Health Lessons from International Cuisines: France | Chris Kresser
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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.

  1. Chris, what an excellent summary. A healthy view of food is KEY. Worrying about food, even nutrient-dense food, is stressful. The flavor of this article reminded me of Melissa McEwen’s recent post, “Breaking Up With Paleo.” I agree with her position and it has really helped me relax about my food choices.

    Looking forward to this series! (Italy is a must) ;D

  2. My only complaint with French food is breakfast. My wife and I were there on a gite based, self guided cycle trip and the spare breakfast provided meant that we needed to have morning tea (we are kiwis) because we were starving by 10am. Usually, we would have tuna, (marvellous) cheese, a baguette and a roadside espresso.

    We found on our next cycle tour, Italians understand breakfast. Maybe that will be in another post.

    • The Germans too understand breakfast! I’ve had very similar experiences when walking in the Alps.

      The most interesting thing was in Switzerland when we crossed from one, French speaking, valley to the next, which was German speaking. We went from days of white bread and jam (and those same 10AM “second breakfasts”!) to cured meats, cheeses and pickles. What a relief!

      The same French/German difference happens when staying in the Etap hotel chain: set €7 breakfast in France; bread, croissants and cereal. In Germany; boiled eggs, pâté, cured meats, pickles and yogurt.

      The French get much right (very right!) but the typical tourist breakfast can’t compare to the German version 🙂

      • We spent a week in Slovenia in May on a food tour (organized by a Weston A Price Foundation member). And their breakfasts there were great — all the hotels offered a wide mix of fruit, yogurt, juice (often including beet and carrot), charcuterie, muesli, eggs, croissants, local honey, cheese, vegetables… benefit of being in a European crossroads, I suppose! Oh how I miss those breakfasts. And all the other food there!!

        I can also say that I was quite worried about how all the rich animal foods they eat would affect my not-so-great digestion, especially since I am transitioning away from ~12 yrs of vegetarianism, and I did not have one single issue whatsoever. (The woman who organized our tour, Sylvia Onusic, studied the health of Slovenian immigrants living in NYC – I’m sure she would love to do a post on traditional Slovenian foods & health!)

  3. “Although supermarkets are sadly becoming more and more popular in France.”

    Been to a French supermarket lately? Hundreds of different cheeses, pates, fresh meats, organic eggs, fresh vegetables. They are like giant delicatessens. Nothing sad about them at all.

  4. As a former chef, gone Paleo, it is a fantastic pleasure to rediscover traditional French recipe and eat them without guilt.

  5. True, there is no French cuisine, but cuisines. Each region eat very differently, but they have the same principles as Chris said : a four course meal, more fat (butter in the north, olive oil), we used eat a lot of organs (and the price of meat is expensive, people started to eat this food again). We also eat les weird grains, corn here is supposed to be for chicken, we think soy/tofu has no taste, therefore why eat it. The old generation thinks that if a food has good taste, it can only be good for you. For me, after going paleo in France (which is easier than in America), and after i got rid of my craving for sugar and grains, after my tastebuds have changed, i certainly can agree with this old wisdom 🙂
    Lastly, thank you Chris for that phrase “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.” You made my day, because it is something every French think but don’t dare to say because the “scientific community” prefers to talk about red wine and Duck fat and of a paradox. We are not a paradox 🙂

  6. If we subscribe to Ernest Curtis’ idea (cholesterol delusion) that the default diagnoses on death certificates in France are of myocarditis or hypertensive heart disease, rather than coronary heart disease, then this removes much of the paradox. I do wish that I could find real French croissants (which are mostly air and crumble in your hands) here in Cape Town. I enjoy my trips to France if for that reason alone! Thanks for whetting my appetite.

  7. I spend a lot of time in France as a historian and am constantly thinking about food and its history. One problem I see with this characterisation of ‘the French’ is that the national category of identity is only as old as industrialisation (at the most). In fact, even now, in many regions of France there are distinct culinary habits that do not resemble those described here. The use of duck fat, goose fat and lard is very common in many (especially Southern) regions. The Alpes regions have their own distinct and very cheesy cuisines. The Mediterranean-facing regions have much more use of olive oil than butter. Seafood is very popular too. And white wine is also very commonly consumed in many parts of the North.

    On farms I many places, breakfast is often a soup or casserole, not the bread and jam scenario.

    Its a complicate question why the French are still slimmer than Americans and have less CVD. Portion size is certainly a factor in low obesity levels. A lot people eat salads for lunch or evening meals in summer and spring. And while the idea of ‘physical fitness’ is a fairly marginal upper middle class practice, many people in French cities do walk a lot in their day, or ride bicycles or rollerblade as transport.

    It has to be said too though, there is still quite a powerful cultural injunction to remain slim. You just don’t go there. There is a plethora of dieting and slimming products sold in pharmacies, and social approval for slimness is very forthcoming.

    There is, I would say, generally much more fresh food consumed than in the US or Australia, and even many processed foods that one inspects in the supermarkets have fewer additives and preservatives, and tend just to include the ingredients that one would expect if making that thing at home.

    Unfortunately too, sugary junk food is increasingly prevalent in the diets of young people. But it has to compete with some very artisanal pastry and chocolate manufacture, which although sugary, is not quite the same in terms of its ability to trigger compulsive over-eating. Junk food has been specifically engineered to invoke those kinds of reward-based neurochemical responses.

    Freshly baked bread is indeed serve with most meals. I am trying to figure out to what extent French wheat has been affected by the globalised replacement with the ‘dwarf’ variety that has so many new gluten proteins implicated in gut permeability. I have often eaten bread in France because it is just so fresh and high quality, and never noticed it negatively affecting my health the way it did when I ate in Australia, the UK or the US.

    • I totally agree with you Alison, i am able to eat bread when i am in France but where I live In New Zealand it makes me really sick. I have heard many european people experiencing the same thing… it is true that we buy fresh bread every morning, it comes usually still hot from the bakery and if any left overs the next day we through it out.

      • The bread that you get from NZ shops, unless you go to up-market bakers, contain toxins:- soy flour, canola oil,&, acidity regulator (263), emulsifiers (481, 472e, 471).

      • The remarks about the dwarf wheat and additives are so interesting to me as I have been trying to figure out why even high quality ‘artisinal’ breads have become indigestable in U.S. but I had no problem with the bread in France. One theory I was working on was that most flour in the U.S. had bromates and rising agents so the making and baking process is condensed and that some sort of extender, not listed on label, was at work because in France the bread is fresh and chewy for only a few hours (though entirely edible), but here, so called ‘Parisian’ baguettes can sit on shelves even in health food stores for days. Since I was buying organic bread here, I assumed the flour was ok–but if it’s a new varietal that could explain a lot.
        I also think the traditional long rising process makes a difference.
        Thank you for very interesting article and the very interesting discussion in comments.

    • i wonder if dwarf wheat is as widely used in Europe.
      a colleague of mine is from Bulgaria.

      he told me where he is from, there is plenty of Einhorn wheat field.

      regards,

  8. Thank you Chris for this article, I am french and i agree with most of your article. We also have to remember that our traditional diet is sadly changing and that the american way is taking over. In the last 10 years people have been eating pasta and pizza a lot which is absolutely not part of out diet (you would never make my grand dad eat pasta or even rice for this matter) and although many people still get a long break for lunch and are able to eat a 4 course meal many others are forced to do it the anglo saxon way and only get 30 minutes to grab a sandwich which is really sad and I am sure produces a lotof digestive issues in the population….All my grand parents are alive and healthy in their mid 80’s and eat a 4 course meal lunch and dinner. They make their own pate, start every meal with a small salad and finish it with cheese, yogurt and fruits.

  9. Almost 30 years ago I lived in France for a year, and while I was there, eating mainly with French people, I lost two dress sizes. I ate butter on my radishes, I ate full fat yogurt, I ate animal foods at every meal.

    Too bad when I got home to the US, it was the late eighties, and the low fat / whole grain craze was in full swing. I attempted to keep the weight off by following that nutrition advice, and it led to horrible eating behaviors and metabolic derangement.

    I now eat a not quite paleo diet that includes full fat dairy and meals are structured very much like French meals except that I forgo the bread at breakfast (if I eat breakfast at all). Dessert is fruit and/or yogurt with occasional extravagances that I refuse to call cheats. Such a sensible and enjoyable way to eat.

  10. The French ARE essentially Paleo. There are so many over-laps that I cannot possibly address them all here: diet, food choices-cooking-preparation, activity, play, and lifestyle = utterly ancestral. I will depart with this: 36% obesity (USA) versus 16% obesity (France). Obesity in the USA hasn’t been in the 16% realm since 1980 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data)…

    • I’m pretty sure none of the wide definitions of “paleo” include bread with every meal and pastries every day (wheat + sugar). Dairy isn’t paleo either, regardless of the rationalisations. “Ancestral”, yes, but you have to be kidding me that the French diet could possibly be described as paleo!

      • Ask all of the many tribal and nomadic peoples around the world if dairy from cows, goats, horses, camels. Llamas (and women) etc is some big cheat in their diets. Weston A Price reported on the statuesque Masai who consumed a huge proportion of their diet of milk from cows and blood from bulls, often mixed. I’m tired of the anti-dairy ‘paleo police’ slipping these flawed perspectives in. It’s such an urbanized view on dairy! If YOU have a problem with dairy products from every likely species, raw or pasteurized, young or aged, then don’t consume any and be quiet please.

        • Perhaps you need to be more careful with your assumptions MassageTeam. I do not eat paleo and have no issues with dairy consumption, nor did I indicate this in my comment. I was responding to Paula’s comment in pointing out that in none of the myriad definitions of “paleo” do the French eat a paleo diet. Since you introduced some snark, I will respond with my own – perhaps YOU should work on your reading comprehension before posting a paragraph attacking a strawman.

  11. Great read, thanks. Another thing you forgot is that we French people enjoy a yogurt almost every day. Its really a staple and we get yogurts at school lunches all the time (+more at home).
    And to add to the paradox, you should mention how much flour we eat daily. There is baguette and croissants in the morning. But also another “patisserie” usually for “goutêr” (afternoon snack), plus lunch could be a baguette sandwich and dinner could be pasta or pizza.

  12. Just curious if you’ve read David Servan-Schreiber’s book Anti Cancer? He’s a French Dr. who got cancer. A very close friend of mine who grew up in St. German got a horrid rectal cancer. I’m only pointing this out because they are both, truly French. Dr. Kresser, I am new to your website and found it because I recently took a blood test which showed I have those little LDL particles you have described (Apo 83/ LDL-P 1433). For years I was an Atkins fan, primarily because as a child I only ate meat, but years later, after working in a French restaurant and living and loving everything French, I learned to eat vegetables (because that’s all the chef would give me at the end of a shift). As a now 43 year old (pastry chef who is trained in the classic French way), I have tried every diet paradigm there is. I primarily do a paleo diet, but the past 2 years, I’ve slipped more into the Raw, vegan way. I do eat whole grains and legumes, but I limit them. I live in a small, Southern town where people are highly obese and dying of cancer and heart disease left and right. They love that you can eat the heck out of meat, but honestly, most of them rarely eat green vegetables and they always eat the meat “off the shelf.” What is your advise to me, a wino, whose town shuns booze but loves meat? I am 10# overweight (not much, and I look fairly good:)), exercise, and stay stressed?

    • @Paulette,

      i’m in the middle of David Servan-Schreiber’s Anti-Cancer.

      it’s a mixed bag for me. it does have some useful information.

      he quotes Loren Cordain, Ornish, & Dr. Campbl, China Study, M. Pollan.

      things to avoid (for him) : sugar, white flour, red meat, processed food, O6 oil, hydrogenated oil

      good food stuff (for him) : vegetables (including seaweed),m whole grains, legumes, canola oil, olive oil, flax seed oil, pasture butter, O3m green tea, red wine, exercise, mushroom, D3, herbs, nuts.
      + exercise, power of mind.

      the book is also information-fluffy — it’s 200+ pages but i believe 100 – 150 pages would be plenty for what he has to offer. it’s a repetitive about “power of mind”, “good attitude”. well, duh, i know that; so i really don’t need to hear the same message like 10 times. (above is my opinion only)

      regards,
      regards,

  13. Sadly, this is also going slowly away, generation after generation, and obesity is shouting up here in France too. People here become too health conscious, still enjoy the cake and the duck, but feel guilty about it and blame the fat of the cake of the fat of the duck Arrrrgh . We may will have to learn from Americans to be healthy. I already am.:-

  14. One nutritional researcher Roger Corder has looked into the French paradox and added some insight based on his findings. He tried to focus on those components for the French diet which show the most significant correlations with better health and then further correlated the area within the country where the highest health benefits are observable.

    He quickly zeroed in on red wine as a significant component of the diet (among others) and then the south western region of the country. (The better health of the French is by no means evenly distributed throughout the nation.)

    Corder is convinced that a certain class of polyphenols called procyanidins are one of the keys to the health of the people of this region. These are found in remarkable abundance in the red wines of particularly Madiran (and other regions as well) which are left to macerate on the skins – which contain most of these substances – for up to two weeks during the fermentation process.

    He has written a book on the subject which should convince even the most skeptical reader of the health benefits attributable to the moderate and regular consumption of red wine.

    This is just one aspect of a most fascinating subject.

  15. Great post. I have to admit I am annoyed when my friends serve me somthing that tastes really good but tell me that it is healthy. One interesting thing about the sociability of meals is that we seem to have undergone some kind of reversal with the French. According to Flexner, Washington’s biographer, during the revolution, Lafayette and other French officiers remarked on how long the Americans spent at meals, sitting around and having many courses. Maybe sort of mini-paleo.

  16. Great article, Chris — I look forward to the next country! Another reason for the good health of the French could be that the dairy in France, I believe, is grass-fed and probably minimally pasteurized, and therefore beneficial to their health, unlike mainstream dairy in the U.S. I would think that their food animals are raised similarly. And what about all the smoking in France? Do they have lower rates of cancer, as well?

  17. Great article about the art of enjoying a meal in France. I perpetuate this art here in the US also. I prepare a real lunch and we spend a good hour enjoying ourselves. I’ll comment again later it’s lunchtime here in the north east. lol

  18. Great article Chris. I am quite the francophile myself so I applaud your topic! Besides the reasons you mentioned, another explanation for the French Paradox could be their addition of bitter foods in their diet. Bitter herbs and vegetables stimulate digestion. Some go so far as to say that many common digestive complaints of our US culture resides in a “bitters deficiency”. Not only are French salads typically full of different bitter greens, they also have a custom of the aperatif, or bitter liqueurs before meals.
    My husband is French and he remembers going to the fields in the spring with him mom to collect dandelion leaves. He is from the alps, so I can imagine those cooling and draining and hepatic herbs are especially important after a long winter of heavy foods.
    We are spending a month in France next spring to visit family and I’ll be teaching a course in Provence (about herbs) for a week. I am already looking forward to their incredible cuisine!

    • In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the taste bitter corresponds to the organ heart. Beside eating healthy fats, I guess the bitter greens and herbs help too.

  19. Hi Chris – great post from a franco-phile who lived the ex pat life in France for ten years, and was married to a French National. I’d like to add, that the French also do not snack between meals, take a long time to eat/savor the food and conversation, and have smaller portions than our US supersize. In a word, they truly ENJOY life – A votre sante — to your health – is a favorite toast!

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