The French Paradox

Food politics
The Gascon Paradox

Last week, I made a dish of confit rabbit, coated in breadcrumbs and then deep fried.

A couple of people made comments about the inherent unhealthiness of the meal.

True, this was a meal of rabbit cooked in goose fat and then deep fried.  It had its fair share of calories, but it tasted unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before – gamey, crisp and meltingly soft with undertones of garlic and bay and a sharp saltiness that proved irresistible.  It wasn’t in the slightest bit healthy.

Phil’s comment stood out:

“That sounds super nice! Although in theory it doesn’t sound super healthy – it’s all natural food with no crap added. Just remember the Gascon Paradox in France…”

The Gascon paradox, you say?

The Gascon, or French paradox is a medical conundrum.  It undermines nearly everything we currently understand about the relationship between food and health.

It poses a very simple question – why, when the French diet is so high in saturated fat, are levels of heart disease and obesity amongst French people relatively low?

It’s a truly perplexing issue.  Flick through Larousse Gastronomique, or indeed any half decent French cookbook and you’ll find recipe after recipe built on a the building blocks of butter, cheese, meat, cream – saturated fats in all their delicious and glorious forms.  Surely it can’t be healthy to eat like this?

Current medical advice from the UK’s National Health Service advises that consumption of saturated fats should be limited to prevent heart attacks, stroke and narrowed arteries.  Their list of foods to avoid reads like a French chef’s shopping list in parts.

The link between a diet high in saturated fat and serious disease and premature death is well-known and well-understood.  Saturated fat is bad.  Fact.

This leads us back to the paradox.  How do the French get away with eating a diet packed full of the stuff that we’re being told to avoid at all costs?

I don’t think there is an answer, but there are plenty of theories.

The most likely explanation is that the French have never really taken to heavily processed foods in the same way that their Anglo and American cousins have.  A normal, run of the mill French supermarket is a temple to locally grown, seasonal fresh produce.  Vegetables are piled high, the fish counter groans under the weight of lobster and mussels, the meat counter has good quality meat.  Ready meals are conspicuously absent.

The French love to eat.  They take their time over their food, in its planning, preparation and consumption.  Meals are an important part of the French day, to be savoured and enjoyed.  Show me a French person who isn’t passionate about food.  A microwaved chilli con carne from Asda simply wouldn’t cut it.

This obsession with food translates into meals that are cooked without a great deal of processed ingredients.  The French know how to cook and they use their knowledge to cook meals from scratch without the need for processed ‘assistance’.

Another theory positions red wine as a major factor.

The French don’t have a culture of binge drinking.  Instead, there’s a healthy and sensible respect for alcohol, which tends to manifest itself in drinking red wine in moderation.  Medical evidence is mixed, with some studies identifying compounds in red wine that serve a protective function, whilst others focus on the devastating effects of over consumption.  The jury is still out, and there’s certainly little evidence that a glass of red wine a day keeps the heart surgeon away, but some studies show that moderate intake of the right type of alcohol could have a preventative and protective effect.

Olive oil might be another angle.  Yes, the French consume a lot of fat and oil, but what if a large proportion of that fat is the ‘right’ type of fat, as found in olive oil?  Does that have a positive impact on overall health and cancel out some of the ‘wrong’ types of fat found in things like meat and dairy produce?

Other factors could be the low incidence of snacking between meals, lower sugar intake, far higher consumption of fish, more regular meal structures, smaller portions  and simply taking meals more slowly and enjoying them more.

Nobody has the answer, but the clear theme seems to be one of moderation.

I think Phil nailed it in his original comment – “all natural food, with no crap added”.

It’s a good mantra for any cook.

Eat good, fresh food in moderation, drink a little, enjoy your long life.