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Health Lessons from International Cuisines: France


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Hearty and healthy food is the key to happiness according to the French

International cuisines have long added variety to the American palate. Although modern, processed foods are gaining popularity in developed and developing countries, most regions still retain unique food cultures and dietary patterns that set them apart from the rest of the world.

In this series of internationally-themed articles, I’ll pick different countries or regions and share some of the most interesting and beneficial aspects of their food culture, and how they can enrich our own. First up: France!

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The French Paradox

A typical day in France starts out with tea or coffee and a light breakfast of bread or croissant, butter, and jam. Lunch is usually the biggest meal of the day, containing about four courses – a ‘starter’ (typically raw vegetables, cold cuts, or pâté), a main dish (usually red meat or poultry, plus a starch and vegetable), a cheese course, and a dessert (often fruit). Dinner is usually similar to lunch, but smaller.

For years, this basic dietary pattern has been the source of much consternation in the scientific community. The French get approximately 39% of their energy from fat, including 16% from saturated fat. (1) About 30% of that saturated fat comes from butter. Their fiber intake is relatively low, and they consume fewer cereals, fruits, nuts, beans, and rice than most other European countries.

Scientists and laypeople alike simply cannot reconcile the high-fat, ‘indulgent’ diet of the French with their notoriously low rates of cardiovascular disease, and have therefore dubbed it the “French Paradox.” (2, 3) Researchers have repeatedly attempted to prove that red wine is the reason behind France’s better-than-expected health, but there are a few other factors that likely play a more important role.

An Appreciation for ‘Rich’ Food

Many of the foods known to Americans as ‘rich’ and ‘fatty’ are known in Paleo circles as ‘nutrient-dense,’ and in French circles as ‘delicious’. In France, cheese is served with nearly every meal, butter is used generously, red meat is consumed often, and organ meats make frequent appearances in pâtés, sausages, or as entrées. In fact, these ‘odd bits’ are so widely consumed that tourists have to pay close attention if they want to avoid them! France even has a private club devoted to the appreciation of organ meats.

If you’ve read the above links to my previous articles, you know that saturated fats, cholesterol, and other nutrients found in traditional animal products promote health rather than degrade it. Unfortunately, the conventional scientific community refuses to consider the possibility that France has better health because of their diet, rather than in spite of it.

Prioritizing Food Quality

Although supermarkets are sadly becoming more and more popular in France, many people still do their shopping at specialty stores or farmers’ markets where they can be confident of food freshness and quality. It’s not uncommon in France for a shopper to visit four or five different stores just for food, which can include a bakery, charcuterie, butcher, produce stand, creamery, and fishmonger. (4)

Here’s a telling statistic about French priorities: a survey found that about 75% of French people would prefer – at the same price – a week at a modest hotel with gourmet food, over a week at a luxury hotel with average food. In stark contrast, only 10% of Americans would prioritize the gourmet food. (5)

In France, even schools make food a priority. Check out a couple of these school lunch menus (6):

From a preschool (yes, a preschool) in Versailles:

  • Starter: sliced radish and corn salad with vinaigrette dressing, and black olive garnish
  • Main: Roast guinea fowl (commonly eaten in France instead of chicken); sautéed Provençal vegetables and wheat berries
  • Cheese: saint Paulin (a semisoft, buttery cheese originally made by trappist monks)
  • Dessert: Vanilla flan and “Cat’s tongue” cookies

And here’s a typical menu for a school in France’s poorest town:

  • Starter: Grated carrots or asparagus salad
  • Main: Beef tongue or ground beef, pasta, and green vegetables
  • Dairy: Cheese or yogurt
  • Dessert: Fruit salad with honey syrup

A Positive Relationship with Food

The French have one of the healthiest attitudes towards food of any developed country. Mealtimes are of the utmost importance, and eating is seen as a social time to enjoy family and friends.

A study comparing the attitudes toward food of four different nations found that Americans equate food the most with health and the least with pleasure, while the French equate food the most with pleasure and the least with health. (7) Compared to Americans, a higher percentage of the French associated the words ‘heavy cream’ with ‘whipped’ as opposed to ‘unhealthy,’ and while only a third of Americans consider themselves healthy eaters, about three quarters of French people view their diets as ‘healthy.’ (8)

As much as it pays to be aware of food’s potential health benefits or risks, sometimes it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude, than the right food with the wrong attitude. (Remember the story of the ‘beer and pizza’ diet?) The French do a pretty good job in both respects.

What Can the French Teach Us?

I think the biggest thing we can learn from French food culture is to cultivate a healthy attitude towards food. Most of you reading this blog already know the benefits of eating nutrient-dense animal foods and prioritizing food quality. But people following an ancestral eating pattern are just as susceptible to unhealthy food behaviors as those eating a Standard American Diet.

So take some advice from the French: if you decide to eat a slice of homemade chocolate cake at your grandma’s birthday dinner, don’t wallow in guilt – just enjoy it! And as tempting as it can be to grab a Paleokit and run out the door, there’s something to be said for sitting down to a meal on a regular basis and making it a time to connect with friends and family. Food is one of the oldest and most primal sources of human pleasure, and reviving and cultivating that pleasure is something we could all benefit from.

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Join the conversation

  1. Hi, I am worried I won’t be able to eat when I got o France. It will be around the Toulouse area, I have other intolerances, would it be best to stick with fish, sushi?

  2. Well, I was just in France this week. I noticed boulangeries (bakeries) and patisseries (bakeries) on nearly every other corner. There were often lines out the door, and shelves being cleared every day. I saw chocolatiers every few blocks. Wine shops everywhere. The French eat whatever they want. And I the National Breakfast appears to be a cigarette and a croissant.


    Looking more closely. The French “Tradition” baguette has strict rules to bear the name. It’s a slow rise bread. Their choux pastry dough must have only butter, eggs, water, flour. That’s it. Not even yeast (the steam from the water puffs the pastry). Incidentally, the chocolate makes up for whatever minerals were refined out of the flour (i.e. they trade-in their wheat bran for cacao seed paste).

    Then I looked up the statistics. The French eat about twice as much wheat as we do in the US, but they have about 1/3 the obesity. Obviously wheat and carbs are not a problem for the French. In fact, no restaurants or bakeries made much if any effort to cater to gluten free foods there at all. It’s just not much of an issue for them.

    Americans and British tourists were the only obese people we saw—they looked sick and poisoned next to the slender French. The difference is striking.

    So, if the French seem to tolerate large quantities of wheat, and can stay slender with low incidence of chronic diseases, like diabetes, why do Americans do so poorly with wheat and refined carbs?

    Well, the main difference between US flour and French flour is that French flour is not fortified. Few have noticed this distinction. Few EU countries take part in fortification.

    Believe it or not, there is evidence that fortification of flour is directly related to the obesity epidemic. The only developed nations who take part in flour fortification is the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. All of the other countries that fortify their white flour are poor developing nations or third-world countries. Basically the most obese nations eat white flours that are mandated to have mineral and vitamin imbalances.

    Niacin fortification in foods has been directly linked to obesity:

    Excess vitamin intake: An unrecognized risk factor for obesity

    Chronic niacin overload may be involved in the increased prevalence of obesity in US children

    B-vitamin consumption and the prevalence of diabetes and obesity among the US adults: population based ecological study

    I encourage people to look closely at the correlations discussed in those papers. They are eye-opening.

    This would both explain the French Paradox and the growing wheat avoidance movement in countries that fortify their white flour.

    Incidentally, iron fortification may also implicated in obesity, which would explain why the US and Britain have a much larger obesity problem, since they not only fortify with niacin but with iron too.

    It’s easy to find old evidence that iron prevents obesity. However, that appears to be a misunderstanding that was recently corrected. Up until recently it was believed that billions of people have iron deficiency, and need iron pills or to eat more meat. However, it is now understood that the symptoms of iron deficiency are usually due to “anemia of chronic disease/inflammation,” or “iron withholding,” in which iron is withheld from microorganisms (and cancer cells) so they don’t grow. Thus, iron absorption is lowered, and blood levels go down due to a hormone called hepcidin, which is induced in inflammation and stops iron from getting out of cells, including gut cells.

    This means that iron overload can go together with anemia, and this is apparently what happens in obesity, which is an inflammatory disease.

    People who are obese tend to have iron overload in the brain, in their urine and possibly in fat cells.

    Iron is actually only a problem when it’s unopposed by manganese and manganese is also well known to promote blood sugar regulation. Even obligate carnivores obtain sufficient manganese—the stomach contents of their prey is often extremely rich in manganese. For instance. 100g of caribou stomach contents has 10mg of Manganese, which is roughly the Upper Limit in humans.

    When food is fortified with iron, there is no manganese to oppose it. Eating a diet rich in meats and fortified carbohydrates would be a double-whammy—especially when you consider that saturated fat increases iron absorption and inhibits that of manganese.

    Again, the French eat a lot of chocolate (rich in minerals like manganese, iron and copper) which easily fortifies the minerals lost from their high consumption of refined unfortified wheat. Thiamin is easily obtained from their legumes, nuts and meats.

    Government mandated food fortifications appear to be causing some major imbalances in populations, which correlate with obesity patterns. In the countries that don’t take part, such as in France and other EU countries, we don’t see nearly the level of obesity as fortified countries despite very high wheat consumption.

    For those wondering, whole wheat flours aren’t fortified, but most “whole wheat” breads are actually a blend of fortified white and whole grain flours.

    PS — Some have even suggested that thiamin fortification promotes obesity, which would explain countries like Australia and New Zealand having some obesity problems.

    The French Paradox, in the context of their unfortified flour, may be the key to understanding the obesity epidemic.

  3. I firmly believe that the health effect of eating what and like the french do is very much based on the fact that the people take the proper time to eat, are in groups and have good conversations, as opposed to gulp food down while walking (alone) back to the job. This also gives food a much higher societal value and maybe is so pleasantly cooked because of that.

  4. Right from the beginning (at school), the French are taught to eat only 3 meals per day, and their portions are smaller. Their bodies are accustomed to wait the hours until the next meal, unlike the rest of us who for some stupid reason have bodies accustomed to consume breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper! And ours are not small meals either! There’s no paradox here. We simply eat too much, and they simply eat much less.

  5. Thank you Chris for this great article. I agree that as much as it pays to be aware of food’s potential health benefits or risks, sometimes it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude, than the right food with the wrong attitude.

  6. I have lived in Switzerland (French/Geneva) and then the Alpes-Maritimes since 2002, and I’m not convinced that the franco-phone diet could be called “paleo”, nor that people walk or exercise more than in other western countries. I do agree that the Francophone diet is based more on a healthy combination of fresh seasonal local (with increasing imports) produce. I’m not sure what exactly links the francophone diet to such a lack of obesity, nor to such low levels of heart disease. The typical winter menu in Switzerland seemed to be 90% meat, potatoes and cheese, and the Alpes Maritimes region of France, being historically a recent addition formerly Italian, retains strong culinary links to Italian pasta and pizza. The region also has quite a significant Algerian/Morroccan population with foods such as couscous or tagine. I look around the locality of my work place (sophia antipolis) and I see as many French buying sandwiches at lunch on the hoof as I see people sat down for a lunch, and usually just two courses (starter, main and coffee). I see plenty people buying processed foods in the supermarket. There may still be this idyllic view of French village life, and ironically it is the ex-pat English non-working wives who seem to be the ones milling round the over priced local greengrocer, and at the local Friday morning market English would definitely be the language heard the most. The French families, ordinary folk, seem quite happy buying pre-packed poison panné, or super suger-packed breakfst cereals, or frozen pizza. However, in comparison to contemporary Britain there is still a strong preference for home cooked meals (not ready meals), preference for traditional restaurant menus (in this region that includes super thin crust pizza topped with a light tomato sauce and sprinkled with fresh ingredients). There area a lot of fresh vegetables consumed, and loads of salads, but then, a walk round the local Morrison’s in my parents’ home town in Scotland last week showed me a huge majority of locals buying fresh meat, fresh fish (fresher than i can get in my local french supermarket) and loads of fresh vegetables.

    I do notice a big difference from food in the UK, however, even from the healthiest of Scottish food, the Scots eat more pastry/cereal based foods than the continental europeans. Porridge or muesli for breakfast, toast with butter or honey or jam, lunchtime sandwiches with bread, bakeries packed full of scones, pancakes, buns, cakes, biscuits, shortbreads…steak pie with wonderful suet-based flakey puff pastry…and loads of potatoes. I can’t speak for other families but I notice the difference between my Mum’s home cooked veg (there is enough cooked for everyone to get one or two small crowns of over boiled broccolli and a spoonful of chopped overboiled carrots) and the meals i prepare at home in france with probably six times more vegetables, crunchy and often oven roasted.

    Not sure about the walking theory either. Perhaps in Paris it might be true, or cities such as Nice. However in the Alpes-Maritimes the world here was mostly developed in the late 60s through to the 1990s, and everything is set up for driving around. Of course there is public transport, but to get the average shopping, for food, clothes, household goods, get to work, go to the beach, etc etc, a car is really essential. There is an over priced Casino in my local village. The nearest supermarket is a ten minute drive away. Back home in Scotland my parent’s house is ten minute’s walk (south) from the local supermarket, ten minute’s walk (north) into the town centre, ten minute’s walk (east) from the beach and swimming pool/fitness centre and ten minute’s walk (west) to the botanic gardens or a leisurely river-side walk with children’s play parks. It is far easier to walk everywhere when I’m back on holiday in Scotland.

    Locally there are a lot of people who keep fit. They swim, play tennis, cycle (the very fittest, as the roads here were used in this year’s Tour de France for their challenging contours), run, and plenty families enjoy the outdoor lifestyle that goes with the sunny mediterranean climate. Plenty more i know do very little exercise, chain smoke as if it is an expression of french national identity, and pass the day sitting at café’s enjoying a leisurely rosé. There is a strange French culture though that seems to think women are supposed to be thin without being sporty. Sport seems to be more acceptable for men on the whole. When i go to the gym I am more likely to see women walking on the treadmill for half an hour and more likely to see men pushing the 20 minute 5k. I’m more likely to see men doing weights and women doing pilates, and more likely to see men playing football in the local sports ground while the women of my particular village seem to be quite invisible. I can’t run right now, recovering from a back/pelvis injury, but when i ran last year and the year before I was often the only woman i saw, but passed plenty men running the same route. This might be a village culture thing, cos i see more men sitting at the local bakery drinking coffee than women, and the same at the local bistro, although women are beginning to appear for a glass of rosé around apéro time, I strongly suspect that in my village there is a culture of woman at home and not of women who lunch. The younger generation (those in their 20s and 30s) seem to be more accepting of women who do sporty sports. I know a lot of women who go to dietitians and who follow “soup and vegetable” diets, and who get supplements from the supermarket or pharmacy to help them stay slim. Certainly under the age of 60 there is a strong cultural pressure for women to stay slim, and i guess the beach and sunbathing thing here adds to this as women want to stay in shape to wear bikinis on the beach.

    I guess it is easy to over generalise and say “the french way of life is paleo” because of the love of meat and veg, of butter and red wine. However, the French diet also places a strong emphasis on cheese, dairy, bread, creamy sauces, delicious fruit tarts with creamy custard and sweet syrupy glazes. Breakfast is simply croissant, coffee, chocolate, maybe yoghurt… as already mentioned it is practically impossible to get an omelette, scrambled eggs, bacon, or basically anything different from “french continental breakfast” in hotels.

    I think the increase in obesity in many western nations is far more complex than just comparing diets. After all, the basic diet has not changed much over the past 50 years. Lifestyles have changed, however, with central heating, car-dependent lifestyles, more sedentary jobs, less physically demanding house work and occupations, more TV watching, and generally busier and busier lives. A lot also has to do with marketing, as breakfast cereals such as “special K” sold as healthy contain just as much sugar as the Frosties along the shelf…

    One thing I would say though, is, cutting out gluten from my diet, cutting out dairy, and using the paleo idea as the basis for my meals and my eating has made me feel a million times better than i have for years. That’s not “french” or “english” or “american”, that’s just an individual choice to make changes to how i eat and in this case to embrace an experiment that seems to be giving excellent results.

    • agree with you, but don’t forget each region is different, and the region of Paris (1/3 of the population) can not use as much as car as in “Province”
      Today on France Inter (NPR equivalent) i learnt there are 3 millions more obese people since 1997. and right after there was a interview doctors and patient of an parisian hospital before and after surgery, and basically the advice is exercice more and eat less. Paleo has a long way to go here 🙁

      • I agree, most Parisians i know don’t even have a car, and ironically I do loads more walking when I’m in Paris than in do when at home in the Alpes-Maritimes, because here i need the car to do shopping, go to work, or even to go for a walk in the forest, but in Paris i walk or take the metro.

  7. It really isn’t a paradox at all. What you are seeing is the fact that saturated fat has nothing to do with cardiovascular disease. What needs to be picked apart and mainstream media won’t do it because of threats to their advertising revenue is Ancel Keys’ Lipid Hypothesis and how it was flawed and cherry picked from the beginning.

    The real paradox is how Americans fight heart disease with low fat, high carbohydrate foods, yet have a high rate of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. That’s the paradox.

  8. Why is everybody so focused on the FOOD aspect when they look for healthy living secrets? I lived in Italy about a decade ago, and like France, much of the population WALKS…to the weekly open-air food market, to the bakery, to the pizzeria, wherever.

    It may not be so true today, but back then, only the “rich” owned cars, because they were taxed 9 ways from Sunday, and the fuel isn’t cheap either–it’s worse today because of the world economy collapse. Those who didn’t own cars rode the bus, and had to walk to and from stops.

    Combine all this walking with all the fat they consume, and you’ve got a great recipe for healthy longevity. Combine the French small portions with the fat and walking, and you’ve got the perfect ketogenic setup!

  9. I’ve been eating more or less the way the French do ever since reading “The Fat Fallacy”, by Dr. Will Clower. The only thing I’ve changed is to cut way back on the starches–bread and potatoes. My daughter lost a lot of weight eating like that and continues to eat that way and keep it off, though she does eat bread and potatoes. It’s not so much a paradox as, like you said, a whole different relationship with food. A combination of their way of eating with a lower carb/Paleo approach works well for me.

  10. I spent a semester in the south of France back in 2003. I lost probably 10 lbs. I think it was a combination of fresh food, relatively little processed food, no snacking, smaller portions and a ton of walking. I drank too much and ate my fair share of pain au chocolate but most of what I ate was fresh and nutrient dense.

  11. The essence of the article is true. Unfortunately I can definitely confirm the posts above stating that the French diet is rapidly changing for the worse. I moved to France 10 years ago, lived here for 5 years, moved away, and have now come back. I’m in a less traditional area than before, but it’s still rural and the differences are shocking. The traditional restaurants have been replaced by pizzerias and places serving pre-made rubbish, and ready meals in the supermarkets are becoming much more prevalent. What’s really disturbing is that with the movement of the population out into the massive new housing estates on the edges of towns and villages, they now drive everywhere just like the British. So they are under-exercising and eating the wrong food, and just as you’d expect, this is leading to an increase in the kind of petty delinquency that became all too familiar in the UK in the 1990s. France is sadly catching up very quickly with the Anglo-Saxons, in all the wrong ways.

  12. I eat paleo in France and it is not so easy.
    I agree with that good product are easily available : raw-milk cheese, good hormon-free meat… We still have small farms around the country.
    But, as pointed above, we have terrible sugary breafasts. And you hardly can’t find a different proposition, so I have to bring my own food for breakfast when I sleep in a hotel.
    And it is very difficult to say no to a food when it is proposed. People can’t understand why, take it personnaly even if I explain I am hypoglycemic or gluten intolerant. “Good food can’t be bad !” People can’t understand I don’t eat bread for instance, as it is part of our culture. And they are not aware of things such as sugar addiction, links between guts and mood…
    Governments recommandations are the same as in the US. And people tend to eat the same way, except on special occasions.

  13. I agree with you Chris! I have a cousin who migrated to France and told me about the French food culture. She gave me healthy and delicious French recipes. It’s really great! 🙂

  14. I don’t understand this “glorification” of french food. It might be better than food in the US, but I wouldn’t recommend to follow it. The way the French eat is a disaster.
    And they are not so healthy either. Diabetes, Cholesterol, heart diseases, you name it.
    And the government recommendations don’t help, No fat, grains and dairies at every meal !
    Everybody I knows follows those recommendations. And when you eat paleo, like I do, well…You’re putting your life and your kids life in danger of course !