The French Paradox

“They [the French] are annoyingly thin. If you go to France and see an obese person, it’s probably an American on vacation”

Dr David Diamond- Demonisation and Deception in Cholesterol Research

The French Paradox, a term coined in the 1980’s began the quest to answer the enigma that French people, despite consuming more wine per capita than many other nations and a diet high in saturated fat, have relatively low levels of coronary heart disease, especially when compared with people in Britain. This was followed in 1991 by a documentary on America’s  CBS News channel, 60 Minutes 

It seemed that, for a few years, that we could gorge ourselves on cheese and pâté and then counter it with a bottle of  Bordeaux.

But is the answer so simple?

Resveratrol, a polyphenol which is found in abundance in grapes and therefore in red wine was attributed to the paradox but the amount required would mean drinking about 40 bottles per day to receive the correct dose.

The answer could lie in another French staple, cheese. In the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry a study suggested that high cheese consumption reduced “bad” cholesterol and therefore could help explain the French paradox.

Researchers found that those who consumed cheese had higher faecal levels of butyrate, a compound produced by gut bacteria. Elevated butyrate levels were linked to a reduction in cholesterol suggesting the role of gut microbes in the paradox

This study however, was funded by the Danish Council for Strategic Research, Arla Foods and the Danish Dairy Research Foundation, so we all know where studies such as these can lead us!

We now know that saturated fat consumption and cardiovascular disease is not as clear cut as once thought. In 2006, after accumulating 8 years of data the Nurses’ Health Study found that the balance of saturated versus unsaturated fats did not appear to affect heart disease risk, whereas the consumption of trans fat was associated with significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease

In 2009 the book Cholesterol and The French Paradox suggests that the French paradox is due to the lack of hydrogenated and trans fats in the French diet, stating that the French diet is based on natural saturated fats such as butter, cheese and cream that the human body finds easy to metabolise, because they are rich in shorter saturated fatty acids but the American diet includes greater amounts of saturated fats consisting of vegetable oils and trans fats.

Some key factors of the French diet:

  • French people consume up to 80% of their fat intake from dairy and vegetable sources, including whole milk and cheeses.
  • Higher quantities of omega 3 rich fish.
  • Smaller portions, eaten more slowly.
  • Lower sugar intake.
  • Less snacking between meals.
  • Less fizzy drinks, deep-fried foods, snack foods, and especially ready meals.

New research could give an answer in something as simple as cheese. Vitamin K2 in the right kind of cheeses such as Gouda, Edam and Brie shows the importance of calcium assimilation.

In her book, Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox, Canadian nutritionist Dr Kate Rhéume-Bleue suggests that the explanation for the lower rate of cardiovascular disease in France is the high level of vitamin K2 (also known as menaquinone or MK7) is abundant in some of the fattier foods in the French diet. Lack of vitamin K2 in the diet is linked to increased calcification of plaques in artery walls.

“The French Paradox isn’t a paradox at all. The very same pâté de foie gras, egg yolks and creamy, buttery sauces that we inaccurately labelled “heart attack on a plate“ literally supply the single most important nutrient to protect heart health.”

Supporting this theory is the presence of Vitamin K2 in the Japanese delicacy, Natto which has very high levels of K2 and the population of Japan that consume this fermented bean have fewer strokes and heart disease than the rest.

The jury is still out when it comes to the French paradox but the addition of vitamin K2 in the investigation could eventually lead to an answer.

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