bordeaux. Claude Fischler, a nutrition sociologist was interviewed by a writer for Salon exclaims,” The government loves the French Paradox because it sells red wine — Bordeaux wine in particular — it sells French lifestyle and a number of other French products”(Fraser). In the same breath, Fischler also claims “The French eat comme il faut, “the way it should be done.” They may eat whatever they want, but they eat by strict rules: no snacking, no seconds, no skipping meals, no bolting down food, no heading straight for dessert before first filling up on vegetables, salad and meat. They savor their food and eat smaller portions than Americans do”(Fraser). It is fascinating to see the progression and research that the episode caused. Not only for the sake of changing the American diet, but that the reason the French are healthy is much deeper than the surface of lots of fat and butter.
            The inquiry that the French Paradox is not necessarily based on the foods they eat, but how and when they eat them is a vital point that is discovered. One group of economists did a lot of heavy research on this particular subject of life style in America compared to that of the French. One of the most interesting points they make is the rise of mass preparation of food in America. Premade foods are a huge part of the average American’s daily intake. Their research showed that due to the ease of preparing foods there is an “1) increased variety of foods consumed; 2) increased frequency of food consumption; 3) a switch to high-calorie/high-flavor prepared foods that had previously been unavailable; or 4) an increase in the overall consumption of each individual food item” (Cutler). Meanwhile, the French are still eating homemade foods that take longer to prepare (Clower). Not only are they eating healthier foods, they take longer to eat them as well. French and American researchers found that the average American customer spent 35% less time at the table to eat and enjoy their burgers and fries (Rozin).  This proves a greater understanding that the French life style can withstand a richer diet.             Time and time again doctors have explained the benefits of eating slower to ensure your stomach can send signals to the brain to ring the bell that we are full. If only Americans chewed and swallowed a little slower and took a breath between bites, there could be a fighting chance the French Paradox could be adapted in America.
            There is evidence that the topic of the “French Paradox” made popular by the November 17, 1991 60 Minutes episode caused quite the buzz in America. It caused some to adopt a French diet, an increase in red wine sales and a bountiful array of research. It boiled down to an endless amount of exploring by psychologist, doctors and nutritionist to clarify why the French Paradox is successful for the French. Almost 25 years have passed since the episode aired and researchers are still revisiting this topic and how we can incorporate it into the American diet. However, it is apparent that their diet and wine consumption is unique and successful to France due to many other social and cultural traditions that are much different than in America. Until Americans can learn to eat whole foods, enjoy meals at a slower pace, snack less and eat smaller portion sizes, it’s just not possible to attempt the idea of the French Paradox.
[1] While her observation does make a point regarding eating habits in France, her main observations are made in restaurants and cafes. This causes a misperception that the French eat the same exact way at a restaurant then they typically would at home. It is fair to suggest that those who are dining in restaurants eat more lavishly then they might at home. 

What are your thoughts on the French Paradox? 
Do you think the French have the better diet? 
Would you ever attempt to eat this way?

p.s. please don't plagiarize this paper. Your teacher will most likely find out and you will be utterly embarrassed. 
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