The French Paradox is alive and well.
Last week Katie and I spent three and a half days in Paris, essentially on an eating tour of the city. Seriously; when we got back to NYC I realized that our spending was limited to a trip up the Eiffel Tower, use of the subway, souvenirs… and a beautiful display of American gluttony for French food. We did “eating well in France” really well.
Our first proper, not jetlagged meal was a breakfast at The Benedict, and that meal skyrocketed into the top ten meals in my life. The eponymous eggs were delicious, as where the truffle potatoes, avocado, and toast that came with them. It was nothing I hadn’t eaten before, and yet…
It was food elevated to another level. It wasn’t just food. It was experience.
I know, I know, I’ve taken the French bait. I’ve eaten too many of their Freedom fries. They’d call them frites, you hick. I’ll confess, I take a bit of pride in being able to eat cold pizza for breakfast, and for eating quality food without being a foodie. You know, the one who’s gone Paleo, vegan, raw, IIFYM, organic, and ketogenic while doing the Whole 30 in the same New Year’s Resolution. Come on, it’s just food, man.
There I was in Paris, just eating food; Delicious, decadent food.
In between bites of bottomless steak and frites, our daily cheeseboard, or the most delicate crepe, I people watched, and I wondered. We were eating foods that most Americans are taught to believe are the rare indulgence, that too much of them will kill you, that they’re gluttonous treats to fear.
It seems that the French have yet to receive this message. It also seems that they’ve yet to receive the message on carry-out coffee, smoking, aggressive fitness, or obesity. Let me explain:
In three mornings in Paris, I saw one person with a cup that was not a Starbucks cup, and it looked to be a single shot of espresso. There were cigarettes everywhere I turned, and as a result, the amount of second-hand smoke was worse than I’ve ever experienced. This appeared to be the norm. I counted a total of zero gyms in Paris. I mean, I work in a gym, I’m all about gyms, and yet I couldn’t find ANY. Maybe they didn’t have flashy billboards or big signs out front, but I was completely unaware of them. The exercise that we did spot were some runners on Sunday morning in the Tuileries garden. “Runners” come to think about it, is generous. They were jaunters and joggers, not the Strava warriors I’m used to seeing in Central Park.
Understanding that my personal observations don’t hold that much weight, I watched those around me for what I assumed to be an obvious byproduct of this environment. As I searched far for the wide, I was flummoxed. Considering what we’re taught as students or as fitness professionals, this seems like it would be the American Dream for obesity. However, that was not the case.
If you’re unfamiliar with the French Paradox, I’ll catch you up via our friends at Wikipedia:
The French paradox is a catchphrase, first used in the late 1980s, which summarizes the apparently paradoxical epidemiological observation that French people have a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD), while having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats, in apparent contradiction to the widely held belief that the high consumption of such fats is a risk factor for CHD. The paradox is that if the thesis linking saturated fats to CHD is valid, the French ought to have a higher rate of CHD than comparable countries where the per capita consumption of such fats is lower.
The French paradox implies two important possibilities. The first is that the hypothesis linking saturated fats to CHD is not completely valid (or, at the extreme, is entirely invalid). The second possibility is that the link between saturated fats and CHD is valid, but that some additional factor in the French diet or lifestyle mitigates this risk—presumably with the implication that if this factor can be identified, it can be incorporated into the diet and lifestyle of other countries, with the same lifesaving implications observed in France. Both possibilities have generated considerable media interest, as well as some scientific research.
When the lab coats review the French Paradox, they’re looking at a whole lot of data to inform their thoughts/decisions, where I relied on my own limited senses while perusing the bistros of Paris. I’m not an epidemiologist, or an endocrinologist, yet I fancy myself a scientist, and I love me an underdog explanation. We Americans have long believed that everything will lose to Saturated Fat, and I think we have the pinnings of a victory story here.
There was one more thing I noticed in France: The absence of stress.
Every where I looked, every corner we turned, I was smacked in the face with calmness. I’m sure that over there it’s the norm, but I live in New York City, and it isn’t called the “city that never sleeps” for nothing. I haven’t used an assessment on the people of Paris, or ran sleep quality numbers using electronic hats, but the shear volume of quiet in that city was absolutely breathtaking. We walked through the streets and I felt as calm as I do when I’m in the woods, pedaling up a hill in my granny gear. The calmness in that culture was incredible.
Here’s something I learned:
Excitement or calmness can both be created. In New York, we often create an excited energy, bordering on nervous, that drives us forward. The fear of missing out is everywhere. We go go go, then we go harder. In Paris, the energy was calmer, slower, and far more comforting. Accustomed to the NYC energy, Paris felt absolutely incredible.
Having been back in New York for a minute, Katie and I have been focused on embracing those slower moments that we loved so much. This means some dedicated coffee time in the morning, and a few seconds to pause, hug, and take a breath throughout the day. You can enjoy a similar practice, be it a deep breath at the printer at work, an extra few minutes to finish your morning coffee or evening drink, or getting into bed 10 minutes early to unwind.
I don’t believe the French paradox is as much a nutritional paradox as much as it’s a social practice. It’s one that I’m working on, and I encourage you to try as well. C’est la vie!